The Excitable Scientist

Mostly cheerful, sometimes snarky commentary on life science research and its broader impacts

On Paywalls and Privilege July 6, 2013

Filed under: academia,access,grad school,publishing — excitablescientist @ 8:55 pm

Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege of working with a superb colleague who recently had an article published in a high-impact journal, on which I was a co-author.  I feel so lucky to have been part of this process; it has been an awesome learning experience and has laid the foundation for what I think will become my PhD project. I’ve also learned so much about the politics and logistics of getting a paper published (mainly by observing the negotiations with editors and reviewers), something I think a lot of grad students don’t experience until much later in the game.


It does, of course, feel pretty cool to be published in a GlamourMag family journal.  One of my best friends, from the same country as me but currently working abroad, got very excited about this and posted a link to the article on a social media site.  Very soon afterwards, I read a comment by a mutual acquaintance that gave me pause: “Well done, but we can’t even open the paper to read it. Thanks, home country!”.  It was a sudden and stark reminder of the unequal distribution of scientific resources globally, and of my own position of privilege as a grad student in a well-funded lab in the West.  I can’t imagine how demoralizing it would be to be constantly treated as a second-class scientist by paywalls still in place at most major journals.  There are ways to get an article even if your institution doesn’t have a subscription to the journal – e.g. by e-mailing the corresponding author – but this is akin to having to go to the food bank instead of living in a society which has systems in place for all of its citizens to meet basic needs in a dignified manner.  It’s pretty clear to me that scientists in what’s now known as the Global South (not restricted to the southern hemisphere) work harder and smarter with fewer resources for less recognition.


Most e-mail interactions I’ve had with professors at other universities have been in the context of collaborations, sharing results, planning meetings- all joyful occasions, in which I have felt our groups have been on equal footing.  I imagine my self-esteem would be greatly reduced if the majority of my interactions with other profs were e-mail requests for their articles, highlighting my position as a grad student in an underresourced setting, implying the inadequacy of the setting, and probably of me.  I have probably 300 papers from closed access journals in my library, and have skimmed through probably double or triple that number in the past year.  If I didn’t have access to journals through my institution, that would necessitate sending thousands of e-mails requesting paper reprints: a colossal waste of everyone’s time.  In reality, I probably wouldn’t bother, and would base decisions of what to read based on what I can access, instead of on the quality of the science.


Much has been written about the ability of open access to facilitate knowledge exchange and therefore new discoveries, and of the cost of paywalls in terms of diminished productivity if people can’t access and therefore cannot build on what’s already been published.  I’ve long accepted that paywalls slow the pace of research at institutions that cannot afford to subscribe to major journals.  What I hadn’t thought about until now, and am finding more personally compelling, is the effect on individual researcher productivity and probably morale.  As any PhD student knows, working in biomedical research can be demoralizing enough owing to the high failure rate of experiments in the best of environments, without having to jump through hoops to even be able to read articles- something too many of us take for granted.


An increasing number of scientists and journals are making open access publishing a priority.  I’m ashamed to admit I’m not one of them, at least not in this particular instance.  I’m determined to push for the OA option on “my” future papers, but I didn’t have the guts to do it for a study I didn’t lead.  It would have been expensive, and probably would have been yet another uphill battle against the status quo.  That’s still no excuse for not trying.  And it’s a little bittersweet to think that many of my friends and family might be proud of me for publishing in a high-impact journal – if only they could read it.


Unequal recognition for equal work? May 16, 2013

Filed under: academia,publishing — excitablescientist @ 11:05 pm

One issue that’s been on my mind recently is the process for deciding who gets to be acknowledged as a co-author on a research paper. It puzzles me that recognition of individuals’ contributions to a research project seems to vary according to their occupation and career stage.


I think the general consensus in my field is that for someone to be a co-author, they would have had to contribute intellectual input (through study design, data analysis or interpretation) in addition to performing experiments. This is sometimes used as justification for not including technicians, who usually don’t participate in the planning, analysis and writing stages. However, many PIs will include undergraduate students, who also usually don’t make substantive intellectual contributions, on the grounds that they need authorship for career advancement (particularly if they have expressed a desire to continue in research).


I think it is awesome that PI’s will recognize the contributions of their undergrads — and I know that many of them do this because they know it helps their grad school applications, future careers, etc. I have little doubt that this practice is well-intentioned and that it encourages and motivates young people to continue along the research path. Personally, I was chuffed to have an nth author paper freshly out of undergrad, and it certainly boosted my confidence when I was applying to grad programs. However, from what I can tell, undergraduates and technicians do the same kinds of work (the latter perhaps more efficiently and competently), so it’s unclear to me why this work is recognized with authorship for one group but not the other.


There is increasing, though not yet universal, acceptance of the notion that equal work deserves equal pay and recognition, regardless of an individual’s gender or race. So why would career stage have any bearing on authorship decisions? I can’t speak for everyone, but publications are certainly a big deal to me (even landing in the acknowledgements section of a friend’s paper gave me a warm fuzzy feeling), and I would be upset if I was not made an author on something to which I had contributed as much as, if not more, than others who were included. I would be tempted to conclude that my work was not as valued, and this is problematic. Decisions on authorship should be made in a fair and transparent manner; this benefits everyone involved and sets a good precedent in a world still striving to realize the ideals of employment equity.


Does anyone else have strong opinions on this topic, or can offer new angles that I may have missed? How do you decide who to include as a co-author?