Academia is broken

It’s fair to say that the current state of academia is in a right mess. Toxic work environments are driving researchers to mental collapse at frightening rates. Commercial publishers lock up our work behind expensive paywalls and prevent the public – who typically pay for the research in the first place – from accessing the literature. Journals prioritise novelty at the expense of reliability, promoting questionable research practices and decreasing the reliability of the literature. Universities offer short (often one year-long) postdoc contracts, forcing early career researchers to hop around the world as they chase the ever-dwindling dream of a permanent position in academia. The list of problems goes on, and – in the light of the recent COVID-19 pandemic – may well get worse before it gets any better.

Who is responsible?

Ask researchers who should fix these problems, and many will point their fingers at the universities, publishers, or funders who govern us. Indeed, universities and funders create unhealthy incentives by judging researchers according to the number and ‘prestige’ of their publications, rather than the quality of their work. But take a closer look and you’ll realise that these stakeholders are also trapped by the very same system that causes researchers so much angst. Universities are ranked according to the number of ‘prestigious’ publications their researchers produce, which in turn draws students (and their fees) from around the world. Can we really expect any one university to put itself at a competitive disadvantage by shunning the very system that generates the bulk of their revenue? Similarly, commercial journals are beholden to their shareholders and unlikely to stop prioritising novelty and impact, when it could cost them the reputation that enables them to survive. In 2002, at the beginning of the open access movement, Parks forecast that the ‘Faustian grip’ of academic publishing would prevent the various actors in academia from fully embracing free, electronic journals (the original purpose of the open access movement), leaving us bound to legacy journals for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, almost 20 years later, his prognostation couldn’t be more correct. Legacy publishers have actually increased their monopoly in the digital age and even co-opted the open access movement to usher in a highly profitable pay-to-publish open access model that looks set to solidify corporate profits well into the future. Clearly, the various institutions in academia have too much skin in the game to be trusted to resolve these problems of their own accord, and – left to their own devices, may well make the problems worse rather than better.

Where do researchers stand in all this?

As much as we may not like to admit it, we researchers are as much to blame for maintaining this dysfunctional system as anyone else. Commercial journals only survive because we keep propping them up with our valuable articles and expert reviews. Universities can only offer short contracts because we keep accepting them, albeit out of fear that there are too few other options. Toxic work environments only exist because we keep competing to escalate a publication arms race, rather than cooperating to share knowledge and collaborate effectively. Every time one of us engages in one of these actions, we reinforce a culture that hurts our broader community – and ultimately ourselves, by extension. Sure, the effects of any single action (e.g., publishing a paper in a ‘prestigious’ legacy journal) may be relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, and could even be forgiven as a necessary step toward career advancement, but add all these actions up and it begins to look a lot like suicide by a thousand cuts. This is the very definition of a collective action problem: the failure of a group of individuals to reach mutually favourable outcomes due to conflicting interests at the personal level.

It’s time for a new strategy

Fortunately, with this realisation comes great power. If researchers are collectively maintaining the academic system, then – collectively – we have the capacity to dismantle it and create a new one. Individuals may not be powerful enough to change the system on their own, but if those individuals were to act together, they could create positive cultural change without putting themselves at risk. There is plenty of precedent for this type of ‘collective action’ in the past. Collective action has been used to resolve countless collective action problems in the past, from industrial worker’s strikes to political uprisings. In more recent years, the concept of collective action has been digitalised, with online platforms helping distributed communities around the world connect and pool their actions toward mutually beneficial outcomes, e.g., a new product in the case of Kickstarter, or ‘crowdactions’ in the case of Collaction. These models have proven effective in solving global collective action problems that might otherwise have proven too difficult in the analogue age. Academia represents one such global case, with individuals competing not just against other researchers in their city or even country, but against every other researcher in their field around the world. As yet, however, this strategy is yet to be adopted by the global research community. Project Free Our Knowledge aims to remedy this gap, by organising collective action in the pursuit of academic reform.

