From the grassroots up

Artwork by Mark Palfreyman.

Progressives need to start proselytising on the issues that matter to them.

A recent editorial in mBio marks just the latest flare in the ongoing battles around scientific publication. Taking aim principally at the obscene publication charges now being touted by for-profit publication houses (11,000 USD to publish Open Access in Nature), it highlights how the co-opting of Open Access goals in the service of profit will inevitably lead to some journals only being accessible to the most-funded groups.

These are just some of the issues now current in the area. Open Access, Open Science, prestige publishing, and accelerating research are all hot-button topics alongside for-profit publishing. And these are not abstract issues – publishing is probably the single biggest factor when it comes to reputation-building in science. Your publication record is the thing that more than any other influences your funding prospects, your job prospects, and your status. “Publish or perish” isn’t some cute watchword. It’s real.

There are many fine words and right-on sentiments in the editorial. They’re not new, either. Editorials, comment sections, blogs, Twitter – the Progressive movement has not lacked exertion when it’s come to highlighting the many and various and nefarious antics of the conservative factions that participate and propagate and perpetuate the maintenance of a status quo that increasingly benefits fewer and fewer people. Young scientists in particular are most at risk of being marginalised by changes such as the one being perniciously inflicted by Springer-Nature.

The problem is that all these fine words and opinions are not reaching enough people. The mBio editorial will only be read by people who read editorials, and right now a lot of scientists don’t even have time to keep up with the primary literature in their field.

– There are many influential people who are not active on Twitter.
– There are lots of impressionable students who hear others talking about prestige publications as if they’re better work than that appearing in other quality journals.
– There are people whose attitude towards Open Access is a bit like with Bio foods – nice idea, but it hasn’t stopped them buying battery farm eggs or non-MSC fish or conventionally-farmed meat. (As with Bio foods, they may not have the funds available to give them the luxury of making a choice.)
– A lot of people, including some very senior people, wouldn’t be able to tell you which journals are produced by for-profit publishers and which ones are from nonprofits or scientific societies, or they might be aware of the distinction but not of its significance.

The point being that it’s all very well agreeing with everyone about everything on Twitter and in other spaces for like-minded contemplation, but the bigger problem are the conservative voices in positions of authority who still think preprints are just enabling random people to upload garbage, that impact factors are a viable measure of scientific quality, and that the mark of a high-quality group is that it publishes exclusively in prestige journals.

And as is so often the case with Progressive movements, a further problem is the fragmentation of priorities. Not everyone is on board for all issues – there are a few people who care about Open Access and Open Science and prestige publishing and accelerating research and for-profit publishing, but many Progressives will probably care only about one or two of those issues and be agnostic on the rest.

They might be distinct issues, but they are also part of a larger struggle, and at the risk of hyperbole it’s a struggle that is determining the nature of science as it is practised. Should science be about a search for truth and a reverence for knowledge, or should it be about the pursuit of grant money and flattering ratings from overly simplistic metrics? Jeremy Baumberg’s “The Secret Life of Science” did a great job of highlighting how interlinked the science ecosystem is at a societal level, and the conservative faction is undoubtedly aided by funding bodies and their political paymasters looking for convenient measures of value.

That’s the situation. That’s the ugly reality. That’s one set of reasons why all the inspiring words online and elsewhere are not resulting in a fast enough pace of change (gender ratios of senior faculty being another example where public consensus is still confounded by a woefully sluggish rate of alteration).

And that’s why Progressives have to start getting active on the issues they care about – not just in terms of changing their own behaviour, but also in informing those around them.

Exhibit A is the wonderful example set by Ben Barres, who would pause his seminars at the halfway point and go into a short spiel on trans rights. Yes, it was hitting people over the head with it, but some people do still need hitting over the head with it. The people who have never read a preprint because they think they’re unfiltered rubbish, and the successful conservative types who will refer to eLife as a “failed experiment” – these are the people who need the issues shoving in their faces.

The point being that individual scientists – regardless of their position in the hierarchy – can agitate about these issues. They don’t need to have massive online followings or sit on panels or make important decisions – they just have to change the thinking of their labmates, their group leader, their head of department. Small-sounding as it is, that’s more helpful than participating in online love-ins where everyone is preaching to the choir. The people who register for events and show up for discussions are the ones who are already engaged or at least curious. It’s the ones who don’t register and don’t attend that we need to be targeting.

When we discuss with one another on Twitter and have exchanges with like-minded people and attend webinars and discussion forums, we should see these for what they are: training. They are of best use when we take those experiences and then head out into the wilderness, carrying our beliefs and our convictions and bring them to the wilfully ignorant and the prejudiced and the conservative. If we don’t do those things, we’re like ninja who never leave the dojo. You can train and train and practice and you’ll get really good and probably achieve a level of inner peace, but you will not be changing many people’s minds. That can only happen if they come to you, and to make them come to you, you have to venture out and make them want to. You’ve got to make them want to learn and change and help others – not least the youngest and most vulnerable and easily-exploited members of the profession

So talk to your colleagues. Email your departments. Don’t let offhand remarks that reveal people’s biases go without comment. No matter where you stand in the professional hierarchy, you can make a difference by engaging people locally.

Join the movement and start changing things – from the grassroots up.

2 thoughts on “From the grassroots up

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