Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

As serious as the COVID-19 pandemic is, it could be an opportunity for science, says our editor Benedikt Fecher.

Over the past 10 years, my colleagues and I have been doing research on research, on how academic knowledge is created (i.e. scholarly communication) and disseminated (i.e. research communication). We have been looking at how researchers collaborate and share data (here, here and here), how they perform quality checks (here), where they publish and how they engage with the public (here and here). Perhaps the most important insight I have gained over the years is that scholarly impact is a matter of complexity and that attempts by researchers to avoid complexity may ultimately reduce the impact of their work. As serious as the COVID-19 situation is, I believe that the pandemic can be an opportunity for research to embrace complexity and to prove that things can be done better. And the good news is that it is happening right now, as I write!

Impact and complexity

Complex problems involve many variables that influence each other. They cannot be understood from the perspective of a single discipline. In this sense, the COVID-19 pandemic is a complex problem. Especially in such acute crisis situations, it is important for researchers to collaborate across disciplines and to work together with doctors, nurses, politicians and public administrators. What vaccines might be developed? How can we ensure the continued provision of medical care? How can we avoid an economic collapse? None of these questions can be answered by a single discipline. Possible measures must constantly be assessed in terms of what impact they can have. To solve complex problems, academia has to embrace complexity: researchers have to collaborate across disciplines and they have to inform public discourse and decision-making processes.

I have long been persuaded that this was not exactly a strength of academia and its somewhat dormant institutions. Now, in this moment of crisis, I still believe that academic institutions are dormant and that attempts to avoid complexity can limit the value of science. But at the same time, researchers’ reaction to COVID-19 gives me hope that we can do better. Let me explain why.


Avoiding complexity and its impact on impact

When I say that academia avoids complexity and that this hinders the creation of scientific value, I am referring both to how researchers deal with a problem (i.e. scholarly communication) and how researchers interact with society (i.e. science communication). I want to offer two examples of such complexity avoidance for each.

When dealing with a problem …

  • … academia creates artificial boundaries between disciplines. The reason is simply that our evaluation culture prefers disciplinary work. Our publication forums are largely disciplinary; the same applies to the awarding of grants and, of course, tenure decisions. We can hardly find the time to drink coffee with a researcher who works in another faculty at the same university. Interdisciplinarity is the key to solving complex problems. It is, however, too often just paid political lip service, it  is chronically underfunded and it is sometimes even ridiculed. We avoid complexity by pretending that problems are disciplinary by nature.
  • … academia relies on an outdated communication system. We live in the 21st century and while all information markets have changed fundamentally with digitisation, researchers still pretend that knowledge can only be recorded in a printed article. We publish lots of articles, but the publication time lag is huge and they are hardly ever cited (i.e. not even read by our closest peers). And we don’t share data and code that can add real value for other scientists (e.g. for replications, meta studies etc.) because we want to publish more articles . We avoid complexity by relying on means of communication from another century.

When interacting with society …

  • … academia accepts attention as a proxy for relevance. Our metrics for measuring societal impact too often refer to simple attention indicators. The common Altmetrics scores, for example, are based on the mentions of DOIs of a scientific output in social networks. The problem is that only researchers know what a DOI is, and societal impact is poorly addressed by observing traffic on social networks. In fact, science has many different publics that all have different uses for academic knowledge. We avoid complexity by pretending that there is only one public (that we can reach with papers).
  • … academia focuses too much on outputs. Only a fraction of the academic knowledge that reaches society can be attributed to a single output, such as a patent or a report. Most forms of impact are not attributable to a single output; they are based on diffuse processes. For example, scientists advise politics and business; they initiate public discussions. How do you measure the deliberative impact of science? Not by counting patents but rather by enabling young researchers to communicate their results effectively. We avoid complexity by pretending that impact manifests in outputs.

Of course, this is a somewhat simplified picture. There are, of course, very good examples of interdisciplinarity, of scientists who subscribe to the principles of open science and who are questioning the outdated infrastructures for scholarly communication. And of course, There are plenty of researchers who don’t care about attention and who are active in society where it matters. Still, I believe that complexity avoidance is deeply entrenched in our academic institutions. I would go as far as to say that almost everyone who works in and around research has experienced it first hand.


COVID-19: A case for embracing complexity

What does this have to do with the COVID-19 pandemic? The pandemic is such a complex problem. What strikes me is that, when things get difficult, researchers step up to the game. At the moment, we are seeing researchers who are embracing complexity and overcoming institutional complex avoidance mechanisms.

Researchers are sharing data and code across disciplines. John Hopkins (and other institutions) has created an online repository for data on COVID-19, with many different data sources that researchers can use. Researchers are publishing their papers on the China outbreak as fast as they can write them via preprints. The preprint server bioRxiv currently has 535 articles on COVID-19 SARS-CoV-2. This is noteworthy given that many top journals did not even allow preprints of articles to be published for a long time. Now publishers are making relevant articles on COVID-19 available. Funding bodies around the world have pledged money to treat COVID-19 infections. The first retrospective cohort study on risk factors was published last week in The Lancet. Researchers have created an interactive dashboard to track COVID-19 in real time. They are engaging with the public, informing them and intervening. The German virologist Christian Drosten advises the German government, uses social media to urge newspapers not to hide their Corona contributions behind a paywall and explains almost daily in a podcast what Corona means for society. When does this man sleep?

Researchers lead by example. They are ignoring artificial disciplinary boundaries, skipping the journal publication system and making themselves heard whenever and however they can. In light of the crisis, researchers are embracing complexity. And as serious as the situation is, when the crisis is over and its history is being written, COVID-19 could go down as a turning point for open science and purposeful science communication. And it could awaken our dormant institutions from their slumber and prompt a long overdue change. The questions that spring to mind are the following: how can we strengthen problem-oriented, interdisciplinary research? What could open and innovative publication forums that go beyond disciplinary closed access journals look like? How can we design effective forms of evaluation that interfere as little as possible with researchers’ work and the natural flow of knowledge? How can we foster meaningful science communication? What can research funding agencies, economic policy and science management do to ensure that complexity is reflected in the social order of science?

For researchers in any discipline, this is not the time to bury your head in the sand but to be creative and constructive. This also applies to those who organise research. The people in the administrations, in science policy and publishing houses. As absurd as it may sound now, the COVID 19 pandemic could be an opportunity for science to break through entrenched structures and come out stronger. It can be a case for academic collaboration and co-creation. Because when it comes down to it, academia makes the best of a shitty situation.