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Posted on 1 July 2022 by Benjamin Skuse

Science’s Reward Structure: the Biggest Threat to Scientific Collaboration?

Moderator Adam Smith talked with Nobel Laureate Randy W. Schekman and Martin Vetterli, EPFL, on early Wednesday

One of the great things about the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings is their liberal moderation, allowing laureates to occasionally change their talk topic at the drop of a hat, young scientists to ask their most left-field burning questions, and panellists to take discussions down unexpected rabbit holes.

From the title of Wednesday 29 June’s Science Breakfast – ‘Scientific Collaboration in Challenging Times’ – I for one was expecting the conversation to focus on recent world events. For example, COVID-19 has had a huge impact on scientific collaboration. The rapid dissemination of new knowledge about the virus through outlets like Twitter has allowed groups around the world to work together in fighting the pandemic to dazzling effect. At the same time, lockdowns have restricted international travel and positive test results have forced scientists and other staff to stay at home (including during #LINO22, with a clutch of attendees and speakers watching and delivering talks remotely), hampering existing collaborative work.

More recently, the Ukraine War has presented a dilemma to a large portion of the scientific community regarding continuing to collaborate with Russian agencies and scientists. The likes of ESA, CERN and MIT swiftly cut ties with Russia, but others – including scientists from US, UK and Canadian universities who wrote an open letter on the subject in Science – have urged the scientific community “to avoid shunning all Russian scientists for the actions of the Russian government”.

Other current threats to scientific collaboration include geopolitical tensions between the US and China, and the diminished status of the UK and Switzerland – two former strong contributors to previous European research programmes – in the EU’s €95.5 billion Horizon Europe programme.

Though each of these issues got a brief look-in during the Science Breakfast, moderator Adam Smith wisely allowed the discussion to flow naturally towards what the gathered speakers and attendees seemed to regard as the greatest threat to scientific collaboration: science’s reward and evaluation structure.

Rewarding Collaboration

Panellist Randy W. Schekman (2013 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine) set out his stall from the outset: “One of the problems with academic science, as I see it, is the reward structure tends to favour the individual scientist and his or her own research team,” he said. “Although scientists like to collaborate, the rewards don’t necessarily encourage that kind of behaviour in a really productive way.”

Randy Schekman
71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting
Science Breakfast Challenging Times

One of his responses to this has been to help set up the Aligning Science Across Parkinson’s (ASAP) initiative. By building a vast online network through private funding, ASAP’s overarching aim is to improve understanding of the biology underlying the onset and progression of Parkinson’s disease. “We’ve established an online network … that builds in not only encouragement but a reward structure that favours interaction, in sharing of results and methods in real time, and not just after publication,” he explained. “And we’re willing to share the results with the world when it’s ready to be published… and insist on all publications being in an open access format.”

Critics of such privately funded ventures say that scientific progress shouldn’t be dictated by the whims of the world’s billionaires – ASAP’s primary benefactor is Google co-founder Sergey Brin, the 8th richest person in the world, and who carries a genetic mutation that increases his risk of Parkinson’s. “There haven’t been any criticisms of the particular goal of this initiative, other than for people who weren’t funded,” Schekman retorted.

However, the point remains – the vast majority of the scientific community is locked in a publicly funded system that does not reward collaboration. Instead, it rewards publication in high-profile journals, particularly as a first author. Both panellists agreed that the key to changing this system was to break the monopoly of scientific publishers.

“The science publishing industry is a complete scandal because taxpayers pay for the same thing three or four times,” said Martin Vetterli, President of Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland. “They pay the salaries of the researchers, they pay the fees for publishing, they pay the subscriptions for the library, and then if they want to read a paper it’s behind a paywall and they pay a fourth time – it’s absolutely amazing that this still exists, right?”

“The problem is with these behemoth commercial publishers, Elsevier, which I consider a pirate organisation, and Springer Nature, who pose an undue profit motive,” said Schekman, who was the first Editor-in-Chief of the open-access eLife journal that aims to change the publishing and research culture. “I think there’s no reasonable impediment to having everything openly accessible. It may be that as time goes on, we’ll be able to do away with journals and everything will be on an archive and there’ll be reviews along with the paper.”

Inevitably, the young scientists present wanted to know what they could do to fix the reward and evaluation system. “My suggestion is that you guys take over,” said Vetterli. “Max Planck said: ‘Progress goes one funeral at a time’, so you just have to wait until these people with this preset self-fulfilling prophecy of evaluation have gone. But that means you guys have to be extremely collaborative, you have to stick to this, stick together and work together to change that culture.”

Benjamin Skuse

Benjamin Skuse is a professional freelance writer of all things science. In a previous life, he was an academic, earning a PhD in Applied Mathematics from the University of Edinburgh and MSc in Science Communication. Now based in the West Country, UK, he aims to craft understandable, absorbing and persuasive narratives for all audiences – no matter how complex the subject matter. His work has appeared in New Scientist, Sky & Telescope, BBC Sky at Night Magazine, Physics World and many more.