Making the scientific system more open and transparent

  1. 1.  Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology and Department of Biology, Tufts University
  2. 2.  Department of Biology, Boston College, 140 Commonwealth Ave, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467

Science needs to be a transparent process. The methods used and the results obtained should be easily accessible to and by all, not only to discuss conclusions, but also to compare and contrast results from different experiments. But it shouldn’t just be the experiments that are transparent. How science is done, and how the scientific endeavor as a whole is being pursued, should be laid bare, open to scrutiny and criticism.

Throughout my postdoctoral research, my concerns about how science is being done have grown. In 2014, I became involved with a group of early career researchers in the Boston area concerned about the shape and efficiency of the scientific enterprise. We organized a meeting, the Future of Research Symposium, primarily to respond with a voice from part of the early career researcher community to calls from senior scientists for reform in science (Alberts, Kirschner, Tilghman, & Varmus, 2014).

Part of the goal of this symposium was to have an open and transparent conversation about the pressures facing junior scientists, which was why we chose to post all of our materials openly. In writing about the issues being faced prior to the symposium, we were careful to post everything where it could be accessible, such as introductory comments in the lead up to the symposium (G. S. McDowell, Krukenberg, & Polka, 2014; G. McDowell et al., 2014). It was also why we chose to record all of our sessions (see for materials), to promote open use of social media (see the Minority Postdoc Storify) and to publish our methodology (Mazzilli, Gunsalus, McDowell, Krukenberg, & Polka, 2014) and White Paper (with datasets) openly and transparently (G. S. McDowell, Gunsalus, et al., 2014).

In the discussions that arose during the symposium, and in the data that we accumulated, it was clear that a major problem junior scientists face in pursuing science is finding data to help them make decisions. How many jobs are available? What jobs are PhDs and postdoctoral experience good for, and if further training or experience is needed during that time, what should it be?

 In a system where the number of postdoctoral researchers in the U.S. is unknown and estimated by a factor of two (Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group, 2012), trying to find data on where postdocs go is frustrating. This led us to make a call for greater transparency both as one of the major conclusions in our White Paper (G. S. McDowell, Gunsalus, et al., 2014) and also in a further call published openly, asking for institutions to take greater responsibility in both tracking career outcomes of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, and to make that data openly available (Polka, Krukenberg, & McDowell, 2015).

 This drive for data collection and transparency has inspired another Future of Research meeting in Boston, to be held October 22-24th 2015. We are trying to find ways to collect more data about the diversity, shape and structure of the academic workforce and to find ways of disseminating that information. We are trying to include voices from not only amongst academic scientists, but labor economists, leaders in industry, and policy-makers.

 In trying to make a transparent system, we need to have a frank and open conversation about the structure of our scientific workforce, how many graduate students and postdoctoral researchers we need or want and what we can do to improve the efficiency of science and to do this we need to include a variety of voices and perspectives about where we should be going. As part of discussing how we will get there, there will also be a whole session to the role early career researchers have in the publication system, including discussions of open publishing and transparency.

 The information we gather and discussions we have during the meeting are not just to keep talking about the problems. The symposium will then inform activities for a Science Activism or Hack Day with ASBMB at the end of the meeting, where participants nationwide can try to find ways to solve these problems, and come up with workable products to gather and disseminate data. All of the materials are again to be made open and available for anyone to use and this year we will also by live-streaming the meeting.

 We have called for a greater voice and contribution from early career researchers (G. McDowell & Polka, 2015) and I have been trying to lead by example, by making materials that I have submitted open and transparent (G. S. McDowell, 2015; G. McDowell, 2015a, 2015b). Exploring the shape of the scientific endeavor, and the data that I have increasingly seen has given me a renewed outlook on my own career and future, and how I want to be involved with the scientific endeavor (G. McDowell, 2015).

 I already feel the benefits of becoming more open in searching for a more open and transparent research system. Not only have the efforts of the Future of Research group been replicated in New York, San Francisco and soon Chicago; myself and others increasingly find ourselves being contacted by senior academics, policy makers and scientific societies to make our voices heard and contribute to the discussion. As we go on, I have high hopes both for continuing to be open myself, and continuing to push for a more transparent system.


