“Bullied Into Bad Science”: An Interview with Corina Logan

The last two years have seen a lot of talk about the issues of science and scientific publishing – and how the incentives prevalent in science (publish or perish, preferably with high-impact stories with lots of news coverage) are actually bad for science. Corina Logan, a zoologist and part of a group of postdocs from the University of Cambridge is eager to push for a change in the publishing culture. They argue that the current way of publishing is hindering the progress of science. A recent column by Brian Martinson in Nature summarises the problem nicely: “[The fact that researchers need publications encourages] all manner of corner-cutting, sloppiness in research, and other degradations in the quality of publications, not to mention an obvious motive for plagiarism. A quest for high-profile papers leads researchers to favour a spectacular result, even if it is specious. Authors cite themselves to boost the impact of publications, and cite colleagues to curry favour.”

Picture by Dieter Lukas

Such requirements create questionable research practices – bad science. It seems that being a paid and successful researcher comes at the cost of “morals”. Importantly, while as a student, publishing issues might not concern you yet; but it concerns your supervisor, who will of course have an invested interest in getting the most of your research, too. Take for example registering your research (see here and here). If you commit yourself to a theory before seeing the data, it can get more difficult to tell a “good” story later on. It is not a given that supervisors are on board with this idea. Additionally, there are issues such as lack of time or awareness of the existence of such developments, and the tools that go with it (e.g., the Open Science Framework). Or consider you finished your work, have some nice data that you would like to publish – it might not be easy to convince your supervisor to publish it in an open access journal, which, due to the article processing costs (APCs) most likely will cost more. Can we really expect things to change if we are not doing anything differently than has been done previously (Logan 2017)?

The Bullied Into Bad Science campaign has put together a list of actions institutions can take in order to help early career researchers to beat bad science, building on the Open Science developments gained over the course of the last five to ten years. Here, we talk to Corina Logan about the campaign, and what the youngest researchers – students – can do.

Tell us a bit about your background. How did you get into research? What are your research interests?

My entry into a research career was not by the usual route. I was home schooled as a kid and didn’t go to school until I entered university. I didn’t even realize that doing research was a career until I was 21 and taking Biology 101 (cell biology) at my local community college (a small university covering the first 2 years of an undergraduate degree in the US). I absolutely loved it – it just made sense. My professor assigned us a research essay as extra credit and, as I wrote the essay, I realized that this is research and it can be a career. From then on I knew I wanted to be a researcher. After that, it was a matter of figuring out what questions and species most inspire me. After running around Costa Rica and the US doing research on a variety of projects, I kept coming back to animal behavior as what really motivated me to get out of bed in the morning. Many years later, that is still the case. Right now, I am investigating whether invasive species are so successful because they are behaviorally flexible.

What inspired you to become involved in the quest for better, more transparent research and to start the „Bullied into Bad Science“-campaign?

Rage. I feel angry that researchers are being exploited by most publishers and that we are discriminating against who can read our research when we publish non-open access papers. It is our choices that make all the difference so it was clear to me that we researchers need to understand what’s happening and learn about our options.

A couple of years ago, my colleague, Alecia Carter, asked me a question over lunch: why did you submit that paper to that journal? I didn’t have a good answer so I started researching the differences between journals, which led me to needing to learn about the differences between publishers, and the differences between types of open access, and so on and so on down a rabbit hole. The more I learned, the more I was completely appalled by how academic publishing works, how much researchers don’t know about how it works, and how much we are letting ourselves (and the public who usually funds our research in the first place) be exploited by publishers. Once I knew what the academic publishing landscape actually looked like (which I wrote about here) and that there are ways of publishing that keeps money inside academia without discriminating against who can read research, I couldn’t go back to publishing in a way where I exploit myself and the public.

I started giving talks on exploitative vs. ethical publishing and I learned that early career researchers everywhere feel pressured to publish in particular journals to advance their career. These particular journals don’t promote or even have many (or any) options for making the research process open. That ECRs feel pressured into publishing in these journals means that their science could suffer. We shouldn’t be in the position of choosing between good research or an academic career. If we are researchers, isn’t the point to do good research? An academic culture change is needed to realign ourselves with the real goals of our profession.

