Am I ready for the researcher of the future?

Well…am I? To answer this question I went along to an all-day seminar run by ALPSP whose name kept on being mentioned as if they were also a well known mountain range which was very confusing.

I normally don’t like the whole ‘future’ emphasis/descriptors that many training events use. I get that we need to plan ahead but all too often these sorts of things look beyond the present and the people that we’re trying to work with and support RIGHT. NOW. However, once I saw what was on the agenda, I was a little bit more reassured that this wouldn’t be too much of the blue skies thinking but more about real experiences and how we can tackle issues that come up in the research process. Which was nice. The whole day was primarily aimed at those working in publishing even though anyone who works with researchers was welcome. As a result of this perhaps, I was one of only two librarians (if you don’t count speakers) who attended which was actually quite refreshing because it meant we weren’t going to be in yet another librarian echo chamber. Always good to get out of those from time to time I find.

The day was roughly themed into two parts with the morning looking at the researcher experience and the afternoon looking at tools and services to help with the research process. While I got a lot of useful information on new tools that I was either familiar already but hadn’t used that much or ones that I had never heard of before and really should explore, I found the morning session with a panel of early career researchers to be the most valuable. Fair warning though, a lot was said…I wrote lots of notes…I won’t say who said what, mostly because I can’t remember and also because I don’t want to quote anyone in a way that they’re not happy with. So, summary it is!

There was a good mix of disciplines, ages and backgrounds on the panel with many people having studied elsewhere before coming to the UK and all of the participants were at different stages of their careers with some in the early stages of their PhDs while others had almost finished or were already working at a postdoctoral level. This gave a really interesting combination of experience and attitudes towards the many different things that researchers have to contend with, especially the publication/review process and issues surrounding sharing of work and open access.

The panel were guided through topics by a moderator, Anthony Watkinson from CIBER Research, who was really good at asking some rather tricky and engaging questions, as well as taking questions from the audience who were pretty much all publishers of some kind. Everyone had a chance to introduce themselves and their work before we got down to hearing about their world as a researcher.

There were several strong themes which started quite early on, such as all of the information that is thrown at researchers when they start. This huge amount of information becomes even more complicated when trying to decide about what information about their research can be put online and where to publish, when to publish and what to publish. I’ll try and break these themes down using some headers.


Peer review

This was a huge topic with many participants speaking quite negatively about their experiences. Some found the peer review process extremely frustrating and often ineffective. One participant mentioned that they do a lot of peer review work and it takes up a huge amount of their time  with very little reward in return, other than building their reputation. The participant felt that there should be better incentives for review work, especially when it is good review work and that these incentives should be taken away if the reviewer does a poor job. The current system does not have this incentivised quality control which is a problem.

One publisher commented that research had been done into incentivised reviewing and apparently (citation definitely needed!) reviewers tended to be more positive when getting incentives which could create a different problem. However there were many comments made about how there are issues with the current peer review process and that the onus is on publishers to make the system better, to ensure they don’t overuse their reviewers, as well as ensuring that any rejections are constructive. This final comment was made after one panel participant told us about how their paper was rejected quite harshly from a journal which put them off from publishing elsewhere as it really shook their confidence so they focused on their research instead which meant they might be losing out on publishing their work, thereby building their reputation.

Pressure to publish

The pressure to publish and build reputation came up time and time again. This pressure seemed to coming from a lot of different places but predominantly from their supervisors. While researchers are encouraged to focus on their PhD research, there is additional pressure to publish to try and ensure some form of academic employment post-PhD. One participant mentioned how their supervisor went from telling them to focus on their research to writing their thesis while keeping in mind that each chapter could be turned into a paper. This was very confusing and quite difficult for the participant to process at times.

There was some variation between disciplines about when to publish. Some were encouraged to publish during their research while others only tended to publish once their research was complete but the pressures were still the same for all disciplines. One science-focused participant mentioned that there is a lot of pressure to do novel research for publication and that they found it frustrating that there weren’t more opportunities to publish negative result research, as in stuff that someone tried and found didn’t work. As this is part of any research process, being able to publish these sorts of methodologies and failed experiments could be of huge value to other researchers especially with regards saving their time and not trying something that has already been done and didn’t work!

There was also mention about the concern around pressure to publish over having an interest in teaching with many future researchers being judged on how publishable you are as opposed to whether you can actually teach. This was a real concern for many on the panel.

Where to publish?

There was some discussion of how the emphasis on high impact journals is unhelpful and puts a lot of pressure on researchers, which can (and has in the past) led to fabrication and questionable research practices that can actually alter the scholarly record. There are also some serious bias concerns where certain things are omitted from final results or where hypotheses are devised after results have been obtained. While none of the participants have been guilty of these sorts of practices, there are many examples of these sorts of unethical research out there.

Some researchers are given specific names of journals to publish in by their supervisors, often depending on geographical area focus or subject focus. Sometimes this guidance is very explicit, and if a supervisor edits for a certain journal they might push a researcher towards that even if it means publishing in a really niche place which might not always be the best thing where the researcher is concerned as it can limit their overall audience.

