Collaborative research gets a health check

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  • World Report Vol 384 September 27, 2014 1173

    Collaborative research gets a health checkA new project launched by the UK Academy of Medical Sciences seeks to make team science in biomedical research more meritocratic. Anna Petherick reports.

    Team science, whereby multiple research groups collaborate on a study, has become increasingly common in biomedical research. Yet the existing means of recognising individuals efforts and achievements often make contributions hard to gauge. Recognising this problem, the UKs Academy of Medical Sciences has this month launched a project to improve understanding of the issue and to recommend solutions.

    Essentially, we have a perception misalignment in science. We have the Nobel prizes, for example, [which tend to go to one or two peoplesuch as Peter Higgs and Franois Englertfor the results of a huge international eff ort], things like grants, papers, jobs are structured with the lone genius in mind, but most scienceall science from a broader perspectiveis done in teams, explains Buzz Baum, professor of cell biology at University College London, UK. And, in some ways, the system is not fair to people working in teams.

    This misalignment has been accentuated in modern times, as researchers with diff erent specialisms have gravitated together to solve new problems, with the creation of typically big-team specialties like genomics. Collaborations are frequently forged not just across university departments, but across continents. If you have a big wodge of authors on an important paper, how as an employer, or as a funder, are you going to identify everybodys contribution? says Philippa Saunders, director of postgraduate research at the University of Edinburghs College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, UK. How are we going to ensure for people coming up through their careers, that these efforts get recognised when they go for promotion, for a fellowship, for

    independent funding? She and Baum are both members of the working group for the Academys new project.

    The upshot of the present system is an incentive structure for career progression that does not necessarily serve the research agenda as well as it could; Baum, although he prefers not to name them, agrees that specific

    collaborative research projects have been held back. Post-docs often have to make tricky strategic bets about whether to either collaborate and fi nd themselves as a middle author of several papers, or to push ahead with work that might result in lead authorship, but perhaps would be improved with the incorporation of more diverse skill sets. Many funders view fi rst, last, or corresponding author ship, according to a sub disciplines conventions, as evidence of a researchers ability to genuinely conceive their own ideas. Meanwhile, all too frequently, the senior author may have contributed very little to the research, but hold a position of authority in the laboratory or department. The system tends to support more shout-y personalities, adds Saunders. If you only focus on individual fellowships, you are going to discriminate against people who prefer to work in teams.

    Some specialities are particularly ill-served by the traditional methods of apportioning recognition. Saunders cites pathologists as a group that is continually overlooked, but without which many medical research projects would never progress because they would fail to access to samples essential to the work.

    Perhaps the authorship lists of scientific research papers could read more like the credits of a movie? That is one of the ideas that the working group will add to its melting pot of suggestions. Such an innovation would not only make individual contributions clearer for potential employers and funders, but might also inject fairness by providing some protection to innocent collaborators of projects in which a few researchers have committed scientifi c fraud unbeknownst to the majority.

    The Academy is inviting specific groups, such as publishers and funders, for interview, as well as holding events all over the country with the intention of encouraging the broad participation of people with experiences that could help to inform reform. In Scotland, for example, these evening events will be held in Edinburgh and Dundee; the intention is to put attendees together on tables, and then ask each of the tables a series of questions of about team science. Anyone unable to attend a local event, but wishes to contribute, can do so through the Academys website.

    Baum and Saunders emphasise that the door really is wide open. Medical research could learn a lot from other disciplines like physics. Were all quite exercised about the author-list business, but apparently in physics alphabetical order is the norm, says Saunders. Certainly, as biomedical research teams bring together investigators from other specialties, they will need to understand how the norms of their own discipline are interpreted by those outside it.

    Contributions to the Academys project are welcome through to midnight on Nov 7. The Academys report will be published around February, 2016.

    Anna Petherick

    Perhaps the authorship lists of scientifi c research papers could read more like the credits of a movie?





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