Scholarly communications — like the wider world — is increasingly divided. The rhetoric around non-profit versus commercial organizations, open versus subscription models, publishers versus librarians, is often presented in a very black and white, good versus bad way. Yet we all have the same ultimate goal – to support research and researchers. So why don’t we collaborate more (like our researchers do), and argue less (like our much mistrusted politicians)? Why don’t we focus more on what we have in common, and less on where we differ? Why don’t we define ourselves more as “we” and less as “them and us”? Why don’t we put more effort into being better together?
Whichever way you look at it, we live in an increasingly divided world. Encouraged by many of our political (and other) leaders, partisanship has become the norm; mistrust is rife; and our differences are prioritized over what we have in common. And yet, and yet… Despite the skepticism of an alarming number of politicians and others, public trust in science is, at worst, stable; at best, growing. A recent report shows that the level of trust on individual topics may vary by demographic (e.g., ideology and age for climate change; race/ethnicity for childhood vaccines), as may the overall level of trust in science and scientists (just 52% of those without a high school diploma say the benefits of scientific research outweigh the harmful results, compared with 94% of those with a graduate degree or beyond). But even so, the vast majority of people in the US (76%) trust scientists more than they trust almost any other group according to this recent Pew survey — and substantially more than they trust elected officials — including, yes, those who are trying to persuade us to ignore what those scientists are saying (27%)! According to the 2017 Ipsos MORI Veracity Index, this is even more the case in the UK, with 83% saying they trust scientists and just 17% trusting politicians.
Research, of course, is built on collaboration, which is itself built on trust. Standing on the shoulders of giants and building on their efforts; working in (often global and/or cross-disciplinary) teams; sharing research results with peers, inviting their feedback, and refining work accordingly — all are central to science and scholarship.
Likewise, scholarly communications is at its best when we work together. As Kristen Fisher Ratan of the Collaborative Knowledge Foundation said in her inspirational keynote at last month’s FORCE2018 conference, it’s time for us to stop squabbling and start collaborating to make research more effective. The recently published UN special report on climate change and dire warnings from their biodiversity chief make it abundantly clear that, if humans have any hope of surviving, we need to take action — and we need to do so now. We can’t afford to waste any more time focusing on our differences, we need to find our common causes and focus on making (rapid) progress with them.
Supporting researchers — making them the center of all we do — is the key goal for everyone working in scholarly communications. This includes helping our researchers get funding, identify potential collaborators, analyze their data, present their findings, publish the results, to name just a few. So let’s find common cause in delivering what they want most — more time to carry out their research, and the recognition they need for their research to be adequately resourced.
According to this Nature survey, on average researchers spend more than a quarter of their time on administration — data storage (5%), writing grant applications (10%), and other tasks (11%). That’s almost half the amount of time they spend actually doing and writing up their research (38% and 16% respectively). Imagine how much more research could be carried out — faster — if we could halve the time spent on admin tasks, by improving the research infrastructure and making it easier for researchers and their organizations to share and reuse information and resources.
I believe this could be achievable — and quickly — because so many of the building blocks are already in place. We have the makings of a strong research infrastructure, powered by persistent identifiers (PIDs), standards, and metadata. But development and, in particular, widespread adoption of these is often painfully slow. New standards typically take years to define and then years more to implement. Metadata is only just starting to get the attention it needs, and deserves, through initiatives like Metadata 2020. And PIDs, though more widely used than ever before, are still not the norm everywhere — and are still not being used to their full advantage.
To harness the power of the research infrastructure we need the community to make these building blocks a priority. To use my own organization (ORCID) as an example, although there are now over 5.5m ORCID identifiers for researchers, only about 40% of those have any items of information connected to them. Only about a quarter of contain information about works — although those that do, include a lot (35m in total, and close to 14m unique DOIs). If more of these records were better populated — by funders, employers, publishers, associations, and by the researchers themselves — that information would be openly available (with the researcher’s permission) for everyone to access, use, and share. There’s plenty more that we at ORCID can and must do to make our technology easier and more accessible for the community. But we won’t succeed without community support for implementing ORCID in your own systems, connecting the trusted information you have about your researchers, and encouraging them to use their iD and share it with their other organizations.
But it doesn’t stop there. We also need to get smarter about developing tools and services that harness the power of the research infrastructure, to make researchers lives easier, and help them get the credit they need and deserve (for example, for peer review). There’s no shortage of ideas — we have legions of innovators and innovations, tools and services, many developed by researchers, to help fix the problems they’ve personally experienced. But this brings its own challenges. We risk confusing and frustrating researchers by giving them such a vast array of options. Bianca Kramer and Jeroen Bosman maintain a (frankly scary!) list of close to 700 (and growing!) online innovations and tools for researchers. It’s great that so many people and organizations are putting such effort into supporting researchers in this way, but I can’t help thinking that there’s an awful lot of overlap between many of them. If we focused the development of our new tools and services more on the common needs of researchers and less on the unique needs of specific research communities, surely we could make more progress, more quickly — the 80/20 rule at work…
There are many other areas of common cause, of course, so let’s spend more collaborating on them. Let’s lead by example. Let’s be better together!