At the pulse of life science research in Heidelberg

CellNetworks scientists and Elsevier leaders jointly explore the challenges and future of scientific communication

The graduate student event, hosted in collaboration with HBIGS, drew about 80 early-career researchers. (Photos by Thomas Schwarz-Romond, PhD, MBA)

CellNetworks is one of Germany’s longest-running and most successful interdisciplinary research clusters in the life sciences. Founded in 2006 and based in Heidelberg, the organization brings together renowned scientists from the Heidelberg University faculties of Biosciences, Medicine, Physics and Chemistry; the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research; the German National Cancer Research Center (DKFZ); and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL).

Recently Elsevier teamed up with CellNetworks to organize an event to explore the challenges and future of scientific communication. On April 20 and 21, scientists from all career stages gathered with Elsevier colleagues in publishing, research data innovation, policy, and marketing for a summit. Three main events were organized for graduate students, junior principal investigators (PIs), and senior scientists/research managers, in an effort to create an open, in-depth discussion of the relevant issues.

The graduate student event

From left, Andrea O´Brien, Dr. William Summerskill, Emilie Marcus, PhD; Helena Cousijn, PhD; Hans Zijlstra.

The graduate event was opened by Prof. Jochen Wittbrodt, Head of the Centre for Organismal Studies at Heidelberg University and Scientific Director of the Hartmut Hoffmann-Berling International Graduate School of Molecular and Cellular Biology (HBIGS). Hosted in collaboration with HBIGS, the event drew about 80 early-career researchers. The interactive afternoon sessions featured presentations by Dr. Emilie Marcus, CEO of Cell Press and Editor-in-Chief of Cell;  Dr. William Summerskill, Senior Executive Editor at The Lancet; Andrea O’Brien, Executive Publisher of EBioMedicine, Dr. Helena Cousijn, Senior Product Manager, Research Data; and Hans Zijlstra, Senior Marketing Products Manager. The discussion touched on effective and fair peer-review; new technologies to store, share, and publish research data; and reluctance to harness social media for instant communication of (professional) research outcomes.

CellNetworks affiliated junior PIs

Coordinated by Dr. Sebastian Schuck and conducted without a set agenda, junior PIs engaged in free flowing discussion in a closed-door session for junior investigators only. Attendees wrestled for two hours on many pressing issues that particularly affect scientists in their first independent position.

Topics included the questionable relevance of Impact Factor (and other metrics) as proxy for scientific achievements; and from the scientists’ perspective, publishers’ overemphasis on marketing high-profile journals. Dr. Marcus responded that the IF is a “grade” imposed on journals by a third party, not something the journals created to showcase themselves, but noted that there is value for authors in article, author and journal-based metrics when they are used appropriately. She also shared her view that the over reliance on IFs and much of the current dissatisfaction among researchers is a symptom of the increasing global hyper-competitiveness of science — too many people in the pipeline for too few jobs and too little funding driving excellent scientists to rely on publication in a few leading journals to advance their careers and secure funding.

Notably, the junior PIs recognized that they play an integral part in this ecosystem — as authors, referees and educators of future scientists. They agreed that thorough reviewer training on how to become a knowledgeable, constructive and coherent referee should be placed much higher on the agenda in labs. And they said this training should be made part of university curriculum: a challenge, they suggested, that is best approached jointly, with publishers playing a key role.

The junior investigators continue to value anonymous peer-review — seeing no valid alternative — as a way to robustly measure the relevance and scientific quality of research papers. While initiatives such as open peer review, pre-print servers, and post-review commenting (among others) were acknowledged, for these researchers, high-quality peer-reviewed journals remain the gold-standard for career progression.

They requested that publishers devise a peer-review environment that is consistent, rational, transparent, and managed effectively: editors should be encouraged to play proactive roles in moderating conflicting referee comments, communicate their decisions clearly, and thereby increase manuscript flows, reducing delays and preventing redundancies and research waste.

Tangible suggestions were to implement “referee cross-commenting” to balance outlier reports, and for editors to propose clear-cut contractual conditions when inviting manuscript revisions. Researchers also asked that journals define, and clearly state, their “scooping” policies (whether and for which period the novelty of papers under review or revision is considered compromised by studies published elsewhere).

An innovative World Café

The World Café featured themed tables hosted by representatives of Cell Press, The Lancet, and other Elsevier groups.

Aimed at reaching out to senior scientists, research managers and anyone with a keen interest in exploring the future of science communication, the World Café featured themed tables hosted by representatives of Cell Press, The Lancet, and other Elsevier groups. They represented a broad cross-section of the innovations taking place in STM journal publishing, research data management, new metrics and open access policy at Elsevier.

The event was opened by warm and balanced words of welcome from Prof. Kräusslich, spokesperson of CellNetworks and Professor of Virology at the University Heidelberg, and reciprocated by Dr. Carl Schwarz, SVP Life Science Journals at Elsevier Amsterdam. Eschewing formal presentations, the session offered attendees the opportunity to bring forward their issues and drill into emerging subjects in an intimate setting. Once again, the debates focused on improving the established academic system, rather than demanding major adjustments or experiments with unpredictable outcomes. The ever increasing volume of published research, attendees worried, is increasingly impossible to track or reliably navigate. There was desire for publishers to create relevant quality filters, as aids to browsing, and to collate major developments and report milestones across fields.

With regard to research data management, the value of open data repositories, data sharing, and data publication was recognized, particularly by younger scientists. Questions were raised regarding ownership, defining data-quality standards, and growing workloads; researchers were worried about further demands for peer-review and curation and pointed out that datasets can be of questionable value when they come without relevant biological or clinical context. Still, most researchers said it would be good if journals started to demand the underlying data as a prerequisite for publishing. Doing so would help science to become open more quickly. They expected that they would not change their submission behavior based on this. From a university perspective, it was the view that publishers like Elsevier should focus most on providing good tools that live on top of existing data infrastructure rather than seeking to replace the infrastructure itself.

Profs. Thomas Kuner, MD, Hans-Georg Kräusslich, MD, and Irmi Sinning, PhD, discuss research data management with Carl Schwarz, PhD, Gemma Hersh, Policy Director at Elsevier and Jochen Apel, PhD, University library Heidelberg.

At the policy table, all agreed on the growing importance of the open access business model in principle and were surprised to hear that Elsevier was an OA publisher too. Open Access was typically thought of only in terms of gold, raising questions about sustainability of costs and more generally about pricing. The transparency of journal pricing and Elsevier’s profit margin were emotionally discussed, indicating that publishers need to better communicate at which stage, and for which offerings, value is added in ways that justify their premiums.

In sum, the formal events and intimate discussions during social hours ultimately raised awareness and fostered mutual understanding on key issues in scientific publishing. The organizer from Elsevier, CellNetworks and HBIGS agreed with the idea to follow up and explore joint initiatives in the future.

Elsevier Connect Contributor

Thomas Schwarz-Romond, PhD, MBADr. Thomas Schwarz-Romond serves as Executive Publisher - Journals in Elsevier’s Berlin office. During his PhD and postdoctoral research, Thomas investigated the molecular and structural mechanisms of Wnt-signaling at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC-Berlin) and the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC-LMB Cambridge). From 2006 to 2015, he worked as Scientific Editor for The EMBO Journal. He acquired managerial skills during an MBA leadership program and joined Elsevier in April 2015.

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