In her recent post, “The Post COVID Work Environment—We Can’t Go Back to Normal,” Scholarly Kitchen Chef Dianndra Roberts explored the importance of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) and highlighted how what’s considered “normal” can vary greatly from person to person. The need to redefine “normal” in academia is not only a moral obligation but it also holds significance in terms of practicality and advancement. What was normal centuries ago may not be considered normal today. And what is normal for one person may not be normal for another.
A time when Science as we know it was not normal
There was a time when science was looked upon with trepidation. The Faustian Legend paralleled the widespread belief that science was a black art; it was a form of knowledge that was acquired illicitly and was often associated with magic. The belief that science was an esoteric discipline stifled curiosity and discouraged individuals from pursuing scientific inquiry. The secrecy surrounding scientific practices limited access to knowledge and restricted the number of people engaged in scientific exploration. It hindered collaboration and the exchange of ideas. Scientists were often isolated in their pursuits, limiting the diversity of thought and perspectives brought to bear on complex issues.
Additionally, in the early 13th century, female health practitioners, who had previously enjoyed the trust and esteem of their patients, started encountering resistance. They were excluded from most European universities due to their gender, preventing them from receiving formal medical training, and were deemed unfit to be healers. Those who continued to practice often faced unpredictable and severe punishment. Furthermore, in the final four centuries of the Middle Ages, female healers were subjected to witch-hunts, leading to their brutal persecution.
While some of these fears may seem laughable today, they have given way to new concerns. Many argue that scientific research without restraints can inadvertently lead to social, moral, and ethical concerns. For instance, France has banned research on human cloning, citing it as a “crime against the human species.” Some allege that science enables the development of weaponry and fosters conflict. Furthermore, questions have been raised about the potential impact of artificial intelligence (AI). Will robots and AI technology eventually assume control of the world? Could this lead to the extinction of the human species or a profound transformation of our existence as we know it?
During the 2017 Web Summit Technology conference in Portugal, Stephen Hawking emphasized the uncertainty, stating,
“Success in creating effective AI, could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization. Or the worst. We just don’t know. So, we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and side-lined, or conceivably destroyed by it.”
The persistent doubt and apprehension surrounding science underscore the pressing demand for academia to transform and progress. It is essential for academia to demystify scientific concepts, empower researchers, welcome a multitude of perspectives, and reshape conventional standards. This isn’t just about incorporating a broader range of viewpoints; it’s about paving the way for a future where science is understood by everyone, primarily because many of today’s global issues demand interdisciplinary solutions.
Publish or Perish – The Elephant in the Room
The pressure to publish or perish is an enduring and formidable challenge that researchers confront in the relentless pursuit of academic success and recognition. In the academic world, the currency of progress and professional advancement often hinges on the ability to produce and disseminate research findings. This imperative to continually publish groundbreaking work can cast a shadow of stress and anxiety over the research community, shaping the way scholars navigate their scientific journeys. This can not only burden researchers, but has implications on research integrity, diversity of thought, and the researcher’s mental well-being.
In addition, researchers navigate uncharted territories in the pursuit of knowledge. While some level of uncertainty is an integral part of the scientific process, fear can exacerbate these feelings and have a paralyzing effect. Researchers often grapple with fear in various forms, such as the fear of failure, the fear of not making a meaningful contribution to the field, the fear of someone else pre-empting their research, or the fear of not meeting the expectations of their peers and institutions. These fears can lead to self-doubt and inhibit the creative and exploratory aspects of scientific investigation.
One of the most common fears in scientific inquiry is the fear of obtaining negative results. It is tied to the weighty expectations of publishing groundbreaking and positive research outcomes, as career progression and funding often hang in the balance. This fear of failure sometimes compels researchers to make ethical compromises, such as manipulating data or selectively reporting outcomes, all in an attempt to circumvent undesirable results. Consequently, not only does this undermine the integrity of scientific research, but it also perpetuates an environment in which the pursuit of truth takes a backseat to the pursuit of positive outcomes.
Moreover, the fear of negative repercussions, such as criticism from peers or the potential for research funding cuts, can lead to a culture of conformity and self-censorship. Researchers may refrain from pursuing controversial or unpopular lines of inquiry, further hampering the pursuit of truth and stifling the diversity of thought in science.
There is also the prevailing fear that articulating strong opinions may lead to adverse outcomes, like facing criticism or potential professional repercussions. This fear can be paralyzing, dissuading many from sharing their perspectives. Could this explain why authors may feel anxious about disagreeing with peer reviewer comments?
The pursuit of truth in science necessitates open-mindedness, rigorous methodology, and a commitment to discovering what the data and evidence genuinely reveal. Fear, however, can obstruct these critical principles.
Under the weight of this fear, researchers may become risk-averse, avoiding investigations that might yield unfavorable results. This fear-induced conservatism stifles innovation and prevents the exploration of unconventional or challenging hypotheses. It also leads to a publication bias, where only studies with positive results are shared, distorting the overall body of scientific knowledge.
These fears are always compounded for researchers from under-represented groups — the pressure is always higher.
Re-defining the “Normal” in Academia
The traditional “normal” in academia often lacks the richness and dynamism required for robust intellectual discourse and innovation. For generations, academic institutions have been defined by homogeneity, with a limited range of voices, demographics, and perspectives driving the discourse. Women, people of color, individuals with disabilities, and other underrepresented groups have faced significant barriers to entry and advancement. These exclusions have left deep imprints on the academic landscape.
