When science meets freakonomics

I subscribe to a couple of podcasts, and usually use my long runs to catch up with some longer episodes. As I am a slow runner, yesterday I was able to listen to two new episodes of different podcasts, and listening to them in sequence made me think about the connection between them.

The first podcast was Science Disrupt. This particular episode I’ve listened was about building the science startups of tomorrow (very interesting one). But a peculiar thing about this podcast is that after every interview, the hosts always ask the same question to all guests: “Thinking about the science ecosystem as a whole, what else do you think in science still needs to be disrupted?” – and they always get very interesting answers! The other podcast was the second episode of the Earth 2.0 series from Freakonomics Radio. This series is supposed to answer the question “What if we could remake earth? What would you change?

As I was listening to this Freakonomics episode, my mind just wandered around replacing the word “economy” by “science“, and I was amazed how the discussion still seemed pretty pertinent (in my mind). They asked A LOT of questions along the podcast, but I’m just going to go over a few of them. I’m going to try to describe the parallel here, and hopefully it will make sense on paper as much as it did while I was running…

  • “If we had the chance to totally reboot our economic system, what would that new system look like?. That seems like an unanswerable question – both economic and science-wise – and why we bother to discuss this?

Abhijit BANERJEE: I think that doing things consciously with thought, asking lots of questions; not doing them because this is how we’ve always done things, this is our tradition, this is the normal in the world … Asking questions: “Why do we do these things?” “Is this the right thing to do?” “What is the actual evidence for it?” That’s key. We won’t have a blueprint for the world. But we will have a better way of building a better world.

Applying this to science, it is easy to say that a lot of things need to change in our science system, regarding the way scientists are hired, funded, evaluated. Along those lines, our publishing and peer-review system also needs some evaluation. However, can you propose a real and feasible strategy that will make our scientific system work better? Paraphrasing Paul Ryan re: health care reform, “it’s a lot easier to oppose something than to be for something.”

Still, scientists should still reflect about the system and not simply do things automatically only because it’s how things are done. Are you happy with the current system? No, so what can you do to change it? If you don’t know where to start, the article How Scientists Can Influence Policy has some interesting suggestions. Figure out what is already happening. Expand your readings. Write letters, emails. Pick up the phone!

  • “What should be done about income inequality?”

KANTER: To make things work well, inequality doesn’t help. If you have a lot of people who feel left out of the system, well, they do get angry, and they sometimes surprise you with their feelings. But also, they often go passive. They think nothing could be done to change anything. And because of that, they’re not very motivated, and nothing does change.

Yes. Inequality doesn’t help in science either. Every time that I see a list of grants /prizes awarded, there’s a pattern there. You always see a lot of money going towards the big institutions and less or even no money awarded to small Universities. You can say that money comes to big institutions because they do better research, but how can small institutions do better research if they are underfunded?

I believe some researchers may become angry when thinking about the current funding climate, but most of them fall into the later category: go passive. As a salesperson that sells expensive laboratory equipment, I talk to many professors on a daily basis. Many times, when I suggest that they could apply for a equipment grant, or group with other researchers to get a multi-user equipment, they just sound so… unmotivated. Almost like “why bother to write a grant for that, if I know that it will be rejected?”.

I know government funding for research has never been that low, but there are alternatives. Ryan Bethencourt (Program Director and Venture Partner at IndieBio) suggested on the ScienceDisrupt podcast that researchers should start looking at partnerships with the private sector – partner with biotech companies to raise additional money and bring your research forward.

  • “Why North America has been more successful economically than South America?”

Tyler COWEN: Whereas, say, the Spanish colonies were more likely based on the idea of extracting wealth from other people, or taking a lot of the resources out of the ground and not investing as much in human capital.

Why some research groups are more successful than others? Is because of the institution that they are located? Or it’s because they research a topic that’s more appealing to the grant funding agencies? Also, this question made me think about all the team supporting a research group. Graduate students, postdocs, technicians. When a PI is training a GS or a PD, does it make a difference if they are just interested in their skilled labor, or if they are really training them to be better scientists? I truly believe so.

