A while back one of my students lamented that a recent publication didn't cite his work when it directly backed the study. The first author of that publication even emailed my student for info. I pointed out that there were nearly 60 citations and not a single woman PI listed. Shortly after this episode, the father of my student’s girlfriend (also a young scientist) passed away from COVID-19 and this citation issue quickly faded into the background. Just a short time after that, a now infamous publication was released in Nature Communications that suggested that female mentors like myself actually reduce the productivity of young scientists (1). Due to immense social media backlash, the article was retracted at the end of last year. Now, I’m not going to tell you a sob story about how difficult it has been to be a woman (2) in an unpopular field (chemical ecology) working on an even more unpopular system (wild insects) in a country where publishers still raise eyebrows (India) that itself remains far too hierarchical and gender-biased. I’m going to tell you what I’m trying to do about it.
The fact is, my student had a right to complain about the citation. In academia, we all know how important publications and citations are to our careers (3). They dictate positions, grant awards, promotions, and pecking rights at conferences and meetings. We all know that the more publications and citations we get, the closer we are to “eminent scientist” status that bypasses a lot of the early checkpoints for editorial boards and committees (though perhaps not their final outcomes). This vicious cycle has produced its fair share of academic pariahs who have used unscrupulous methods to get this status (4). This cycle has also exacerbated the number of factory-like labs requiring a large body of workers to produce the high-impact research needed for the publications (5). Finally, the current scenario can lead to dog-eat-dog mentalities that are harmful to women and minorities (6) and may have eventually led to my Indian student not getting the citation he very much needs for his career. Yet, there is another equally important fact. Outside of our profession, our world is facing immense challenges where scientific research and technological advancements can play an essential role in their solution. Not just a role for applied science, but also a need to increase the basic understanding of our planet to develop the tools to sustain it. Unfortunately, “publish or perish” does not always encourage an academic environment that can address these challenges head-on. Its self-selection system promotes research that is 1) easy to publish in high-impact journals 2) popular and therefore more likely to be cited and 3) attractive to grant agencies. Sometimes, like with biomedical research on diseases such as cancer, these interests align with the real-world challenges we currently face. However, the fallout from COVID-19 has shown that far too often what we academics are publishing and citing will not directly help the health, environmental, and social-political upheaval we currently face.
These dichotomies motivated me to shift from pure laboratory research to leading the echo network (7, 8), where we are dedicated to changing the way academic research is embedded in our society. First, we need to stimulate interactions between academics, citizens, government, industry, and NGOs. Too often, we academics think of “outreach” as a requirement by institutions and grant agencies to disseminate scientific knowledge to the public. But outreach can equally be an opportunity for scientists to get new perspectives and knowledge from society as well. Throughout our first few months, the echo network has engaged in a number of activities to generate interdisciplinary discussion. We started with a unique group of scholars, economists, healthcare professionals, lawyers, policy-makers, activists, journalists, and CEOs who established a white paper (9, 10) that identified several current challenges where science and technology can play a role. What was most remarkable about this diverse group was the synergy in their ideas. They had far more points of convergence in their conversations than points of contention.
Second, we need to seek out new research ideas from these interactions. Through a series of Q&A sessions (11) followed by concentrated workshops with relevant stakeholders and experts, we are currently identifying research questions that can help address central knowledge gaps related to the identified challenges. In this way, the resulting scientific research is not driven by “publishability”, but by what is needed for Indian society going forward.
Finally, we need to train a new generation of scientists who are not confined to the borders of their profession or their discipline. We academics continue to mould our young scientists purely for the confines of our academic walls, armed with our own vocabulary, our own questions, and ultimately our own priorities. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Following our workshops, we are initiating consortium-based research collaborations (12, 13) amongst the different entities who generated the questions. These diverse organizations will be linked through “research ambassadors”; postdoctoral scientists who will move between the groups and drive the research forward. These scientists will not only develop their research skills but will learn, through this unique experience, how to integrate scientific exploration with diverse sectors. After this, they will be able to discuss their profession with a bureaucrat or a farmer with equal ease. That’s when we can begin to really start integrating academia into society.
In all this, women, minorities, and our disenfranchised communities play a fundamental role. That’s why the echo network works with the public through unique experiences that show how science and technology play a vital role in their everyday lives. However, we must not only reach across genders and sectors but languages as well. Much of the scientific world is shrouded from our Indian population by my mother tongue – English. But it shouldn’t be that way. Making science more accessible in all ways is what will lift up women, our underprivileged, and indeed this entire country. Imagine what we can do when all of us have the chance to both understand the problem and contribute to its solution!
We cannot face our biggest problems as individuals. Sustaining India requires a shared ownership in finding the solution. Science and technology play a fundamental role in that journey. We need to make a new system where science and research are as part of our society as law or medicine. Where diverse cultures, ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds are an asset for gaining new perspectives and not a liability for an academic career. That’s the kind of impact factor I’ll be striving for from now on, as a woman in science, and a citizen on this planet.
1. AlShebli B, Makovi K, Rahwan T (2020) The association between early career informal mentorship in academic collaborations and junior author performance. Nature Communications:1–8. Retracted.
2. Huang J, Gates AJ, Sinatra R, Barbarási A-L Historical comparison of gender inequality in scientific careers across countries and disciplines. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 117(9):4609–4616.
3. Berenbaum MR (2019) Impact factor impacts on early-career scientist careers. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 116(34):16659–16662.
4. Jamieson KH, McNutt M, Kiermer V, Sever R Signaling the trustworthiness of science. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 116(39):19231–19236.
5. Cook I, Grange S, Eyre-Walker A (2015) Research groups: How big should they be? PeerJ 3:e989–13.
6. Hofstra B, et al. (2020) The Diversity-Innovation Paradox in Science. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 117(17):9284–9291.
8. PIB Delhi, Ministry of Commerce and Industry (2020) EChO Network launched to catalyze cross- disciplinary leadership in India; will train educators and students in interdisciplinary manner Preparing Indian education for post-technological world: Prof. VijayRaghavan. Available at: https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1597013 Accesed
9. Ghosh A, et al. (2020) India’s Journey Beyond COVID-19 eds Kumar M, Nair P. Available at: http://www.echonetwork.in. Accessed: August 6, 2020.
10. Deepika KC (2020) Pandemic not just a public health emergency: Echo Network paper. The Hindu:1–3.