Lack of transparency in ERC funding decisions, by Shravan Vasishth

Lack of transparency in ERC funding decisions, by Shravan Vasishth

Academic research is dependent on funding, and funding agencies, both public and charity ones, play a crucial gatekeeper function in deciding who will go on to continue researching or even working in science, and who will not. With great power comes great responsibility. Unfortunately, funders traditionally end up serving the interests of select elite scientists by confusing the needs of those with the greater good of science as such. Money is dumped on the biggest pile, either to established star researchers or to their privileged academic scions. In this zero-sum game of science funding, many early career researchers see their grant applications rejected and are forced out of academia. The logic seems to be that this research proletariat would have spent it on booze and candy anyway, while the high elite will be investing it wisely to produce great science. Or whatever the funders, advised by that very elite, perceive to be great science. The guest post below by Shravan Vasishth, professor for psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics at the University of Potsdam, Germany, tells of a peer reviewer experience of his when it hit against such attitude from the most prestigious EU research funder, the European Research Council (ERC). 

Continue reading “Lack of transparency in ERC funding decisions, by Shravan Vasishth”

Wellcoming the samizdat publishing revolution

Wellcoming the samizdat publishing revolution

The British research funder Wellcome Trust (now just Wellcome) is about to launch its own journal, where the funding recipients and their collaborators are invited to published their research free of charge (since Wellcome will be covering those costs). Wellcome Open Research will be open access (OA) and offer fully transparent post-publication peer review, i.e. all reviewer reports, manuscript versions as well as reviewer identities will be posted alongside the final articles. Manuscripts which received peer review approval will become proper research papers and feature accordingly on PubMed and other databases. Wellcome specifically invites scientists to publish negative and null results as well as databases. Importantly, the funder also promotes data sharing through “inclusion of supporting data”. The platform on which Wellcome Open Research will operate is that of F1000Research, a post-publication peer review journal which prides itself of its open science approach.

This sounds like excellent news for science, which is plagued by irreproducibility and misconduct crises, and many welcomed the Wellcome initiative, hoping that other national funding agencies in Europe, North America and elsewhere might follow. It is indeed the first serious attempt by a major western funder to move away from publisher-dependence towards a “samizdat”, a self-publishing service run exclusively for own researchers and their partners. However, a similar model of university press proved unsuccessful before and never became accepted by the scientific community. Therefore, some are sceptical that this Wellcome publishing enterprise may ever take off. Continue reading “Wellcoming the samizdat publishing revolution”

PLOS Correction removes (then reinstates) previously available anonymised patient clinical trial data

Researchers have removed the previously openly available anonymised patient data of the clinical trial FINE from their publication in PLOS One. The correction, issued on May 18th 2016 states:

S1 Dataset was published in error. The error was corrected in the XML and PDF versions of this article on May 9, 2016. Please download this article again to view the correct version”.

The now removed S1 dataset was previously described by the authors around Alison Wearden, professor of Health Psychology at the University of Manchester, in their Data Availability statement:

“The authors have prepared a dataset that fulfills requirements in terms of anonymity and confidentiality of trial participants, and which contains only those variables which are relevant to the present study. Data are available as Supplementary Information”.

FINE was a “randomised controlled trial of a nurse-led self-help treatment, versus supportive listening, versus treatment as usual for patients in primary care with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME)”, performed at the University of Manchester. It was funded by the British Medical Research Council (MRC) and the UK Department of Health.

These new restrictive developments are very important. FINE is considered as a sister CFS/ME therapy trial of the PACE trial (on which I previously reported), where the sharing of anonymised patient data to non-collaborators was repeatedly denied by the King’s College London and Queen Mary University London, with the consequence that now the courts are expected to decide upon this issue of clinical data sharing. A judge has already decreed that certain documents associated with PACE trial are to be released (information and list with links are available from the website by the lawyer and CFS/ME activist Valerie Eliot Smith). Continue reading “PLOS Correction removes (then reinstates) previously available anonymised patient clinical trial data”

False priorities at EU2016NL: Mandate Open Data instead of Gold Open Access!

False priorities at EU2016NL: Mandate Open Data instead of Gold Open Access!

Open Science is these days largely about mandatory publishing in Open Access (OA), regardless of the costs to poorer scientists or the universities which already struggle to pay horrendous subscription fees. Meanwhile, publishers openly declare that the so-called Gold (author-pays) OA will be much more expensive than even current subscription rates, yet wealthy western institutions like the Dutch university network VSNU or the German Max Planck Society do not seem troubled by this at all. They seriously expect the publishing oligopoly of Elsevier, SpringerNature and Wiley to lower the costs for Gold OA later on, out of the goodness of their hearts (as this winter’s invitation-only Berlin12 OA conference suggests).