As much as a lab PI is supposed to be the leader, the mentor of its group, a successful lab still needs to be a group. And it’s the PI’s job to make this group cohesive and motivated to science! It is important to take your time and teach your group what takes to be a successful scientist. Also, keep in mind that not all GS (or even PD) will necessarily go towards an academic position. Knowing your group, understanding the goals and limitations of each one of its members can really make a difference!

  • “If you want to think about building the perfect economic system, there are so so so many elements to consider. Money, for instance. What is the optimal form of money?”

SURI: The biggest two findings are that mobile money improves financial resilience, which is the ability to deal with bad events. Basically, we find that it has an effect on poverty; it’s going to reduce poverty. (…) You’re saving more because you have the ability to save in your phone, and so people are able to do these things.

What is the currency of academia? Publications and grants. Not only number of publications, but also the impact factor of the journals on which they are published. Publications are part of the measurements of a researcher’s success, determining if they are going to get hired, funded, and be successful in their careers. The podcast suggested that the use of mobile money could decrease poverty, and I wonder if academia could somewhat change its currency to be more fair to all researchers.

  • Is the World Ready for a Guaranteed Basic Income?

CAPLAN: Saying, “Let’s give everybody free money no matter what. People perfectly able-bodied. People perfectly able to take care of themselves.” That seems crazy at the outset. But more importantly, if you do a small amount of math and realize how much would it cost, the cost is enormous. Right now, the welfare state — we’re able to keep the cost down because we don’t give money to everybody.

So, with all bias and problems regarding grant funding, what about if we just gave some funding to all researchers to do their research? I certainly don’t believe this would be a good idea, as there are so many researchers from different fields, all requiring different amounts of money to perform their research. Along those lines, a new grant funding system was proposed by Johan Bollen at Indiana University where scientists would just give each other money: “Self-organized fund allocation” (SOFA). Unfortunately, I don’t believe this would work either, as the bias (and pressure) towards funding your own friends would be enormous, and also making things even harder for junior researchers.

I don’t have an answer to most of these questions. But it was nice to reflect on those issues, economy and science-wise. One of the conclusions of the Freakonomics podcast was that it’s hard to build a good economic infrastructure without a good political infrastructure. I do truly believe we have a lot to learn from economics!

On Elsevier and #OpenAccess

By the end of 2016 Nature.com published this article stating that negotiations between Elsevier and  Universities in Germany, Taiwan, and Peru didn’t reach an agreement and those countries were suspending their subscriptions to Elsevier journals. This is sad, because although some may still have some access to the journals illegally through SciHub, it is very likely that this will have a negative Science impact in these countries.

In an ideal world all science would be free, and everybody would have OA to every research published. But our world is far from ideal, and, although we would like this to happen eventually, how likely is this to happen?

Ok. So what’s the data? We live in a world where everything costs money. When I think about publishing, I immediately think about paper, ink, and printing actual magazines. When I started doing research as an undergrad I remember going to the library to look for articles and take photocopies of them to read later (yes, I’m old like that). But besides for old articles, what’s the point to print science papers anymore, if they can be easily accessed through PDF and saved (or printed)? But even if you don’t print Science magazines, there’s still the cost of personnel. You need to pay editors and people to review those papers and choose which ones are going to be published, right? Wait, no, professors do it… for free! So what are exactly the publishing costs? I tried to look for this information on the internet, but wasn’t very successful…

Elsevier has been the most hated publisher for several years. But there are others big publishers out there. Actually this article from 2015 states that Reed-Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis, and Sage published more than half of all academic papers in the peer-reviewed literature in 2013. Elsevier doesn’t disclose the price of their publications, but do other publishers do? Not really. Also, it seems that neither PLoS nor BioMed Central also discuss actual costs of publication. A few years ago, the true cost of science publishing was discussed in this article:


The subscription prices are also not disclosed by the publishers. Libraries are also not allowed to release their costs. It’s tough to judge if prices are fair or not if you don’t know the numbers! I mean, how do you set the price for a journal subscription to begin with? Number of students and professors, kind like the electoral vote? The larger the number of people in a particular University, the higher the price? But what about number of journals? I mean, in a particular university there might be a lot of people, but they might access more other publisher’s journals. Maybe they have an average of downloads and then set the price?

