Go back

Generation let down

The research system isn’t entertaining fresh ideas

For some time now, the attitudes of early-career researchers towards the dissemination of their work, as well as their wider role in society, have been diverging from those of their elders.

New generations inhabit a universe in which ideas and information are shared freely and almost instantaneously on social media. But on planet research they discover a world guarded by paywalls and where the main measure of worth is something called a publication. In most universities, appointments and promotions are granted chiefly on the basis of a track record of publication in journals with high impact factors.

In this issue, David Nicholas of CIBER Research seeks to gauge the perspectives of young researchers on this clash. His team interviewed 116 of them in depth, and found widespread unhappiness regarding their work environments.

Research leaders often explain that changes in publishing, including the introduction of open access, open up more flexible approaches to researchers’ success. However the picture painted by Nicholas is one of hypocrisy at the top and disillusion at the bottom. Leaders talk about the desirability of open access, data-sharing and wider public engagement. But young researchers soon discover that the real world offers them little space for these.

Nicholas and his team unearthed several depressing trends. Interviewees said that they would like to focus effort on things other than publishing papers, but that pressure from their seniors prevented them from doing so. They were sceptical of open-access publishing, worried by predatory publishers and the costs associated with so-called ‘gold’ open access, and unenthused by the institutional repositories created to accommodate ‘green’ open access.

Troublingly for publishers and librarians, many of the early-career researchers interviewed have little knowledge of the characteristics of journals in their respective fields. They rely mainly on the ubiquitous Google Scholar for article access, rarely setting foot in libraries.

Despite the 2012 San Francisco declaration on research assessment—which declared that the tyranny of impact factors must end, and which most research leaders have signed up to—young researchers report that this tyranny is still very much in place. Many would like to break out of it and do other things, such as working more cooperatively with their peers and engaging more actively. But the longer they stay in the system, the more thoroughly its worst aspects consume their ideals.

There are occasional signs of progress, such as research commissioner Carlos Moedas’s acceptance of a Bratislava Declaration that promised better treatment of young researchers. Nicholas also found that the much-criticised impact component of the UK Research Excellence Framework is helping early-career researchers, by delivering credit for outreach activities other than peer-reviewed publication.

But these are the exceptions to the rule. Something faintly grotesque is being constructed here: a monolithic academic research system driven primarily by numbers. It is failing our younger generations, failing the public good, and ultimately failing the cause of knowledge, science and innovation.

This article also appeared in Research Europe