Research intelligence: how to improve team science

Work to encourage team science is gathering momentum, and a recent Academy of Medical Sciences report highlights key steps to be taken

March 28, 2019
3 people looking at the Milky Way
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Galactic: answering big questions increasingly requires global collaboration

From food security to microbial resistance and climate change, the complex research questions faced by today’s researchers increasingly require a team-based approach.

Many believe, however, that science has not updated its publishing, funding and promotion practices to reflect how research is often carried out by those working in two or more teams, sometimes in complementary fields in different countries, or as part of major collaborations involving thousands of researchers scattered across the world.

A recent report by the Academy of Medical Sciences – one of the UK’s four national academies – titled From Innovation to Implementation: Team Science Two Years On, has now suggested some radical new ways to improve the recognition and reward of team science.

Scrap author bylines

When hundreds of researchers are listed on a research paper, it is often difficult to discern the contribution of a co-author. And many of those who participated in the academy’s conference on team science, held in March 2018, believed that there was “still a reliance on first and last authorship” on a paper to identify dominant voices in that output, the report says.

One solution suggested is to “move away from authorship in bylines altogether, whereby detailed contribution information could be found elsewhere in the publication”.

However, significant progress towards this kind of more granular authorial credit has been made in recent years thanks to a “far-reaching uptake in recognition platforms and taxonomy” that can show who has done what on research papers. For instance, the Wellcome Trust now asks researchers to provide a 50-word narrative statement describing their role in each publication submitted in support of grant applications.

Initiatives to increase detail around authorial credit "have been adopted quite widely”, said Eleftheria Zeggini, director of the Institute for Translational Genomics at the Helmholtz Zentrum München, part of Germany’s largest scientific organisation.

“We often produce papers that might have hundreds of authors across five to 10 research groups,” the Greek-born geneticist, who was a member of the academy’s initial working group on team science in 2016, told Times Higher Education.

“Not everyone will contribute to the same level, so encouraging this type of taxonomy is important to ensure credit goes where it is due.”

New titles

Running a multimillion-pound research project is an onerous task for principal investigators. With the size and budgets of research groups increasing, however, several people may actually play a critical leadership role beyond the named research leader.

As such, the academy suggests that funding bodies might emulate the UK’s Medical Research Council (MRC) in establishing a “researcher co-investigator” status for those who have “made substantial intellectual contributions but do not have a university contract”, such as senior postdoctoral researchers. Indeed, all named individuals on a grant should be encouraged to clarify their contribution.

“Several funding bodies have introduced co-investigator status, and it’s a fantastic step,” said Professor Zeggini. “Postdocs don’t always get much visibility, so this is a good way to highlight the contribution of early career researchers.”

Technician ‘professors’?

From software engineers and data scientists to facility managers, technical staff with specialist skill sets have become a growing fixture in laboratories.

They often play “key roles in team science”, explains the academy’s report. But a promotion system based on publication metrics is “no longer fit for purpose”, particularly for those in support roles. In addition, the lack of career pathways for skill specialists has caused many to leave academia, often for similar and perhaps better paid work in industry.

As such, the University of Glasgow’s decision to create a parallel career track for traditional researchers and technical staff was described by the academy as an “excellent example of change, which could be mirrored across the sector”.

Under the scheme, technical staff can now reach a level comparable to senior lecturer, and there is an ambition to extend this to the level of professor. At the MRC, a similar proposed career framework would see technologists advance to become a “principal tech specialist or data scientist”, which would “go some way towards stimulating the cultural and system changes needed for better recognition of…interdisciplinary individuals and teams”, says Fiona Watt, the MRC’s executive chair, in the academy report.

Introducing a team science culture

While most academics consider themselves good colleagues, the competitive nature of academia can understandably bring out their more individualistic side.

As such, the academy’s report argues that more must be done to foster a team science environment. It praises the approach of the Centre of Membrane Proteins and Receptors, a cross-institutional group involving the universities of Birmingham and Nottingham, which has designated a proportion of its funding to improving team science.

Led by early career researchers, the push for team science has included an awayday to promote team skills, training grants to encourage interdisciplinary collaborations and an annual symposium staged by junior researchers to talk about team science opportunities.

Professor Zeggini explained that she had taken similar steps at her own centre. “It’s important to offer leadership opportunities to early career researchers whenever you can, so I will often put them forward to chair a seminar or showcase our research at a conference,” she said.

“Creating a culture of team-based science cannot be done overnight, but we can make gradual improvements and this is an area on which we need to be increasingly focused.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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