Within academia, disparities related to gender are evident not only in areas like funding, tenure, and career progression but also in the recognition, or lack thereof, that women receive when collaborating with male researchers. In contrast, men tend to receive equal acknowledgment for both collaborative and individual research efforts.
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility are not mere buzzwords; they are foundational principles that underpin a just and equitable society. In academia, these principles extend to every facet of the educational and research experience. They aren’t just about checking boxes but about fostering an environment where diversity of thought and perspective are actively valued. In fact, it is the diversity of thought that actually fuels progress and innovation in any field.
Although there is still much progress to be made, it’s evident that academia has taken initial steps in this direction. In recent years, there has been a marked shift in the academic landscape toward greater diversity and inclusivity. This transformation has been driven by several factors, including changes in laws and regulations, the tireless efforts of activists and advocates, and a growing recognition within academia of the need for reform. These measures have compelled academic institutions to actively pursue diversity and inclusivity, leading to more equitable admission and hiring practices.
Moreover, the work of activists and advocates has been instrumental in pushing academia to confront its biases and to implement changes. Movements like #MeToo and #BlackInSTEM have shed light on issues of discrimination and harassment within academic settings, prompting institutions to take concrete actions to address these problems. Grassroots initiatives have been influential in fostering a more inclusive environment for all scholars.
Leading publications, including The Scholarly Kitchen (TSK), are playing a pivotal role in shaping the academic discourse. TSK’s commitment to featuring diverse voices and perspectives has led the way in challenging the status quo. TSK strives to lead the way in this effort, with 48% of its regular contributors being women. Furthermore, there is a deliberate effort to introduce geographical diversity, ensuring a more comprehensive and inclusive perspective in their discussions. (Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in writing for TSK, either regularly or for an individual guest post, please do get in touch!)
Mindfulness and Personalization – the secret sauce
How can the different stakeholders in academia help authors overcome fear and promote an environment that is more diverse, equitable, and inclusive? The answer I believe lies in encouraging mindfulness in research and allowing for a more individualistic or personalized normal, where each researcher has the right to walk their own unique path.
One way to mindfulness and conscious research is to encourage researchers to find their sense of purpose. How can we help researchers find their sense of purpose — can we dream of a world where the “pressure to publish” is replaced by the “passion and purpose to discover”? What changes are needed in our systems and processes that will allow for this to happen? Should the career incentive system change, perhaps? How can it reward discovery and its impact over the number of publications?
Holistic well-being encompasses the wellness of one’s mind, body, and soul. Within the academic environment, are researchers provided with the conditions necessary for their well-being? Are they able to maintain a healthy work-life balance, ensure financial security, cultivate meaningful interpersonal relationships, express their views without concerns about repercussions, secure funding for their passion-driven projects, and easily share their discoveries with the world?
Many steps can be taken to facilitate this and empower researchers. Are we attentive to the hours worked and the researchers’ ability to multitask effectively? If their primary motivation is the passion for research, are they instead expected to allocate excessive time to non-research-related activities?
If their passion is to disseminate their discoveries to a broader audience, does the traditional paywall system impede this objective?
Do the organization’s policies support an optimal work environment? According to the CACTUS mental health report, it was found that 48% of those who took the survey said that their organizations did not have strict policies against discrimination bullying and harassment.
Will these changes promote the overall well-being of researchers, thereby fostering a more positive environment that alleviates stress and encourages mindfulness in their research endeavors? Can this address the integrity issues prevalent in academia today? After all, a researcher who lacks mindfulness may struggle to uphold the principles of truth in scientific pursuit. In science, accuracy is paramount, and a researcher who lacks awareness may not be able to do justice to the facts, don’t you think?
How can we cultivate a “personalized normal” that celebrates the uniqueness of researchers and empowers them to communicate their discoveries innovatively? Why not champion a dialogue between readers and authors by integrating comment plug-ins on publishing platforms, fostering moderated community spaces where readers discuss the articles they engage with? This approach promotes accountability, reader participation, and the potential for meaningful collaborations. Shouldn’t researchers have the freedom to authentically connect with their intended audience? After all, if their aim is to advance science and share knowledge with the world, this dialogue can make it a reality. With journals increasingly emphasizing author-reader engagement, this is a promising path to ignite discussions.
Is it merely a dream to envision journals as video-based platforms or repositories of audio interviews and podcasts? Could this transformative approach not only enhance accessibility but also address the challenges faced by non-native English speakers? Researchers could create content in their native languages, with journals adding subtitles for wider dissemination. Such an approach could boost engagement and cater to diverse learning preferences and modalities. Yet, this transition presents its challenges, from costs to content quality and searchability. To address these hurdles, it’s prudent to explore a hybrid journal format where multimedia content coexists with traditional research papers, offering the best of both worlds.
What if we rethink how peer reviewers and authors interact, giving them the freedom to choose between written reviews, audio calls, or Zoom meetings? The primary goal is to elevate the paper’s quality, and any method that contributes to this end should be embraced. Meeting notes or a summary could effectively serve as a record of the feedback exchanged, offering the journal editor a valuable point of reference. While there might be logistical hurdles and potential concerns about bias in this approach, it has the potential to be a significant benefit for those who find reviewer comments challenging to comprehend or seek greater clarity in the review process.
Why can’t each researcher embark on their own unique journey? Why adhere to a one-size-fits-all approach?