Interview conducted by David Nicholson, VP and Journals Publishing Director, Life Sciences

Your Starter for Ten…An interview with Mirko Bischofberger (EFPL Life Sciences, Switzerland), Zhao Chen (Tsinghua University, China), and Tiago Carrijo (Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil)

December 22nd, 2011

Original interview here, in Wiley-Blackwell, Publishing News

1) Mirko, Zhao, and Tiago, thank you for taking the time to speak to Publishing News. We’d like to start by finding out about your current position and your lab.

Mirko: Thanks to you. I think the following mix of European, Chinese and South American answers could turn out to be very interesting. I recently finished my PhD in the Life Science department of the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland and now I have received funding to work for a full year in the Swiss Parliament on the interface between science and politics. After that year I will maybe return to research.

Zhao: Thanks a lot for this chance to share. I’m doing postdoc research in the Molecular Enzymology Lab, School of Life Sciences, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China.

Tiago: Thank you, David. Today I am a PhD. student in the Laboratory of Isoptera (termites) at the Museum of Zoology of the University of São Paulo (Museu de Zoologia da Universidade de São Paulo – MZUSP), in São Paulo, Brazil.

2) What have been your experiences – good and bad – of publishing and peer review?

Mirko: I have very mixed feelings on the actual implementation of peer reviewing. This is mainly linked to the issue of impact factors and the prestige they give to certain journals. I think the reviewing process should exclusively focus on the scientific soundness of a submitted article, not more. A bit like the PLoS One philosophy. Reviewers should not assess if an article is “suited” for a journal, since this is a very arbitrary measure that can lead to a certain arrogance and exclusion of papers on non-scientific grounds. For example, articles that are not in a given trend can be declined on this “suitability” criterion. This was at least my experience with one of my articles and I don’t think this is healthy for scientific progress. Different ideas need a publication space as well. But I also had the opposite experience with another article of mine that was perfectly in the right trend. What I am trying to say is that I felt my articles were “reviewed” on the basis of which journal you submit to, not only on the content. But peer reviewing and ratings should be completely separated, a bit like the separation of powers in politics. For example, peer reviewing could always be completely anonymous in terms of authors, reviewers, and journals. I think this could improve peer reviewing a lot and allow fresh ideas to enter science more easily.

Zhao: Publications are needed in order to graduate as a Ph.D. and to achieve more in the field of life science in China. The peer review process can be very long (e.g. 3~4 months) for certain journals.

Tiago: In general, my experiences have been good: the reviewers usually give good suggestions, and help improve the final article. But I also had some not so pleasant experiences, such as once I had to take off part of an article because the reviewer followed a different school of thought and did not accept our approach.

3) What are the key factors in choosing where to submit your work?

Mirko: The first criterion is clearly that the story fits the journal’s policy to reach the right audience. After all, science is made up of relatively few people spread around the globe, especially for a specialist topic. If possible then I try to publish in an Open Access journal.

Zhao: The impact factors, the scope and the average reviewing time of the journal are taken into account. Sometimes the reviewing and/or publishing fee is also considered.

Tiago: Usually the scope of the journal is my focus. I also try to look for journals with good digital access. Not necessarily Open Access, but with at least some distribution to major universities, for example.

4) Have any of you published in an Open Access journal, if so why? If you haven’t yet done so could you comment on Open Access journals in your field and your perceptions of them? Does your institution (and/or funding agency) require you to archive a version of your article(s)?

Mirko: Yes, I’ve had some experience with the PLoS journals. They have an efficient way of treating the peer review process and for my field also offer appropriate journals in terms of topics. My school has guidelines that promote publishing articles in Open Access journals. This is a good start, I think.

Zhao: No, I haven’t. Some people in my lab have though. Open Access journals are very convenient to read but it hasn’t been a trend. Noticeably, many high-impact journals are not Open Access ones. If the university doesn’t buy these journals, it’s disappointing not to easily get a newly published and very attractive paper in time. Tsinghua University doesn’t require us to archive our articles.

Tiago: I have not done so yet, but in my field there are some OA journals being created and many others that give the author the choice to publish their papers OA upon payment of a fee. I think Open Access is a great thing; science should be accessible for all. But of course sometimes this is a hard decision for authors, since we want visibility to our articles but we also need to pay for Open Access. So, funding institutions should encourage authors to pay to have their article available. My institution doesn’t require archiving of articles, just periodic reports of publications.

5) How important are post-publication metrics e.g. citations to or downloads of your article? Do you look at or use them? Do you contribute to or read post-publication commentary features?

Mirko: Post-publication metrics of an article are as senseless as pre-publication metrics of a journal. They will never be able to take account of the complex dynamics of scientific progress. The whole concept of “measuring” an article, a scientist, or a research field is absurd in my eyes. On the other hand comments, response papers, and the actual citation text (the actual wording) is what interests me, not the numbers.

Zhao: I think it’s a very useful way to better understand the significance of a research by counting citations. Usually I use the data from Google Scholar although it is not always very accurate. I will be really glad if my own articles are cited from time to time, even when people don’t agree with our opinions. That makes it “science”, doesn’t it? I haven’t written any comments but prefer reading commentary articles written by experts in the same issue of the journal.

