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New NIH Biosketch Brings Opportunity for Change: PLOS Speaks with Dr. Bruce Alberts

There is an intense ongoing conversation in the scientific community on how best to determine the value of scholarly work, in reaction to what is perceived as widespread misuse of the journal impact factor. As of May 25, 2015 scientists of all career stages, from early career researchers to established investigators, have the opportunity to formally demonstrate to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) the impact of their work through a revised CV form. This Biosketch, a standardized presentation of a scientist’s qualifications used in grant and job applications, contains a new Part C: Contributions to Science, in which scientists are asked to document the importance and influence of their work independent of journal impact factor. Here, Article-Level Metrics including views, citations, saves, discussions and downloads, social media activity and global media interest can be included to provide a rounded picture of a work’s influence and value to funders, hiring and promotion committees.

WithBruceAlberts-150x150 this in mind, PLOS spoke with Dr. Bruce Alberts, Chancellor’s Leadership Chair in Biochemistry and Biophysics for Science and Education, University of California, San Francisco and former Editor-in-Chief, Science. The focus of the discussion was the appropriate determination of an article’s impact and what he thinks the Biosketch opportunity provides to scientists, especially early career researchers and those on the academic job market. However, as might be expected, other topics quickly arose including the importance of ORCiD, the role of professional societies and the special perspectives of both young and established professionals in transforming scientific publishing — and more generally science as a profession.

Select highlights of the conversation with Dr. Alberts are presented below in advance of Open Access Week, October 19-25, 2015 with the theme this year – Open for Collaboration – paralleling aspects of Dr. Alberts’ comments and current projects.

A Problem of Bias
Dr. Alberts gets right to the point. The journal impact factor is a “terrible indicator” of the importance of any scientific publication, he says. The narrow reliance on this indicator puts enormous pressure on post-docs to generate work that will be favorable to acceptance by the few high impact factor publications. It’s not merely that the direction of the research is dictated a priori by the attraction of publishing in a top journal, it’s that relying on this single metric “can bias people away from good science and even to inappropriately selecting data for publication.” This, believes Alberts, helps to explain the unacceptable quantity of irreproducible results currently published in the biomedical literature. Manuscripts should be written “without distortion” but doing so is challenging in consideration of career and funding pressures that create an environment ripe for bias, whether conscious or unconscious.

An inflated value of publishing in high-impact journals is seriously affecting the way that scientists judge each other, as well as adversely impacting the reproducibility of research. Good models of scientists judging the work of others and determining the importance of a work at the article level are out there, however. Alberts likes the model used by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) as well as by an increasing number of universities in which only a limited, small number of a scientist’s publications can be considered during expert reviews of research quality, with the expectation that peers will actually read and analyze that scientist’s major contributions.

The Role of Societies
The American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) are two societies mentioned by Alberts that are currently working to improve the way that scholarly contributions are evaluated. “Societies work for the benefit of all institutions,” says Alberts, and that makes them an “ideal organizations to advocate for change.” They have a large role to play in shifting and guiding the conversation. “Scientific societies must pound on the issue” of avoiding the damaging effects on science of misused journal impact factors, while emphasizing the much better ways available to evaluate individual scientists.

New Forms of Recognition
Additional recognition and credit for intellectual contributions to the publication process, such as for scientific reviewing or creating datasets, would benefit faculty of all career stages, including those in the transition to independence. Others have considered that this might take the form of a citation for manuscript review or letters of acknowledgment to department heads from journal publishers, as PLOS has offered. Since the 2012 Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) which attracted massive support from both individuals and institutions, concrete efforts at establishing and adopting more relevant and pragmatic evaluation of significance at both universities and funders are underway. But wide-scale adoption by institutions and private funders will require the recognition of these new forms of credentials at the highest levels of federal grant funding agencies, including the NIH. The revised NIH Biosketch is a step in the right direction.

Working Together
Senior investigators have often found a niche for themselves that makes them too satisfied with the status quo, so “the momentum for change must come from the young,” says Alberts. The reality, however, is that the young are not in decision making positions at the executive level, so it takes scholars such as Alberts, Harold Varmus, Shirley Tilghman, Marc Kirschner plus the 12 others on the Steering Committee for a new Rescuing Biomedical Research movement to provide conduits to the highest level. Educators, students, researchers, funders, clinicians, policy makers and publishers all have a stake in building an improved scientific culture aligned with the values of the scientific community. Alberts and his colleagues on the Steering Committee are urging transition to a culture of science that is more conducive to innovation and inspiration, as well as one that is less tolerant of irreproducibility and the hyped importance of results that can lead to public mistrust of science. The Rescuing Biomedical Research Steering Committee understands that established and respected individuals must actively advocate for change, whether that change is related to evaluating the merit of work at the article, rather than journal level, or providing recognition for contributions such as manuscript reviewing that are largely currently not formally acknowledged. As the Rescuing Biomedical Research homepage states, “doing nothing is not an option. The stakes are enormous.”

This is not the first conversation on The PLOS Blogs Network or in PLOS journals on the progress necessary in order to transform scholarly communication, improve reproducibility and enhance public confidence in the scientific research endeavor. Of note, however, is that with the recent actions of the NIH and the Rescuing Biomedical Research effort, the conversation has moved from those in the trenches of grant and job applications to those at the upper echelons making funding, hiring and promotion decisions.


Image credit: Unsplash,

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