At the last major Open Science conference in Amsterdam on April 4-5 (EU2016NL) the EU Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas and EC Director-General for Research and Innovation, Robert-Jan Smits, announced to achieve the flip to Gold OA by 2020. Open Data, on the other hand, is just a buzzword to them.

Below, I will argue that Open Data is much more important than OA, which in turn will be much cheaper and easier to achieve once unconditional sharing of research data is in place. Continue reading “False priorities at EU2016NL: Mandate Open Data instead of Gold Open Access!”

Big Boys only for Big Dream of Gold OA in Germany

Big Boys only for Big Dream of Gold OA in Germany

Germany is set to transform its academic publishing to Open Access (OA). Gold OA model, where the articles are published in author-pays OA journals, is the obvious favourite, as recently recommended by several major universities and key German research institutions, the Max-Planck and the Helmholtz Societies. But also Green OA is welcome, where papers become openly accessible after an additional payment to the subscription publisher (hybrid model), or are uploaded to institutional depositories after this publisher’s embargo expires. The OA transformation is certainly a very laudable idea, however, a suspicion creeps in, there is possibly little strategy beyond the goal of flipping to OA. The closed-access Berlin12 conference on OA transformation, which took place in December 2015, did not seem to make cost reduction at publishing and subscriptions a priority, and neither changing the way science is published. Research irreproducibility, widespread manipulations and missing data, presently widely ignored or even cynically dismissed by journal editors, are probably expected to go away by themselves once the very same journals go full Open Access.

Yet some scientists are keen to flip not only the subscription model to OA, but also the way science is published, towards transparency and data sharing. The traditional publishing model (whether subscription or OA), where a submitted manuscript disappears into a black hole of obscure editorial dealings, intransparent peer review and hidden conflicts of interests, only to emerge months or years later, with its experimental protocols muddy at best and its research data forever inaccessible- this should become a thing of the past. New models emerge, where the peer review becomes progressively transparent and the research becomes immediately available, for example as pre-prints. Continue reading “Big Boys only for Big Dream of Gold OA in Germany”

Blatt is back: “open debate cornerstone of scientific process”

Blatt is back: “open debate cornerstone of scientific process”

Michael Blatt, Regius Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Plant Physiology, is back into the arena, fighting against the anonymity in post-publication peer review (PPPR). I have been in regular email exchange with Blatt, as indicated in my earlier blog post about the advantages of signed PPPR.

Now the British scientist has published another editorial in his journal, titled: “When Is Science ‘Ultimately Unreliable’?”, where he addresses the arguments usually brought up in support of anonymity in PPPR. In his earlier editorial in October 2015, named “Vigilante Science”, Blatt has exposed himself to plenty of criticism, including from my side, and it seems most of it happened due to a misunderstanding.

Because for Blatt (and also for myself), it is important to separate between whistleblowing of potential misconduct on the one hand and “scientific critique” on the other hand, when talking about PPPR. Blatt specifically sets aside “the issues of policing for fraud and whistleblowing “, and declares his assent “on the need to protect the whistleblower”. But also here, he distinguishes in his new editorial between identity protection and anonymous evidence:

“Anonymity is not the answer, however, not if due process is to ensure civil society and protect the innocent from denouncement or worse”.

As journalist, I agree. Though I always take care to protect my sources when they do not wish to be named, I certainly prefer knowing who these sources are, for a number of good reasons. Yet I also occasionally take hints from those whose identity or association I do not know at all, it really depends on the nature of information they share. Continue reading “Blatt is back: “open debate cornerstone of scientific process””

PACE trial and other clinical data sharing: patient privacy concerns and parasite paranoia

PACE trial and other clinical data sharing: patient privacy concerns and parasite paranoia

Data sharing is all over academic news now. We had Research Parasites, a noxious species of scientists who want to analyse others’ published data without granting its “owners” co-authorships and a certain control over the interpretations. Then there is a major battle between patients and clinicians about the release of the original data from the so-called PACE trial, originally published in The Lancet, which analysed medical efficiency and economic costs of different therapies for chronic fatigue syndrome/ myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME). Since the PACE study came out in 2011, the patients, but also a number of academic scientists, remained unconvinced of the published therapy recommendations and suspected a misinterpretation of data. The authors felt harassed and even threatened by the patients’ incessant demands. The relevant research institutions, the Queen Mary University London and the King’s College London, took the side of their clinicians and refused the release of data, using as argument the allegedly inappropriate nature of such requests and the privacy rights of trial participants.

Importantly, the data sharing requests always concerned anonymised patient data, where names and any other personal information of the trial participants was specifically deleted, to avoid any even approximate identification and breach of privacy. Yet even then, several attempts of patients as well as academics, to obtain the anonymised PACE trial data were converted by the universities from academic inquiries into the bureaucratic Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, which were then repeatedly rejected. At the same time, some of the original PACE authors have been apparently somewhat critical of their original interpretations. Continue reading “PACE trial and other clinical data sharing: patient privacy concerns and parasite paranoia”