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Science under the microscope

Could scientific research be funded more strategically, and are traditional forms of publishing working? Two talks given during a conference at St John’s called existing models into question.

Two fascinating talks given at St John’s, which challenge existing assumptions about how scientific research should be funded and published, are now available to play back online.

Both of the short lectures were keynote presentations at the Symposium for Biological and Life Sciences Students, an annual event for postgraduate students working in the life sciences at the University of Cambridge, which was held in the College’s Divinity School on 23 October. They can be replayed or downloaded on Soundcloud, or by using the streams below.

The talks were given by Michael Head, Manager of the Infectious Disease Research Network at University College London, and Daniel Marovitz, Chief Executive Officer of Faculty of 1000, an organisation which supports research and publication in biology and medicine.

Both presentations call into question established models of thinking about how scientific research is being supported, in keeping with the aim of the conference, which seeks to provide postgraduate students with a platform to discuss current issues affecting their area of research.

Head – who has authored several publications on research funding – reported on an exhaustive survey examining how infectious disease research is being funded in the United Kingdom. Called ResIn, or Research Investments in Global Health, it revealed a significant mismatch in certain areas between the financing of scientific research and the overall burden of the diseases it seeks to overcome.

Until the work was carried out, little was known about how much was being spent on infectious disease research in the UK, where the money was being invested, or how this matched actual need. In a rigorous investigation that covered public awards and charitable funding for research carried out between 1997 and 2010, Head and his team went through thousands upon thousands of rows on spreadsheets, eventually amassing a dataset that covered 6,000 scientific studies and about £2.6billion in research funding.

In particular, their findings showed that there is not always a strong correlation between how much is being spent on research into a particular disease, and the societal burden of that disease overall.

For example, funding for research into so-called Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), a group of infections that in particular affect low-income populations in developing countries, exceeds the amount of money being spent on research into tuberculosis (TB), even though the global health impact of TB is much higher. The research also revealed that comparatively little is being spent on particular diseases – among them syphilis and measles – despite their huge global burden.

The study offers a much-needed record of information about previous studies which could be used to prevent duplication in future research. More importantly, however, Head believes that it could inform a more strategic approach to funding which, he claims, is an “ethical imperative”. “Given that we have finite pots of money, there are questions to be asked about whether we should be allocating it more strategically to the high-burden disease areas,” he added.

Daniel Marovitz’s lecture provided an overview of the thinking behind an alternative approach to scientific publishing carried out by Faculty of 1000, of which he is Chief Executive Officer. This comprises a group of leading experts in biology and medicine which aims to provide scientists and clinicians with a broad range of services for the rapid discovery, assessment and publication of research.

In an uncompromising attack on traditional publishing in scientific journals, Marovitz argued that the editorial and refereeing processes that control which research gets published are seriously flawed. In particular, he pointed to unilateral decision-making by editors in supposedly peer-reviewed journals, the slow and cumbersome nature of the process, and the likelihood that many referees were either insufficiently qualified to review articles, or likely to judge them on the basis of their own career ambitions.

As an alternative, Faculty of 1000 has established, which Marovitz described as a “publishing platform” rather than a journal. This accepts all serious scientific papers in the life sciences, making them available on an open-access basis and publishing them without review. The turnaround rate from submission to publication is often as little as a week, and sometimes happens within 72 hours.

Crucially, the site provides a structure for peer review to take place in an open and transparent environment once publication has happened. Reviewers are named, their contributions time-stamped, and a dialogue between authors and reviewers established. Articles are only made available for citation indexing if they are positively reviewed beyond a certain margin. In addition, the platform makes a point of accepting papers which offer negative results (often spurned by mainstream journals), and publishes full datasets, often using multimedia formats and graphical visualisation techniques, to enable the review process.

Marovitz argued that as well as providing a more transparent approach to scientific publication, the model has enabled peer reviewers to enhance or even overhaul research findings with responses to the initial publication that sometimes constitute small research projects in themselves.

The result, he suggested, is a more professional, considered and sober approach to analysing scientific research: “Not only does the author have to be brave, because if you get rejected it’s visible; but the referee also has to have some guts because they have to criticise your paper in the open,” he added.