2020 irrevocably changed the way science is conducted and communicated in the UK. Existing trends towards open science, preprints, open data and faster dissemination and communication of results were accelerated, and scientists and researchers took center stage in the national response to the pandemic.
With most of the world beginning to adapt to living with the virus, scholarly communication may have reached an inflection point. The research community has yet to adjust fully to the ramifications of the pandemic, decide on its future direction, and establish the mechanisms for getting there.
To understand the impact of the pandemic on confidence in scientific research, Elsevier launched a global Confidence in Research collaboration last month. The initiative will include a landmark global survey of 3,000 researchers conducted by Economist Impact — experts in identifying actionable insights — and propose a set actions and interventions to support researchers in their efforts to advance knowledge that benefits society.
To gain insight into the unique perspective of the UK’s research community on this subject, we brought together a broad range of experts for a roundtable discussion at The British Library with our partner and co-host, Sense About Science.
The session was moderated by Tracey Brown, Director of Sense about Science, and was attended by representatives from key stakeholder groups including research institutions, professional bodies, R&D-focused commercial organizations, and policymakers.
The discussion was incredibly helpful and lively and provided significant food for thought for our final report. In lieu of those full findings, here are some key takeaways of what is currently on the minds of members of the UK research community:
1. There is a clear need to enhance the way science is communicated, including the benefits it brings.
Public engagement was viewed as a crucial part of scientific communication, but participants argued that it is too often viewed through the lens of “media engagement” — potentially overlooking more creative ways to engage the public.
They also noted that disciplines can differ in their views on how relevant scientific communication is, and that sometimes the specialization of research means there are fewer opportunities to communicate findings.
2. There is a lack of incentive for researchers to communicate their findings.
Many attendees noted that researchers think communication is not respected or recognized by some institutions, which don’t consider communication an integral part of their academic work and don’t reward researchers for communication in terms of promotion or career progression.
Although a point of debate and contention, it was suggested that there is a gender split here, with some even claiming that men tend to be keen to engage with only the more prestigious opportunities, while women are more likely to provide input across the board.
3. The way research is used to inform policymaking needs greater consideration.
Participants noted that policymakers are faced with a wall of information from researchers, and it is sometimes hard to sift through all the information in a short timeframe. Policy cycles can move in a matter of weeks, while research cycles can be years long, so there is an inherent disconnect.
Intermediaries were seen as a possible solution here — organizations or bodies that can funnel or direct queries to the right place. However, intermediaries such as universities can also often act as gatekeeps or create bottlenecks.
It was noted that positive research stories receive the most attention, and there is a need to consider how we communicate the value of negative or null results as well.
4. Preprints are a useful tool for enhancing confidence in research, but they can be misused.
There was a suggestion that the issue with preprints is how they are communicated. Currently there is no established standard like there is for published research, leaving it open for them to be shared in press releases without explaining that they have not been peer reviewed. Attendees expressed that they should not carry the same weight as peer reviewed papers.
International and disciplinary comparisons were also considered. For instance, it was put forward that physicists have been using preprints for years as their community is much smaller and has high rates of collaboration.
5. Researchers need greater support in responding to the growing trend of online abuse.
Acrimonious interactions with research and researchers online were seen as having worsened during the pandemic. Coming out as a community to defend researchers was seen as a key priority; there was discussion about whether there needed to be a code of practice for researchers and what this might look like.
6. The research ecosystem needs to transform its mechanisms of reward and recognition.
Attendees noted that the research community has grown increasingly more collaborative over time — across disciplines and with a wider range of stakeholders — and that the reward system should move away from a sole focus on individuals and instead make allowances for the importance of teamwork and partnership.
While this discussion is just one part of a much broader collaboration, there is a clear consensus that the pandemic has raised questions over the way scientists and researchers both conduct and communicate their work. We look forward to working with the research community, both in the UK and globally, to think about how we can collectively support researchers and the research ecosystem in a way that harnesses the opportunities of that change, while managing the risks it has surfaced, to improve research integrity and confidence in science.
The full analysis from our Confidence in Research collaboration will be available in the autumn. If you would like to find out more about the collaboration in the meantime, please visit our Confidence in Research hub.