Lip service and walking the walk

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The Natalie Portman – Rose McGowan spat illustrates a fundamental difference in activist behaviour. 

One of the biggest headlines from this year’s Oscars ceremony came not from the awards rostrum, but the red carpet outside. Having initially garnered a lot of positive headlines for showing up in a dress garlanded with the names of non-nominated female directors, Natalie Portman was the subject of a very public dressing-down from fellow actress and MeToo figurehead Rose McGowan.

McGowan and others pointed out, rightly, that for all Portman’s fine words at awards ceremonies and in interviews, her actual track record doesn’t scream of promoting female empowerment. She’s worked with only two female directors in her entire career, and one of those was called…Natalie Portman. Her own film production company has only ever hired one woman director, and that director’s name was…Natalie Portman. When it comes to actually fighting for gender equality in showbusiness, Natalie appears to talk the talk but not walk the walk. Lip service not risk-taking.

You see exactly the same thing in science. Contemporary science is obsessed with risk, and we’re always hearing about the need for big bold ideas, and risky projects – but the vast majority aren’t risky at all. They’re ambitious, sure. But ambitious and risky are two quite different things. The whole point about risk is that you are doing something in the knowledge that there might be negative consequences. 

Natalie Portman wearing a dress with loads of non-nominee names is bold, but it’s not risky. Do you think she was nervous stepping out in that dress, when there had already been a loud and deserved backlash at the lack of female names on the list of nominees? Was she worried she might be criticised for calling attention to a scandal that had already been highlighted? Of course not.

Conversely, calling out Portman – one of Hollywood’s most well-liked figures, and someone who has carefully cultivated a reputation for tasteful and highbrow work – calling out that public darling for being a stooge, as McGowan did, is risky. That took guts. That is what activism really looks like. That was doing a lot more than just flashing some names on a cape.

Natalie’s type of activism is the same as the “pray for…” and “thinking of…” tweets, messages, and platitudes that flood social media nowadays after a disaster or atrocity. Absolutely the single easiest thing you can do in this day and age is offer your thoughts, and especially when you don’t think too hard or too long before broadcasting them.

When you write that you’re “thinking of…”, what are you thinking about really? What you’re going to have for lunch? Are you actually thinking about it or just hawking some tripe in public to make yourself look sympathetic and engaged? How many people who go around tweeting “Pray for…” actually get down on their knees for a full five, no, a full two minutes and take the time to offer up some sincere invocations for the wellbeing of the people affected by whatever tragedy the tweeter was lucky enough not to witness or be a part of?

So what does real risk-taking in science look like? Well right now, if risk-taking means jeopardising yourself, then how you publish is exhibit A.

It’s no exaggeration to say that we’re in the midst of a revolution in the way that scientific data is presented, evaluated, and disseminated. The belated adoption of the preprint publishing model by the bioscience community after its earlier trailblazing by the physicists. The Open Access movement that acknowledges that taxpayer-funded work should be taxpayer-viewable, or at least not permanently cloistered behind a paywall. The Open Science initiative that’s tackling the reproducibility crisis by encouraging more transparency in reporting. And high-quality journals like eLife addressing the prestige publishing problem.

The dilemma for young scientists is that wholeheartedly endorsing these things is still risky. There’s plenty of senior scientists out there who’ve made their names and reputations by publishing in prestige journals and who naturally feel discomfited by this interruption to the status quo (the type who go around saying things like “I think we can all agree that that experiment [eLife] has failed”). We’ve already written here about how praiseworthy it is when those same senior scientists actually sometimes stand up for early-career researchers and rebel against the system that raised them up, but real change can only occur when the early-career researchers themselves adopt those changes en masse. Generals might have the power, but it’s armies that win wars.

In that clash – between the status quo that’s done well for some, and the new initiatives that feel better for many of the community’s younger members – there’s lots of people willing to voice their support, but how many walk the walk? How many young scientists take the risk – and it is a risk, because there are still too many people out there who’ve done well out of the system and feel threatened by anything that might upset their cosy sense of self-worth – of abandoning prestige journals? How many tenured faculty do? There’s a lot of Natalie Portmans out there paying lip service, but baulking at putting their money – and their manuscripts – where their mouth is.

The point being, Natalie could genuinely make a big difference. She’s an A-lister, she has clout, she gets the kind of media attention that means her actions are scrutinised and often imitated, and if those actions were more than just having a few names embroidered on a dress then she’d really be doing something amazing. 

It’s like the successful young scientists who have to go into contortions to justify why they continue using prestige journals despite the negative impact these same titles have, unfairly, on their peers’ careers. “It’s been shown that they do reach more people…”, “If it’s a good story, it really can be told in 4 figures…”

Yup, all the tired justifications that can be used to not have to make the step. To do the really risky thing. Being afraid of the consequences is the only genuine excuse, but it’s one that needs overcoming, for the sake of the whole young scientist demographic.

You always have a choice where to send your work*. You can make it clear – by your deeds, not just your thoughts and words – that you support the goals and sentiments of the Declaration on Research Assessment. You can turn activist in your publishing behaviour. This is the better and the braver course of action. Take the risk. Do it.

*If you’re not sure who the activist journals are that actually promote scientists, then a useful first approximation are the seventeen ones who’ve signed up to support Review Commons.

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