So as the majority of research around the world is still published in journals that require subscriptions, one would think those publishers are the most profitable. Not exactly, at least according to this blog post from 2013, proclaiming that the OA Hindawi Publishing Corporation “has a impressive profit margin of 52%. Much better than Elsevier (36% profit margin on revenue in 2010)”. Of course, this is a single article and things may have changed since then.

One thing we do know is the publication fees for scientific journals. And we all know that publication charges are higher in OA journals. Regarding scientific access to everybody, one cannot argue with the premise of OA journals. But are we just going from a “pay to read” to a “pay to publish” model? That doesn’t seem to help researchers and institutions, specially on times of tight research budget.

The internet turned the world into a much accessible place to everybody. People said newspapers were going to die, but even with fewer and fewer people actually buying printed newspapers, they are still standing. With facilities and paid personnel. Newspapers evolved to stay alive. Academic publishing need to evolve as well. Can we reach a middle point where we can have OA to all, at reasonable prices for researchers?

Advice to new postdocs

Tonight on twitter biochembelle started a trend of tweets giving some valuable advice to postdocs. And that made me think about how I’ve been doing it all wrong.

“A postdoc is a job. A *temporary* job. You (postdocs) should be thinking about where you want to go next and what you need to get there…”

When I moved to the US, I didn’t know if I wanted to stay here or come back to home country. So I just came here and started working. Without any clear goal in mind. I also moved to a lab that did pretty much the same as what I did during my PhD, so that was my first mistake. You should go somewhere you can grow, learn new techniques and expand your research.

“Then look for opportunities to get what you need. As a postdoc, primary job is research. Publications are metric of productivity…”

Working in the lab of a senior researcher, there was a lot of romanticism about the questions of our research. We don’t work in a top-priority field, but even then, there are stronger questions that can be asked, new methods to be learned! Along the years our subfield became smaller and smaller and there was no motivation from my PI to change the field of research that he’s been working for more than 30 years! But, as a postdoc, one has freedom to work in aside projects! Of course, I did publish during all these years, but I don’t have any publication in glam journals, and my top IF is around 5. So, focus on publishing, yes, but aside all those little projects try to work on some research that you may publish in a good journal.

“Research & pubs are important. No one will argue that. But alone they’re not sufficient (especially when looking outside academia).”

There were two R01s in the lab when I first arrived and not so many people working there. So we were pretty “rich” and I never bothered (and no one told me) to write grants or apply for travel grants. When I first heard about the possibility of getting a K99, I was already passed the 5 year-limit to apply. NRSA training grants are for new postdocs learning new techniques, and I was already too “trained” for that. After 5 years in the same lab I just applied for an R03 last cycle. That’s just wrong! If you want to stay in academia writing grants will be your everyday life, so you better get started as soon as possible!

Now I am in the job market for a TT position and I feel that my CV basically lacks high impact publications and funding. I’m trying to fill those blanks, working hard on a project that I believe can be published in a good journal and also applying for grants. I think I’m already too old to go for another postdoc where I can have better opportunities of learning and publishing. But it may happen, if our grant is not funded and I don’t get a faculty job. I’m still hopeful things can work for me, but if only I had known those things before, I’d have done things different and I could be in my dream job!

PubMed Commons: Facebook for Scientists?

So in the beggining of the week, NCBI released a new forum for scientific discussion named PubMed Commons. I couldn’t get into it until yesterday, when I tried to click on a link shared on Twitter of a comment that he posted about his own paper. Surprisingly, what I saw was a normal Pubmed page, with a normal abstract and without any comment whatsoever. Then I realized I was not included in the cool kids list that can use PubMed Commons. At first I thought that just having an eRA commons login and a NCBI account would make the trick. No, no, big mistake. You have to be in the list of approved email addresses. Anyways, it seems that if you are author of some publication with NIH funding you can ask for someone to “invite” you to the cool kids party. Anyways…. my point is, I don’t really know if I like this idea of commenting on PubMed. Some points that I have in mind:

– Is it going to be like Facebook? Maybe they could include a LIKE button next to the abstract!

– But, what if someone that doesn’t have a clue about my work writes a nasty comment? Can I delete it?

– And what about those that still don’t have their scientific judgement completely developed, don’t you think that they are going to be influenced by the comments of big names in the field about this and that paper?