Alberts, B., Kirschner, M. W., Tilghman, S., & Varmus, H. (2014). Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 111(16), 5773–5777.doi:10.1073/pnas.1404402111

Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group. (2012). Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report. (Report to the Advisory Committee to the Director).

Mazzilli, S., Gunsalus, K., McDowell, G., Krukenberg, K., & Polka, J. (2014). Logistics of Organizing the FOR Symposium. The Winnower. doi:10.15200/winn.141697.77958

McDowell, G. (2015a). A Response to the NIH RFI “ Sustaining the Biomedical Workforce and a Potential Emeritus Award for Senior Researchers.” The Winnower.doi:10.15200/winn.143189.95895

McDowell, G. (2015b). Faculty Resistance to Reform: Challenges to changing postdoc benefits at University of Maryland. The Winnower. doi:10.15200/winn.142955.54234

McDowell, G. (2015). Why not have a life? Science, 349(6247), 554.doi:10.1126/science.349.6247.554

McDowell, G., Krukenberg, K., & Polka, J. (2014). An open letter to AAAS journal “Science”: Postdocs need to address the “The Future of Research.” The Winnower.doi:10.15200/winn.141141.10013

McDowell, G., & Polka, J. (2015). A Call for the Voices of Early Career Researchers. The Winnower. doi:10.15200/winn.142548.85537

McDowell, G. S. (2015). A Response to the NIH RFI “Optimizing Funding Policies and Other Strategies.” The Winnower, 2, e143136.63273. doi:10.15200/winn.143136.63273

McDowell, G. S., Gunsalus, K. T., MacKellar, D. C., Mazzilli, S. A., Pai, V. P., Goodwin, P. R., … Polka, J. K. (2014). Shaping the Future of Research: a perspective from junior scientists. [version 2; referees: 2 approved]. F1000Res, 3, 291. doi:10.12688/f1000research.5878.2

McDowell, G. S., Krukenberg, K., & Polka, J. (2014). The Future of Research Symposium: Facilitating Postdoctoral Involvement in the Future of Science. Journal of Postdoctoral Research,2(9), 57–64. Retrieved from\nting-Postdoctoral-Involvement-in-the-Future-of-Science.pdf

Polka, J. K., Krukenberg, K. A., & McDowell, G. S. (2015). A call for transparency in tracking student and postdoc career outcomes. Mol Biol Cell, 26(8), 1413–1415. doi:10.1091/mbc.E14-10-1432

Showing 2 Reviews

  • Cockatrice
    Melissa Haendel
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    This essay brings up some important issues in science. First, why do we believe that science should be laid bare, open to scrutiny and criticism? When did this happen in the history of science, which has in the origins of its communication never attempted to convey the art of science within the literature. Now that we have other means, what really are our expectations?

    These are different philosophical questions than the primary premise of the essay, which is about helping science be more open about the "who," which is a pressing problem. There is in fact a great need to better track influences on training the scientific workforce. We have standards (such as VIVO) for doing so, but agencies and institutions still have barriers.

    What questions would you ask if all these data were in fact open? how would it change your decisions or those of the agencies and scientific programs?

    2pts for "inspiration factor"
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    4pts for impact of activities on personal goals, science, or scholarship.

  • Img 20150729 155406 animation 360
    Joshua Nicholson
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    There are many problems that plague early career researchers and students. Most simply groan about them and continue on the path of "normal work." Gary has made great efforts to improve problems and environment community, not by doing things alone but by organizing individuals around the world. The Future of Research Symposium is a great example that things can change so long as we are willing to make an effort to change them.

    I am a big fan of the work they are doing at The Future of Research Symposium and I am inspired that they have shared so many details about how to organize the event, the outcome, and other ideas on The Winnower.

    COI: I am the founder of The Winnower and will be giving a talk at a FOR symposium in the near future. I am not involved in the judging of the publications entered in the Advanced Research and Scholarship contest.


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