Alexandra Freeman knows how to tell a story: After obtaining a Ph.D. in zoology, she spent 17 years as a science writer and producer at the British Broadcasting Corporation. But upon returning to academia in 2016, Freeman realized that, for researchers, the pressure to tell a good story can bring some dangers.
The solution, as she sees it, is a new publishing system that puts less emphasis on papers that tell sexy, full-length “stories.” To that end, earlier this week Freeman—now the executive director of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom—presented her vision for a modular, collaborative, open publishing platform at a pitch competition for ideas to improve research culture run by the U.K. Royal Society.
The idea resonated with both the audience and the judges, winning her two-thirds of the votes from attendees and £1000 to start transforming her idea into a reality. She plans to use the money to start working on designing the user interface. (Two other winning pitches—one for an online matchmaking platform between scientists and policymakers in need of evidence-based answers and the other about empowering multidisciplinary teams of early-career scientists to lead their own research projects—also received £1000 awards.)
Science Careers spoke with Freeman about how her idea could shake up the status quo and the potential implications for early-career researchers. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What problem are you aiming to tackle?
A: Fundamentally, I believe that the whole concept of the scientific paper drives people to tell stories rather than worry about the quality of the actual research. It’s true that during the scientific process, you usually start with a problem and you finish with a real-world use of your solutions. But the whole chain, from one end to the other, takes a whole range of different skills and different people and different amounts of time. Forcing researchers to guard their work and get to the end of the chain before they can publish anything makes people work in silos, when we’d all be much better off if everybody shared their work as they went along and everybody collaborated to get to the end of the process.
There is a real problem in science—with widespread questionable research practices, lack of replication, publication bias, inequalities in access, slow progress, and wasted resources. And I think that the root of it all is the publication system, and the pressure to publish as the only way that scientists are being judged. The new publishing platform I envisage would stop forcing researchers to try to tell a story, allowing them to concentrate on doing their work to the best of their ability and on constructively collaborating.
Q: How would this new publication system work?
A: The overall idea behind the new platform, which I called Octopus, is to break the standard unit of publication up into eight smaller stages or pieces. These include formulated scientific problems, hypotheses, methods and protocols, data, analysis, interpretation, and real-world applications. The eighth piece is reviews where people share their comments about the other stages, but it’s also treated as a publication itself because it is a constructive piece of collaboration. Researchers will be able to revisit their publications to acknowledge others’ comments or suggestions and even include some of the useful reviewers as authors, with the old version remaining available so that readers can track the evolution of ideas.
The formulated scientific problem automatically becomes the beginning of a chain, and all the other pieces are vertically linked upward. If you have a great hypothesis, you can publish that and link it straight up to the problem that it is trying to address. And if you’ve collected some small amount of data, you can publish that, linking it directly up to the protocol that you followed. It will also be possible to create horizontal links between publications; maybe somebody has come up with an amazing algorithm whilst studying starling flocking behavior and somebody else working on oil pipelines has decided to use it.
Octopus will thus allow researchers to publish in much smaller author groups, and that can make the system much more accountable and meritocratic. If, say, you’re an applied statistician, at the moment you’re very rarely a first author on anything. But with Octopus, statisticians can do analyses of anybody else’s data and get credit for it as the author of that publication. Octopus will also be made language-agnostic through automatic translation to lower language barriers and broaden access.
Another way to make sure that we are judging people on the actual quality of their work and not on the stories is through rating. Anybody who’s logged in to the system will be able to rate entries as soon as they are published based on pre-set criteria reflecting what we as a scientific community value at each stage of the scientific process. So, for instance, there might be a rating for the size of the dataset, and another rating for how well it is annotated and how usable it is. Just like on eBay or Amazon, the most highly rated pieces of work will automatically become more easily visible.
Octopus will also allow the evaluation of individual authors through a professional page that shows their affiliations, their conflicts of interest, and all their publications and their ratings. Seeing these metrics, you will be able to get a feel for what type of researcher this is. Are they publishing lots of well-rated hypotheses? That’s an idea-generating person. Are they writing a lot of constructive reviews? That’s a very collaborative person.
Q: How could Octopus benefit early-career researchers?
A: The careers of young scientists largely depend on how many publications they have—and in what journals. But a number of publications isn’t necessarily any judge of quality of work. A good track record also often depends on the financial resources and equipment that are available to you—and, most importantly, on how well the people around you support you or allow you to publish. Language can also be a huge barrier to publication for nonnative English speakers. Early-career researchers will be able to use Octopus as a more open, accessible, and meritocratic platform to contribute and showcase their work.
For instance, toward the end of my doctorate, I had what I think was a really good idea, but when I tried to publish it, the reviewer’s comment was that I needed to collect more data. This was not possible because I was moving away from the area. I did what I could at the time by putting my thesis online so that, hopefully, someone could pick it up from there. But with Octopus, I could publish that hypothesis, and even publish my protocol and the small amount of data that I had generated so that I could get three small publications out of that, and the information could also prove helpful for others.
Also, currently if somebody is pressuring or incentivizing early-career researchers to engage in questionable practices, they have very little to fight back with because, essentially, they are at the mercy of their bosses. I would hope that the new system gives early-career researchers more credit and autonomy in their work. Octopus also gives more accountability, so if you are unlucky enough to have been working with somebody who turns out to be fraudulent, it could be easier to disentangle yourself from all that, as your roles and contributions in the whole chain of work will be more clearly visible.
Octopus would also come in handy when the time comes to apply for jobs. You wouldn’t have to produce a CV each time, as all your affiliations, publications, and other activities would readily be available. Potential employers could go down your professional profile and say, “Ah, even though they come from some institution that I’ve never heard of and they’re not well known yet, I can see that they’ve published three really good hypotheses, and they’ve collected some data that’s been extremely well rated.”
Q: What do you think the major challenges will be?
A: Changing a culture is always difficult, and I expect huge challenges with implementation. But seeing that science is being bogged down, is being made very slow, and is making people who work in it unhappy just because of the way that we share the information when we now have the internet and a whole range of amazing resources available makes me determined to make this happen.
I am hoping that if institutions use it to look for hiring information, that will drive everybody’s use. Funders, too, could usher in change, for example by offering funding for several different laboratories to carry out the same highly rated protocol and collect the data, which would also aid in promoting reproducibility and cutting down on wasting resources. For journals it’s a more difficult sell, but there would still be a role for them in disseminating the primary research and putting it into perspective.
Early-career researchers will also, I hope, be key in leading this cultural change. I would imagine that, during the transition period, they would carry on publishing papers through the standard method. But what about all those other ideas and datasets that they may never find any outlet for? I believe that they could start developing their scientific reputation on Octopus without affecting their normal publications.
Q: Do you have any further advice for early-career scientists?
A: Giving public talks has only recently become an integral part of my job, and I found pitching during the competition terrifying. But I would encourage early-career researchers to practice presenting their research to a range of audiences, as this is a key skill. But here again, I would warn them against the danger of making all their work sound like a simple story. If a linear story is not how your science works, then think about whether you are telling a false narrative.
Want to hear more? Watch the pitch here.