Researchers hold the key to change

Imagine, just for a second, that someone had invented the ‘ideal’ scholarly communication and evaluation system – it’s free, fast, instant, modular, rewards value appropriately, you name it – and that every researcher in the world had committed to abandoning legacy publishing systems in favour of this new system, starting from tomorrow. Overnight, the reputation (value) of legacy systems would crumble, whereas the reputation of the new system would skyrocket. In turn, universities and funders would be forced to reward contributions to the new model, or risk losing their best employees. Publishers would be forced to work with the new model (and actually provide additional value on top of it), or risk losing their revenue. And funders would be forced to recognise the prestige of the new system, or risk alienating the most productive researchers. Now, clearly this is an unrealistic scenario, but it serves to illustrate the power we researchers possess: because we have agency over where (and indeed, how) we publish, we have all the power we need to usher in new communication and evaluation systems with their associated incentive structures. But to do so, we need to organise our actions effectively together so that individuals are not left by the wayside.

Open science is the path forward

Clearly, the example scenario is unrealistic for multiple reasons. For a start, it would be impossible to get every person in any one research field to agree on a single scholarly communication model, let alone to adopt one overnight. Researchers’ needs and desires vary dramatically between and within research fields, meaning that any attempt to design a single ‘one size fits all’ model would be fruitless. But fortunately, we don’t need to agree on the precise characteristics of an ‘optimal solution’ for us to make progress toward it. Providing we can identify characteristics that such a system might possess, then we could make progress toward an ‘optimal’ future simply by acting collectively to support systems that exhibit those characteristics. Fortunately, many such characteristics have already been identified, and are collectively known as ‘open science’ (e.g., preregistration, open data, open code, open peer review, and open access). Unfortunately, many of these practices come with overt costs (e.g., open access

Our vision for the future

~~~~~ [FROM UKRN BLOGPOST] Open research practices have the potential to benefit the entire research community, but could be perceived by some researchers as a threat to their career under the ‘publish-or-perish’ paradigm. For example, the widespread sharing of data and code could allow researchers to validate and build on each others’ work more efficiently, thus saving countless hours of duplicated effort, but some individuals may worry that doing so will place them at a competitive disadvantage. Similarly, the widespread support for platinum open access systems could drastically decrease publication costs and place the control of scholarly communication in the hands of the research community, but individuals may worry that these outlets do not confer sufficient prestige to ensure their survival in a competitive job market. Academic reform thus reflects a ‘collective action problem’, whereby a group of individuals fail to reach a preferable state due to conflicting interests at the personal level. Problems of this kind can often be resolved through ‘collective action’, which occurs when the community in question acts in a coordinated manner to increase their standing while protecting each others’ interests (e.g., a labour strike; Olson, 1965). Although the internet has proven to be a valuable tool for organising collective action throughout distributed communities (e.g., Kickstarter, Collaction), the global research community has yet to embrace this strategy as a potential catalyst for positive cultural change in academia.

The vision
Project Free Our Knowledge aims to create positive cultural change by organising collective action in the research community. Using their website, researchers can signal their intentions to adopt progressive research behaviours if and when there is a pre-determined level of support in the community. Pledges remain inactive and anonymous if the threshold is not met, thus protecting individuals from potential repercussions. Once the threshold is met, however, the pledging community will be revealed on the website and directed to carry out the action in unison, thus protecting one another’s interests as they drive cultural change together. Campaign targets will be modest in the short term, e.g., asking hundreds of researchers to post a preprint or complete a preregistration. But in time, as the movement grows, campaigns could grow increasingly bolder in both size and scope, eventually culminating in widespread systemic change and optimising the speed with which we can make progress on important issues of our time (e.g., pandemics, climate change).

How to get involved
The project is now open for community input and collaboration via Github, where any researcher can propose a new campaign or idea and comment on previous proposals. The goal of this process is to design campaigns that are most likely to gain traction throughout diverse research communities, and so we invite you to look through the campaign proposals (e.g., , comment on or react to (e.g., thumbs up) any campaigns that interest you, or propose a new campaign for something that aligns with your interests. The campaign proposals will then be peer-reviewed prior to being posted on the website to gather pledges.

You can also find out more about Project Free Our Knowledge and connect with the team via Twitter, Facebook, Github, email, and their mailing list.