Building confidence in science: new perspectives from a European roundtable
September 25, 2023
By Federica Rosetta
Peer review, research assessment and generative AI were among the topics discussed at a recent roundtable hosted by Science|Business and Elsevier
A European roundtable hosted by Science|Business(opens in new tab/window) and Elsevier brought together stakeholders from across the research ecosystem to examine challenges and solutions around trust in science.
Senior academics, publishers, journalists, policymakers and other professionals convened in Brussels, Belgium June 15 to discuss “Confidence in Science: How to Ensure Sustainable, Trustworthy Channels of Scientific Information.”
Here are some key takeaways.
The current landscape
Participants acknowledged the exponential growth in scientific knowledge production, noting that over 2 million researchers are now active in Europe. While this expansion has led to major advances, channels disseminating findings have proliferated in ways that make assessing credibility more complex. Misinformation seeded online and pressure for rapid publishing during crises like COVID-19 have contributed to an increasingly “febrile environment” for navigating science.
The 2022 global report Confidence in research: researchers in the spotlight(opens in new tab/window), conducted by Economist Impact and supported by Elsevier, surveyed of over 3,000 scientists, scholars and researchers on how the pandemic has affected the practice of undertaking and communicating research in the face of increased public scrutiny. For this roundtable, Economist Impact colleagues drew on the European data for their presentation. The findings indicated that the European public largely trusts science. However, participants argued trust should not be taken for granted. Mistrust often stems from factors besides the science itself, like funding sources and politicization. Still, enhancing confidence among citizens, policymakers and researchers remains imperative.
Open science: Solution or fantasy?
The promise and perils of open science were debated. Proponents argued that open science is a democratic imperative that can reinforce public trust in and value from scientific research. Critics, however, worried it may disrupt traditional systems and enable questionable practices.
Representatives from the Swedish Presidency of the Council of the EU and the Commission positioned open science as essential for bringing research and society together. By making scientific publications, data, and methods freely accessible, open science enhances transparency, they explained. This helps validate research through reproducibility and accrues returns on public investments in science. Connecting datasets to publications would allow faster verification of claims.
However, making research outputs open in itself is insufficient without quality checks, they added. Peer review remains vital. Implementation also requires updated assessment criteria for researchers and new capabilities.
Elsevier CEO Kumsal Bayazit agreed with the EU Council's conclusion that scholarly publishing should be high-quality, transparent, open, trustworthy and equitable, and emphasized the need to build systems and approaches that support trustworthiness in open science. If implemented in a trustworthy manner, she said, open science can yield social and economic benefits. She called for collaborative efforts to realize this shared vision.
Peer review as the bedrock
Rigorous peer review emerged as the primary mechanism underpinning trust. But with 50% of articles going uncited, some urged rethinking formats to boost quality and impact. Suggestions spanned enabling post-publication input, explicitly linking articles to underlying data, and publishing peer reviews themselves. Reviewer diversity and incentivization were highlighted as needing attention. AI tools could support editors in widening reviewer pools. Overall, participants emphasized “protecting academic self-governance” through peer review standard-setting.
Participants underscored challenges in conveying scientific uncertainty, the incremental nature of research, and consensus-building. While generative AI like ChatGPT could simplify complex concepts, they urged caution around misapplying these technologies. Investing in science communication training for researchers was encouraged, as was valuing expert curation from librarians, editors and journalists. As one science journalist noted, clearly delineating between evidence and opinion became crucial when scientists took activist stances during COVID-19.
The Confidence in Research: Researchers in the spotlight report highlighted that researchers from underrepresented groups perceive greater inequalities in access to opportunities, resources and publishing pathways. Participants stressed that enhancing diversity, equity and inclusion across countries, career stages and disciplines was integral to broadening confidence in the research endeavor. Resolving dissemination barriers could also empower early career researchers.
Reinforcing policymaker ties
Fostering mutual understanding between scientists and policymakers was identified as needing concerted attention, especially to communicate uncertainty during fast-moving crises. Solutions like embedding researchers within governments and balancing scientific advisory committees were proposed. Ultimately, open science and high-quality evidence underpin policymaking in democracies. But participants emphasized that policymakers must appreciate science as an iterative process that evolves as new data emerges.
Research assessment reform was noted as an avenue towards building trust by rewarding transparency, engagement and integrity. While warning of inappropriate use of journal-based metrics, participants advocated for a shift toward holistic evaluation of researchers and institutions based on diverse contributions. They also underscored the need to advance assessments collaboratively across borders and sectors to avoid disadvantaging certain groups.
In closing, participants emphasized that addressing shared challenges around integrity, accessibility, equity and transparency in science necessitates continued collaborative efforts across the research ecosystem. Ongoing dialogue and concrete action around reforming systems and cultures were seen as vital to collectively building confidence in science across society.
Conclusions and recommendations
The roundtable discussion led to several conclusions and recommendations.
Ensuring trust in science
Peer review is indispensable for quality control and public trust, and active participation should be rewarded.
Emerging technologies like generative AI when paired with schemes like paper mills jeopardize peer review and research integrity. Publishers can play a role in making steps to safeguard against these threats to uphold trust in science.
Open access to taxpayer-funded research is important, including access to underlying data.
Broader assessment measures beyond citations are needed to address inequities.
Building public confidence
Better communication of research is needed to policymakers, media and public.
The public needs education on the scientific process and routine research assessments.
Misinformation has complex causes; social and traditional media could incentivize its spread.
Standardizing and explaining research assessments could increase trust.
Combatting misinformation requires a concerted, multi-stakeholder approach.
Accelerating scholarly publishing
The traditional publishing process can be slow, but peer review is essential.
Pre-publication communication and peer review before public dissemination could help.
Collaboration among stakeholders is required to advance open science.