Tiago: I check these metrics mostly out of curiosity, since they are an interesting way to assess how other researchers use our work and measure the range it can reach. To be honest, I never contributed nor read post-publication commentaries on the journal’s websites. I frequently look for response articles, and when I am searching for a subject I usually check the “related documents” and “cited by”, normally offered by the journal’s website.

6) Do you make use of social media, file sharing, or bookmarking services in a professional context?

Mirko: I like to share files to work on the same document, when writing scientific texts for example. I never use social media for work though. But I really hope that the internet will bring further fresh ideas to the way research is done. For example, I don’t understand why we don’t create an archive for biology, like they use in physics.

Zhao: Actually we started a blog of our lab several years ago but it didn’t last long. We focus more on face to face communications. I haven’t tried file sharing or bookmarking services yet.

Tiago: I have Mendeley and Linkedin profiles and also use Facebook. But I confess that they could be more useful. We have a Facebook group of termitologists that is just beginning, still running slow, but hopefully it will be better used in future. A nice initiative that is working well is a group on Mendeley and a file sharing online archive on Dropbox, created by another termitologist from Brazil, Danilo Elias de Oiveira, from the University of Brasila (UnB). In these two media, we share references related to termites.

7) Do you belong to a learned society and how do you see their role evolving particularly in the context of young scientists?

Mirko: Yes, but I don’t know enough about their mission to comment on that question.

Zhao: No, I don’t. I think some learned societies are caring more about young scientists, such as “Young Scientist Program” in 21st IUBMB-12th FAOBMB Congress of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology held in Shanghai, China. I was honored to participate in that program.

Tiago: I don’t belong to any. I normally see them as composed of experienced researchers, but my point of view could be quite skewed, since I never interacted with any.

8 ) Wiley-Blackwell and our society partners organize seminars and publish materials to support young scientists as authors – are these helpful and what else could we do to help?

Mirko: I don’t know which initiatives you mean exactly, but they sound very interesting. I definitely had a good experience with BioEssays (published by Wiley-Blackwell) when I wanted to publish the comment I wrote as a PhD in 2010. I would warmly welcome a column in which young scientists speak up more regularly. They are the researchers of tomorrow after all.

Zhao: I think this may be helpful if more young scientists are taking part. However, as English is not the mother language for Chinese researchers, reading published materials in English may not be very comprehensive and sufficient. Could there be any kind of Chinese editions of the published materials? (Editor’s note: We are increasingly translating our materials into local languages, including standard Chinese – for example, we will shortly be launching a standard Chinese interface for Wiley Online Library, and Publishing News itself will be published in standard Chinese from 2012.)

Tiago: Maybe this could be interesting, but I really don’t know how it works. I think the first step should be a better propagation among universities. Perhaps it is still my skewed view, but I think most young scientists, at least in Brazil, are not aware about these initiatives.

9) I want to finish with a couple of questions about the big challenges for science and scientists. Mirko, last year you co-authored an interesting article in Bioessays where you contrasted the conditions for research and publication faced by Darwin with those faced by young scientists today. Has your outlook changed at all (for better or worse) since you wrote the article? Do you all share these concerns and is the situation better or worse in late 2011?

Mirko: Unfortunately not. I’m afraid the conditions don’t change in one year. And actually I don’t see many efforts to change anything. It seems like everybody, from the young student to the tenure track professor, is trying to fit into the current science policy. But at some point the conditions will be unfittable, I guess. The situation seems a bit of a one track road at the moment. At the same time this makes it very interesting to observe. Maybe we will have to hit a wall, a bit like in the financial system. But I hope to be wrong. Time will tell.

Zhao: I can’t agree more, especially taking into account the situation in life science research in China. Until recent years, there have been more and more graduates majoring in Biology. However, there are not enough institutions with abundant funds or innovative industrial companies to support them. Some of them have to turn into other fields for a living. For those who are interested in life science research, it’s really bad.

Tiago: I could totally relate to Mirko when I read his article. The challenges of young scientists today are enormous. We usually have to study until around when we are 30 to get our PhD. During this time, we live off of scholarships, enough only to survive. I normally make an analogy of these scholarships with lifeboats, which carry you until you reach a solid ground, or at least a more stable boat. Besides, we are always under pressure to finish the PhD or Post-doc with at least a certain amount of publication that would make us competitive for a position at n university. I think the situation is the same last year and today.

10) Finally, what’s the outlook for science in your field of research and, particularly, your country?

Mirko: Luckily Switzerland offers a very comfortable position for science and researchers. And also industry is very strong here. But everything can change. Novartis recently eliminated about 2,000 jobs in Switzerland. And in academia the international competition for funding gets tougher every year. At the moment Switzerland is a great place for science.

Zhao: There have been more funding from the government including some for young scientists since last year. Some labs can also get funding from companies under certain agreements. As there are even more scientists coming into the field than money, the “Matthew Effect” always exists.

Tiago: In Brazil, research is almost entirely limited to public universities, with a few exceptions. When working with basic research (as opposed to applied research), this scenario is even more restricted. Among public universities, we can still find some islands of prosperity where funding is not so difficult to come by, but they are quite rare. Inside universities, traditionally, people have a mentality that looking for financial support outside public institutions is wrong, maybe because most scholarship contracts do no permit outside funding. This is changing, but we are still not used to looking for research support from private institutions, which I believe is the case in some countries.

Thank you!

Footnote: Mirko, Zhao and Tiago are all members of the Wiley Science Advisors

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