The culture of research often appears timeless and self-evident. Despite the current system of research being critiqued for its lack of openness, diversity and at times quality, it has remained largely unchanged for at least a generation. In this post, Liz Allen, highlights how contrary to this view, a growing number of developments are currently taking place across different countries and research systems that fundamentally question how research is done and the culture that supports it.

It is easy to come up with a list of things that are wrong with today’s research culture; it is less simple to identify ways of changing them. The biggest challenge for those trying to re-imagine this culture is that change inevitably has to overhaul  long-established processes and entrenched behaviours, many of which are the result of a research ecosystem that has grown organically over several hundred years.

We are all part of the problem – and the solution

The current academic research system is fragmented across a number of stakeholders: funding agencies, research institutions, scholarly publishers, learned societies. One initiative that has sought to align their divergent interests has been The Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). Introduced in 2012, DORA advocates for more holistic and balanced ways to assess researchers, including discouraging the use of erroneous research metrics (Journal Impact Factor). The Declaration has to date over 15k+ individual and 1.5k+ organizational signatories. However, while owning up to having a problem (and signing DORA) is a laudable first step, taking concomitant action is needed to realise cultural change. What the nature of these changes should be has now become a priority for publishers, funders, institutions, and researchers.

Research funding agencies in particular are increasingly focused on how the requirements and processes that they operate to support grant making could have unintended negative consequences. Wellcome recently stated that an academic research culture centered on ‘excellence’ alone, has had negative impacts on research and is currently consulting with researchers to ‘Reimagine Research’. Similarly, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) announced its aims to build research culture, commissioning three independent reviews to assess the need for cultural change and to inform further action, on key areas of equality, diversity and inclusion. Research institutions are also rethinking the way they assess, reward and employ researchers. Supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, DORA convened a webinar on this subject. The European Universities Association (EUA) has also opened a consultation to gather views on research assessment.

These developments are allied to a growing recognition that a modern research culture needs to encourage and support open and collaborative research behavior. A number of funder and institution led initiatives are exploring how best to incentivise open and collaborative knowledge practices. Several EU Member States are developing Open Science Plans and Frameworks and putting in place Open Science Coordinators at the national and institutional level,  to drive the development and implementation of policies to support the adoption of responsible metrics and open knowledge practices (for example: the National Open Research Framework (NORF) in Ireland; the Open Science Coordination Initiative in Finland; and the National Platform Open Science in the Netherlands; an Open Science Coordinators Network across the EU is expected to launch soon).

Significantly, there are a burgeoning number of collaborations linking different stakeholders in research. For instance, projects to bring synergies and efficiencies to the process of doing research (see for example: combining grant and publication peer review; sharing research methods and research data sharing). F1000 is one of an increasing number of scholarly publishers working to recast the traditional funder-researcher-publisher relationship; and is collaborating with research funders to provide publishing services that support funder requirements, particularly those that enable more rapid and full access to research outputs (see for example: Wellcome Open Research, HRB Open Research, Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) Open Research).

Excitingly though, perhaps one of the most important trends that could be pivotal among attempts to redress research culture is the growth in interest and activity around meta-research (or the ‘science of science’). Although not a new concept, there has been a dearth of coordinated work on the mechanics, structures and conditions that underpin research. This has likely contributed to the situation we have found ourselves in, in which problems in the research culture are easy to find, but nuanced solutions are harder to come by. Several research institutions and organisations have sprung up recently to help to build an evidence base and work out what works and what doesn’t for our collective research system. For example, the US Center for Science of Science and Innovation (CSSI) and the Research on Research Institute (RORI).

Now is the time for publishers to act

Following the emergence from the mid-1980s, of an audit and evaluation culture within the public sector and academia, researchers have found themselves working within an industry where the most valuable currency upon which their performance and contributions is valued is where they have published. The drive to ‘publish or perish’ has manifest in unhelpful and unintended consequences for researchers across the career stages and for research more generally. And while the pressure to publish is just one of the known unhelpful elements of today’s academic research culture, it is perhaps the most pernicious.

We know that incentivizing publication above all other outputs does not help to achieve the goals of research and different types of research have value across a wide spectrum of outputs. The pressure for researchers to publish, and in the most prestigious place possible (or sometimes not at all), is influenced in large part by the processes built by scholarly publishers including: journal brands and hierarchies; journal-based metrics; editorial processes and content screening; non-transparent and unaccountable peer review systems; difficult-to-use manuscript submission systems; (escalating) cost considerations; and so on and so on. As noted, some of these things are the result of a scholarly publishing system that has grown as part of fragmented research ecosystem, and legacy publishing requirements of a bygone age, but many of which are ripe for reimagining.

There have of late been many ideas for how scholarly publishing might work in the 21st Century and beyond but the key thing is that for scholarly publishers to continue in their role to assure the trust-worthiness and utility of research, they need to work as part of a connected ecosystem and provide services that meet other stakeholders’ requirements. This goes way beyond providing open access (OA); in fact, for me, the Open Access requirements of Plan S and cOAlition S, is a further symptom of a dysfunctional research culture, this time created by a lack of shared vision around how the outputs of publicly funded research are best shared.

Research culture is not just about researchers; it is something that all the stakeholders and actors in research influence and are affected by. To re-imagine research involves considering perspectives, ideas and actions from across the spectrum – and from inside and outside of academia. Our goal is to create a culture that both works for today’s science and for the researchers and scientists upon whom we rely, valuing what works and not being afraid to change (or dump) what doesn’t.


About the author

Liz Allen is Director of Strategic Initiatives at F1000 and involved in shaping new initiatives and partnerships to promote and foster open research.  Liz is also a Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Policy Institute at King’s College London, with a particular interest in science policy research, scholarly publishing infrastructure, impact assessment and the development of science-related indicators. 


Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

Featured Image Credit, Werner du Plessis via Unsplash (Licensed under a CC0 1.0 licence)

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