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Survey of Australian STEMM Early Career Researchers: job insecurity and questionable research practices are major structural concerns

Katherine Christian, Carolyn Johnstone, Jo-ann Larkins, Wendy Wright, Michael R. Doran

Preprint posted on February 20, 2020 https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.02.19.955328v1

Peering into the chasm of academia; troubling concerns amongst early career researchers

Selected by Jonny Coates

The preLighs team consists of over a hundred early career researchers (ECRs), many of whom hold interests in the academia career landscape (1–3). We are vocal advocates for promoting positive change in academia in areas such as mental health and wellbeing, publishing practices and open access and ECR training and development. Hard evidence for the current concerns amongst ECRs is lacking, despite the abundance of anecdotal evidence that suggests ECRS are unhappy. Here, Christian et al survey ECRs to provide some insights into the current problems that this group is facing.

Remit and scope of the study

There is no shortage of anecdotes regarding the difficulties in academia. The authors collected data to investigate the challenges faced by ECRs in Australia. The respondents were current ECRs (defined as those holding a PhD awarded no more than 10 years prior to the survey) and were largely based in the life sciences. Additionally, the authors conducted a focus group to further explore the survey findings. This remit does potentially skew the data towards those who are more disenchanted with academia but nonetheless shines an important light onto the current issues facing young researchers.

Key findings

  1. Absence of effective leadership and accountability from senior staff leads to dissatisfaction in ECRs

In the 15 quotes provided to the question of why ECRs stay in research, every comment stated that the respondent loved research/their job. However, despite this positive attitude, one of the most striking findings was that a large number of ECRs stated that they had been impacted by questionable research practices. Lack of funding was frequently cited as the reason behind these questionable research practices. In addition, bullying was often stated as an issue in the workplace, despite almost 85% of those surveyed stating that they felt safe at work. This perhaps worryingly signifies that bullying and unacceptable practices by established academics are normalised in academia.

Over a third of those surveyed stated that they had experienced inequitable hiring practices, which was higher for women. Moreover, over 50% of ECRs stated that they had been negatively impacted by a lack of support from institutional leaders. The void of leadership at the higher levels in academia is a global problem with this preprint providing evidence to the impact this has on ECRs.

Together, this illustrates a dire situation in which academics (junior and senior) are unprepared for the leadership aspects of their role. Academia could perhaps learn from other sectors in this regard and provide appropriate training and continued development for staff at all levels in addition to effective mentoring.

  1. High levels of stress associated with relocation and settling into new environments

The pressure from the lack of funding not only promotes questionable research practices, but also creates a requirement for frequent relocation, especially during the postdoc years. Common to other industries are relocation expenses. However, these are not often included for academic staff who must relocate. Almost 70% of the survey respondents had changed location in order to advance their career, with 40% changing location more than once. This can be especially challenging for those requiring visas or who have families. Importantly, this preprint highlights that relocation is associated with a high personal cost and loss of career momentum. Furthermore, the comments from ECRs suggested that there is a general lack of support for settling into new environments.

Importance of this work

Several members of the preLights team hold interests in the academic career landscape, mental health and career development. This work highlights some of the underlying concerns from ECRs. This is particularly important for funding bodies, who (in the UK and USA at least) are increasingly moving towards promoting a more positive mental health environment. Additionally, institutions can use this information to help retain staff and improve the often-difficult working environments. The current feeling amongst ECRs can perhaps best be summarised by one of the responses to the survey as being “just trapped in a strange circle to struggle for a living” (excerpt from supplemental table 1).

 

Open questions

  1. Can the data be split to look at concerns from specific groups, e.g. postdocs with 0-5 years’ experience vs 5-10 years’ experience? Would you expect this to reveal different concerns between the groups?
  2. It is very troubling that ECRs have concerns surrounding questionable research practices. To combat this there is likely a requirement from funding bodies and leadership within academia. There have also been increasing calls for independent bodies who can investigate research misconduct. What do you think can be done to help remedy this?
  3. In relation to the above question, a well-founded issue in academia is the lack of leadership. Your preprint eloquently further supports this problem. What do you propose can be done to start changing this? Does this issue lie with funders or universities?
  4. The underlying problem that drives many of the current concerns is related to a shortage of funding (or low salary). What can be done when science funding worldwide is generally low? Should we create more positions for staff scientists and career postdocs? Should students be trained more for alternative careers, or should we even potentially restrict the numbers of PhD students admitted each year?