Then in the future we can put in our CV not only the impact factor of the journal you publish but also the number of comments (or likes) in PubMedCommons. Really not sure if I like this or not. Let’s see.

Midpostdoc crisis

All this OA discussion around twitter this week made me enter in a midpostdoc crisis! Even though I am into my 7th year of being a PD, I consider myself way too naive and still with a romantic vision of science. Before this week, I was really punishing myself for not having a single paper published in an OA journal. C’mon, we are cool scientists that tweet and blog, how come one don’t have an OA paper? I was planning on publishing my next paper on OA (if the budget allowed, of course!). But, after reading all the discussion I’m having second thoughts about it…

So everything started with a simple question from Dr. Isis Length VS IF and then twitter turned into chaos. Wow, I was surprised of how inflamed the discussion got! I might not have twitted a lot about the subject, but I read everything that I could about the discussion. It seems to me is that all this OA thing is relevant, and worth pursuing. I understand the importance of it, and I’m really grateful that researchers like Michael Eisen are so passioned about this topic, but I have to agree with Dr. Becca and Proflikesubstance when they say that this must be a task for senior scientists, not for postdocs and junior faculties.

Then Michael Eisen did a #publishingsurvey asking “where was the paper(s) that got you your job published?”. I was shocked! I don’t know if all scientists on twitter are very clever, but everybody started answering CNS, Neuron, Cell, etc… I felt so bad and so small in between all this people! My highest IF is a 4.7 paper. I actually have 3 papers published in this journal, and this is the top IF for my area of research. I’m not doing straight neuroscience, I do neuro-something-ology. I don’t work in cancer or Alzheimer and although I love my research it seems quite unlikely that I can publish anything on a CNS journal!

Maybe I could try to do a parallel research project aiming to J Neurosci, that might be doable. But I might not have enough time for that, since I want to start applying for positions this year for practice, and next year for real! I have a kind of sexy project going on that could turn into a sort of glamorous publication, maybe… But is this really necessary? Should I bother about that too much? Now I look at my CV and just see 15 small publications that won’t take me anywhere…

Open Access Publishing

Recently I’ve participated in a survey on publishing in neuroscience and it was all about publishing in Open access journals. I don’t think I was of much help, as I never published any paper on these journals. But it made me think about why this happened. My first papers were published on wherever my advisor wanted to submit them, as I really didn’t know exactly what that meant and just wanted to have a publication! But later on… what happened?

When you decide where to submit your work first of all comes your area of research AND the status of the journal. My area of research doesn’t have high impact factor journals, and most of the top researchers publish their results in one specific journal (X, IF around 5). Of course, if there is some ephys involved they publish in Journal of Neuroscience, but that’s not usual. So as a graduate student I “grew up” reading papers from that  X journal and dreaming that one day they would accept a publication of mine. Time passed and now I have 3 papers published there. So now it became a matter of being used to submit my papers to this X journal first. It’s just a matter of habit! I also realized that I don’t know ANY journal specific to my area that are open access.  So I googled open access journals + my specific area of research. Found one, yay! Never heard about it, tried to see the IF of that journal. Tried by title, by ISSN.

***** No matching journals were found. *****

Really? Ok, so I guess this is not a good journal to try to publish. But really? Of course IF matters and every scientist wants to publish at Nature, Science, and beyond. But when it comes to more realistic IFs does it really matter? When it comes to pubmed, everybody will find your research no matter where you publish. Quoting Damian Pattinson, the editorial director of PLoS ONE in a recent blog post “it’s a good time to remember that it is the papers, not the journals they´re published in, that make the impact.” http://blogs.plos.org/everyone/2013/06/14/plos-one-measuring-article-impact/. PLoS ONE has a pretty good IF, so should I care about being specific to my area of research?

On the other hand, I receive TOCs from all the specific journals to my field, knowing exactly what’s been published out there. My field is not that big, and I know most of the big guys from the field. Sometimes someone publishes a paper in a totally different journal that takes me a while to find out. That is one of the things that make me skeptical about publishing in somewhere other than the usual journals.  What’s your opinion about this? Should we alternate between specific journals and open access journals? If so, how which criteria would you use to choose what to publish on each one of them?