There was some discussion around problems with traditional publishing and the use of images and video with many researchers being keen for alternatives especially making additional resources easier to find on publisher websites. One participant is using mapping tools as part of their research and they would like these maps to be included in a journal article as an interactive element for the reader to get a really good understanding of the topic while also being able to manipulate the various layers of research being presented.

Sharing and communicating research

When discussing interactive figures in articles, Figshare was mentioned as a really good place to share research information. However, some expressed concern about sharing before publishing research and were very aware that they needed to publish first before anything went up on Figshare. This issue of sharing vs. being published first came up quite often.

One researcher shared an anecdote of presenting a visual methodology at a conference which was then photographed and shared on Twitter. Concerned that the methodology would be used without credit, they quickly wrote up their presentation for the conference’s proceedings and so the information was properly out there. Now I found this an interesting point because people take and tweet photos all the time at conferences and it is a bit bad form to request otherwise, or certainly it has been when I’ve experienced speakers doing that at conferences. Yet, I do understand the concerns of new methods being taken and not giving appropriate credit to the people doing the work. Getting ideas out there is so important which is why public sharing is brilliant but how you manage that is a real challenge, and I would argue you often can’t manage it once its out there in a public way.

The issue of using Twitter and blogging also came up quite a lot. Twitter was spoken of very highly as a place to get new research, with one participant actually saying that they got a lot more research from Twitter than Google Scholar these days. A lot of people were using Google Scholar so this was quite a striking comment in the context of the discussion. There was an incredible amount of nervousness around blogging about research and the uncertainty of what to share and when. One participant mentioned that their institution was pushing for more blogging of research but this threw up lots of concerns around IP, copyright and other issues with many supervisors not having the knowledge mostly due to age and lack of experience of digital publishing, while younger researchers didn’t have the experience or knowledge to decide on how to proceed.

I feel that this sort of support is a perfect place for librarians to get involved as we have that knowledge and skill set already so let’s do that a bit more yeah?

Comments were also made around the conflict of sharing pre-prints and then possible not getting published by a journal if the material is already available online. This really restricts sharing and increases fear of not sharing more online. One participant blogs but they only blog their methodology rather than their actual research and this is often a conflict for them. Some use Facebook but it was agreed that this is a more personal space for sharing while services like Twitter are far more public.

A participant summed up another part of the various pressures going on with communicating research – there is probably a different audience looking at your digital presence than your research outputs. Who looks at your Twitter page or blog may well be different to someone reading your paper and you write differently for those audiences, adding more complexity.

Finally, one participant mentioned that researchers are not always encouraged to be a scientific community, only to publish for citations. That needs to change as giving something back to the community is so important.

Other things

So that was the panel. So much stuff was discussed and I had the chance to chat with some of the panel over tea afterwards and they were a fascinating bunch of people who just want to do their research, share their work and build a career. That seems pretty reasonable to me!

The day continued with Andy Priestner talking about the Futurelib project at Cambridge University. He spoke specifically about a researcher-focused project called North Star which looked at many of the issues discussed by the researcher panel and more. Another project from Futurelib which Andy didn’t cover but I highly recommend reading the report of was Protolib which looked at library spaces.

Dr Graham Walton also spoke about researcher UX at Loughborough University Library which was interesting. The key takeaways from that for me were that social media is profoundly changing information seeking behaviour and than many information finding platforms (i.e. library services) are far less intuitive to use than services such as Google Scholar, which is why they prefer those sorts of online ‘free’ services.

The afternoon was filled with tools and services, pretty much all of which I will be investigating further. Covered were: Sparrho, Overleaf, ReadCube as well as services from publishers including PLOS and Emerald.

A representative from Simon Inger Consulting took us through an extensive piece of research that looked at how researchers discover content in scholarly publications. There was a lot of stuff, much of which was fascinating and you can download the report for free here…which is good.

Finally we finished with some closing remarks about the day which were really insightful. There was emphasis on the issues around communities, publishing in high impact journals as well as quality of research. One area mentioned that I hadn’t thought of before was the brain drain from emerging countries as researchers might be publishing in established Western journals to improve impact thereby removing that research from more localised journals and communities. Really interesting.

Plus best slide of the day.

Final thoughts

This has been a mammoth of a post so well done if you’ve made it this far. I chose to focus mostly on the panel part of the day because so much was covered and it really drove the themes of the rest of the day. I learned a huge amount from the researchers and apart from anything else, it just showed me yet again that we can try to develop support and services until we’re blue in the face but if we don’t know what researchers are doing and struggling with by actually talking to them and hearing things from their perspectives, we won’t achieve very much at all.

I really appreciated the honesty of the early career researchers as well as the presentations from the various creators of services for not being too ‘buy our stuff now pls’. Both really refreshing. I think I will try and go to more of these non-library things because I always find that I learn so much more and in so many different way. Library events are great and all but broadening your horizons is also really valuable.


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