I think my non-academic background (I had a couple of other careers before becoming an academic) helps me keep academic culture in perspective. Knowing that a career in academia isn’t the only option reduces the desperation that is often involved in trying to get the next job or grant. I can put my skill set to good use in a number of other professions (and do research on the weekends!). Coming from other careers also helps me keep a “real-world” perspective on academia so I can see what doesn’t make sense. If I had been exposed only to academia as a career, it might be much easier to accept non-functional traditions as the norm. This is why we must understand the system we are operating in and keep tight control over the choices we make.

In the letter, managers and institutions are urged to take a range of actions to improve the transparency, reproducibility, and rigour of publications as well as research itself. The JEPS Bulletin has been featuring articles about these issues, targeting mainly students (really early career researchers, so to speak) for a while now, yet, there is a general impression there is relatively little students seem to be able to do about the problem. Do you have any suggestions as to what students can do to improve the current situation?

I think there are (at least) two things students can do to use their unique position of power to change academic culture:

1) Vote with your money. Students pay tuition and fees to universities and this puts them in a position of power because they are a customer. They have a choice about which institution to give their money to and, once at an institution, they should be able to influence what their money is paying for. For example, students could band together and tell their university they don’t want their money being used to fund journal subscriptions at exploitative publishers.

2) Positively select for senior researchers who value open practices. Use the Bullied Into Bad Science supporter’s letter to look for your next supervisor. When you are scouting an advisor for a PhD program or a postdoc position, ask them whether they value open practices, what they are doing to help ECRs in this regard, and whether they would give you the freedom to publish wherever you want (and not only the freedom, but is this something they are actively working on themselves as well).

As of this October, 126 early-career researchers have signed the letter. What has the reception of the campaign been like?

Amazing! Since the campaign started, I’ve been getting emails from ECRs and senior researchers thanking me for starting this, saying it is an important and inspirational (and long overdue) campaign for this pervasive problem. I went to a conference a couple of months ago and I was impressed by how many ECRs had heard of the campaign. I learned that people really want to talk about these issues to process what they and others think. I benefit from these discussions because I get ideas for how to be more effective.

Researchers from other countries are sharing their concerns about what they see happening in their particular academic culture and they are thinking of ways to create change locally. The responses I’ve heard all acknowledge that this is a big issue. Most people I’ve talked with agree that we need to do something to change the culture, but there are also a few people who are pretty happy with the status quo (of course, the latter usually have benefitted from the status quo).

You are an ECR. Looking back at your PhD and undergraduate time, do you have any tips for students who are bullied into bad science?

Being a student is tough position to be in because you’ve got to get your degree. So even if you are doing independent research, you still have to make sure the senior researchers who are evaluating you are happy (enough) to pass you. I think the most effective way to deal with this is to choose a supervisor (and advisors) who support open practices. The problem is that most of us don’t even know about these issues until much later in our academic careers (I was a few years past my PhD), so we might already be in a difficult situation with a supervisor when we start to change our research ethics.

For students who are already in a difficult situation – feeling pressured to act against their ethics – I can think of a couple of ways to try to improve the situation. If you think your supervisor would be open to hearing your perspective on this topic, you can try to educate them about why it is better for your research if you choose to engage in open practices. If the situation is more serious, I recommend discussing the issue with a university administrator who is in charge of handling complaints/conflict resolution/harassment cases. I have found this extremely useful for working out what I want to do in a particular situation because these individuals understand what my options are within the structure of the university.

I’ve also found it extremely helpful to have a support network. There are several of us researchers (and a librarian!) at Cambridge who have banded together to brainstorm how to take effective action. This is a great way for me ask questions about nuanced issues to better understand them, and feel supported in moving forward with what I think is important. I found my support network once I started talking with people about open access. Opening the discussion creates an opening for people to join you. I also met them by joining OpenConCam, a satellite group of OpenCon, which has monthly meetings. There are many OpenCon satellites and you can see if there is one near you: http://www.opencon2017.org/satellite.


Katharina Brecht

Katharina Brecht

After finishing her PhD at the University of Cambridge, Katharina is currently a Postdoc in the Institute of Neurobiology at the University of Tübingen. Her research interests revolve around the mechanisms of social and causal cognition in animals.

More Posts