Pressure to publish papers blamed for reluctance to share digital data

May 12, 2011

Academics have been accused of failing to make use of new technology to improve research because they are "selfish" and bogged down in the peer review system.

Speaking at a British Library debate, organised by Times Higher Education, academics and students agreed that researchers had not embraced new technology to share their data and findings.

Addressing the question "What is the future of research?", Matthew Gamble, a PhD candidate in computer science at the University of Manchester, said that despite projects such as Galaxy Zoo, which shares academic data with the general public, the culture of the "selfish scientist" was holding back British research.

"Altruism is quickly beaten out of young academics in favour of retaining data and making sure you can produce as many publications as possible," he said.

The "publish or perish culture" taught students that "if they don't produce a paper there is no point pushing the data out there", he claimed, adding that "data sharing is still seen as quite rebellious".

However, Mr Gamble said technology offered the chance for researchers to publish more than a "static, lifeless PDF", allowing them to share their data and processes alongside their findings in order to speed up the research process.

David Gauntlett, professor of media and communications at the University of Westminster, agreed that researchers should do more to share results. Academics had a responsibility to publish online, he said.

"You're not doing what you're meant to be doing if you keep it all in silos. There is not any excuse for not doing it," he added.

He said the peer review system was "totally past it", describing it as "a couple of people" judging research only on their own standards, even though "every human being is in favour of themselves and the kind of stuff they do".

The process should be replaced with a "publish then filter" model, where academics devised "markers" for credibility in a busy digital environment, Professor Gauntlett believed.

The social networking platform Twitter showed how digital research credibility could develop, with academics trusting sources they knew and passing this trust on to their own network of colleagues and readers.

But Aleks Krotoski, the broadcaster and British Library researcher-in-residence for the Growing Knowledge exhibition, which tracks the future of research, said the rhetoric and reality around using technology were divorced.

Doctoral students were "discouraged from using technology to publish or to put their data out there", she said.

"If these ideas aren't being taught, this stuff simply isn't going to happen," she added. She described the problem as a "real sticking point" for research.

In a surprise to other panellists, the youngest contributor to the debate was the most concerned about the risks involved in distributing research digitally. Ben Hickey, an A-level student at Holy Trinity School in Crawley, said students would need even more academic support if open resources became a reality.

"We may be underestimating the value of having a lecturer and a teacher advising us on research methods, rather than a computer model," he said.

"We need to err on the side of caution. Young people want to try and break new ground, but we also need guidance."

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