 

References

  1. Tessa Sinnige. The life of P.I. Transitions to Independence in Academia [Internet]. preLights. 2019. Available from: https://prelights.biologists.com/highlights/the-life-of-p-i-transitions-to-independence-in-academia/
  2. Gautam Dey, Tessa Sinnige. Co-reviewing and ghostwriting by early career researchers in the peer review of manuscripts [Internet]. preLights. 2019. Available from: https://prelights.biologists.com/highlights/co-reviewing-and-ghostwriting-by-early-career-researchers-in-the-peer-review-of-manuscripts/
  3. Jonny Coates, Gautam Dey, Sejal Davla, Maiko Kitaoka. Insights from a survey-based analysis of the academic job market [Internet]. preLights. 2019. Available from: https://prelights.biologists.com/highlights/insights-from-a-survey-based-analysis-of-the-academic-job-market/

Tags: academic careers, communication, ecr, research practices, stem

Posted on: 22nd March 2020

doi: https://doi.org/10.1242/prelights.17681

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  • Author's response

    Kate Christian shared

    Open questions

    1. Can the data be split to look at concerns from specific groups, e.g. postdocs with 0-5 years’ experience vs 5-10 years’ experience? Would you expect this to reveal different concerns between the groups?

    Response from Authors: When data were delineated based on years post PhD, those who were greater than 4 years post PhD were less satisfied than those who were 4 years or less post PhD. Similarly, those who were greater than 4 years post PhD tended to indicate a higher frequency of being negatively impacted by lack of support from institutional supervisors, questionable research practices of colleagues within their institution, and harassment based on power position. These more senior postdoctoral researchers more often indicated that this was not a good time to be in science, and were less often willing to recommend science as a career.

    2. It is very troubling that ECRs have concerns surrounding questionable research practices. To combat this there is likely a requirement from funding bodies and leadership within academia. There have also been increasing calls for independent bodies who can investigate research misconduct. What do you think can be done to help remedy this?

    Response from Authors: A third party watchdog is needed in Australia (4), and this is likely to help to remedy these problems. Internationally, a cultural change is required where it becomes less socially or academically acceptable to exaggerate significance.  There are many publications on this topic, but we recommend considering this recent discussion on statistics (5), and related discussions authored by Dr. John Ioannidis.  There is pressure on authors and journals to publish positive and significant outcomes.  A solution might be for all publications to specifically include a section that details the limitations of the study and/or the translation of the technology.  Having a specific “limitations section” would direct authors and reviewers to formally discuss study limitations, and may lead authors to be more conservative and careful with their claims.

    3. In relation to the above question, a well-founded issue in academia is the lack of leadership. Your preprint eloquently further supports this problem. What do you propose can be done to start changing this? Does this issue lie with funders or universities?

    Response from Authors: We believe this issue lies with the institutions, not the funders. We need to make sure there is a zero tolerance of questionable research practices and unacceptable workplace practices such as bullying and harassment. Institutions need to offer training for leaders to help them build better workplace cultures. See the sections on leadership in our previous discussions on research project management (6).

    There are many academics who will have excellent management skills, but who may be overloaded with administrative, teaching or clinical commitments.  Implementation of additional training programs could amplify problems where time is a limiting factor.  An institutional commitment to quality leadership must thus include time allocation for leadership and mentoring in workload allocations.  The problem of time limitations is also intertwined with research and peer review quality.  There are well known limitations in the peer review process, and there are increasing discussions regarding the need to compensate Reviewers for their time (7,8).  There are a number of challenges that need to be addressed in academia, and many will require time investments.  It might be time for academia to slow down, and focus on quality.

    4. The underlying problem that drives many of the current concerns is related to a shortage of funding (or low salary). What can be done when science funding worldwide is generally low? Should we create more positions for staff scientists and career postdocs? Should students be trained more for alternative careers, or should we even potentially restrict the numbers of PhD students admitted each year?

    Response from Authors: In Australia, the academic salaries are reasonable, but the number of positions is limiting.  We encourage universities to provide career planning and preparation for alternative careers. There is simply not enough funding for jobs in academia. There can be a stigma against alternate careers which are sometimes regarded as being for failed academics. This, of course, is not the case as there are many career paths which could be open to scientists, particularly if they have appropriate training in generic management skills.

    It is likely that the competition for jobs and funding is contributing to problems, such as questionable research practices.  Likely both incentive systems and the number of PhD graduates need to be modulated to mitigate these problems.  The current training of many PhD students who will only have a brief career in science represents an inefficiency.  Ideally, the training objectives of institutions should be aligned with job opportunities and national R&D investment strategies.  Both PhD graduates and nations would benefit if academic training programs and industry needs were better aligned.

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