Early-Career Advisory Group: A review of 2019–2020

The group looks back on its work in the last year advocating for early-career researchers.
Inside eLife
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By the eLife Early-Career Advisory Group

As members of the eLife Early-Career Advisory Group (ECAG), we influence and support eLife’s work to catalyse broad reforms in the evaluation and communication of science. In the past year of service (August 2019–July 2020), we welcomed five new members and celebrated two departing members, continued to build global peer networks between early-career researchers (ECRs), promoted diversity, inclusion and reproducible research policies, and advised eLife on publishing practices.

Welcoming new ECAG members

In August 2019, we welcomed five new ECAG members who have enriched our discussions through their unique backgrounds and perspectives.

Since joining, Carolina Quezada from Chile and Florencia Fernández Chiappe from Argentina have been working to strengthen networks among ECRs in Latin America. Carolina has also taken over as co-lead of the ecrLife blog (more below). Andy Tay from Singapore enjoys science communication and is part of the ecrLife editorial team. Yaw Bediako from Ghana, who was part of the first eLife Community Ambassadors program (shortened to Ambassadors from now on), currently leads the African Science Initiative. Julia Riley from South Africa brings to the group her strong interest in promoting open data and code.

Almost all the ECAG members were able to attend the eLife Annual General Meeting at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus, Virginia, in January 2020. From left to right: top row: Vinodh Ilangovan, Devang Mehta; middle row: Andy Tay, Yaw Bediako, Florencia Fernández Chiappe, Benjamin Schwessinger; bottom row: Carolina Quezada, Lotte de Winde, Sarvenaz Sarabipour, Shyam Saladi, Tracey Weissgerber – and super-imposed are two ECAG members – Hedyeh Ebrahimi (top left) and Julia Riley (top right) – who were unable to attend in person due to travel restrictions into the USA and being in the field for research work, respectively.

Celebrating recent alumni

We thank 2020’s departing members, Benjamin Schwessinger and Sarvenaz Sarabipour, for their contributions to the ECAG.

Before joining the ECAG, Benjamin Schwessinger founded Reproducibility for Everyone, an initiative whereby researchers teach each other how to do reproducible research through workshops around the world – he brought this work to the ECR community around eLife and he was also a strong advocate for compensation of ECAG members.

Sarvenaz Sarabipour made major contributions to the Ambassadors program, including as the lead of the Ambassadors initiative on Mentoring and Leadership. She also advocated for the team to recognise Ambassadors’ contributions with certificates and letters, and compiled ECAG resources into a draft manual for the group.

The group was due to hold elections for new members in May/June 2020 (to start in August 2020). However, these elections did not take place, partly due to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. We will hold elections for new members no later than July 2021.

The current plan is also to elect new co-chairs of the ECAG early in 2021, and Tracey Weissgerber will continue as chair in the interim.

This year, eLife also started paying each ECAG member an annual honorarium to recognise their contributions towards eLife’s mission and organisation.

Building a community of ECRs

This year, the ECAG worked with eLife’s Community team, Kora Korzec, Naomi Penfold and Miranda Nye, to conduct the second round of the Ambassadors programme. Over 240 ECRs from around the world participated in a wide range of activities, including organising the #LabWasteDay event on Twitter, sharing skills for reproducible research, and learning how to collaborate online. We heard first-hand from multiple Ambassadors that having a platform through which to improve science together with ECRs from around the world was a positive and transformative experience.

Devang Mehta led a revamp of the ecrLife blog, including expanding its scope, and handing over editorial duties to a new team: Carolina Quezada is now co-lead editor with Nele Haelterman (Ambassador), and they work closely with a small team of supporting editors, including Andy Tay. Since August 2019, the team has helped ECRs (including Ambassadors) to publish 32 blog posts, covering important topics ranging from trans-inclusion to navigating the impact of COVID-19 on researcher life. Follow ecrLife on Twitter @ecr_life and directly: https://ecrlife.org/.

Last but not least, the ECAG continued to run the monthly #ECRWednesday webinar series. Vinodh Ilangovan remained the lead organiser for 2019–2020, while various ECAG members chaired webinars. In the past year, we addressed many topics of interest to ECRs, such as ‘reforming academic conferences to be more inclusive and environmentally sustainable’ and ‘inspiring culture change at research institutions’. You can watch past webinars here.

Advocating for ECRs globally

In March, the ECAG published an article that described seven ways in which conference organisers, institutions and funders could mitigate the effects of COVID-related conference and travel cancellations for ECRs and researchers from countries with limited research funding. The recommendations included allowing reimbursement for travel that was cancelled due to the pandemic, transitioning to virtual events, and allowing ECRs to list posters and talks from cancelled events as “accepted for presentation” on their CVs.

In response to the Black Lives Matter protests, the ECAG also collectively published formal recommendations for eLife and other organisations to improve diversity and inclusion in publishing. This thought-provoking editorial, led by Vinodh Ilangovan and Devang Mehta, has been positively received by the scientific community.

This past year, a subgroup of the ECAG started to work on issues that affect ECRs working in countries with limited research funding. The team – Hedyeh Ebrahimi, Julia Riley, Yaw Bediako, Florencia Fernández Chiappe, Carolina Quezada, Vinodh Ilangovan and Tracey Weissgerber – continues to consider these issues and is planning activities to raise awareness and exploring solutions with the scientific community.

Advocating for ECRs within eLife

Throughout the year, the ECAG worked with eLife staff and editorial leadership to provide concrete feedback on new initiatives at the journal. One way we did this was by offering feedback on new journal initiatives through our representative at monthly calls with editorial leadership: we provided feedback on Acceptance Summaries (now published alongside articles) as well as Preprint Review (for more information on these initiatives, see the eLife Annual Report 2019). Regarding Preprint Review, the ECAG highlighted the importance to ECRs of ensuring any public reviews are of high quality, and advocated for these public reviews to be signed by peer reviewers. Following ECAG feedback, eLife will give Senior Editors and Reviewing Editors the option to sign these public reviews to enhance credibility and accountability.

Collectively, we also submitted formal recommendations for the inclusion of more ECRs in eLife’s Board of Reviewing Editors. These recommendations sparked lively discussion with the editors and have encouraged editorial leadership to work to appoint more ECRs as editors: from 6% of the board in August 2019 to 9% in July 2020. ECAG members have supported these efforts by nominating several ECRs, some of whom have now been appointed to the Board of Reviewing Editors. Work at eLife continues in response to several of our more recent nominations of scientists from underrepresented groups (based on ethnicity and geography so far).

Activities from individual ECAG members

Julia Riley, Tracey Weissgerber and Lotte de Winde shared how both the ECAG and Ambassadors use virtual brainstorming events to facilitate discussions between ECRs across various time zones. This technique is especially valuable during the pandemic, as online discussions and collaborations have become the norm.

Lotte de Winde, together with Sarvenez Sarabipour, Vinodh Ilangovan and several Ambassadors, also explored ways to make research funding practices fairer and more inclusive for ECRs. Further, she worked with Ambassadors in the Intersectionality Initiative to promote inclusive practices in academia: from setting expectations in the lab with a lab manual, to adopting more inclusive practices during manuscript and grant review, hiring, mentoring and writing reference letters. Lotte also teamed up with Aziz Khan to build and co-lead a team of Ambassadors to develop and sustain ECRcentral as a platform to support ECRs seeking research funding opportunities.

Carolina Quezada, Florencia Fernández Chiappe, Yaw Bediako and Julia Riley started their initiative to amplify the voice of African and Latin American ECRs by identifying specific challenges with logistics and access to reagents that scientists from Africa and Latin America face. Several ECAG members also work to improve diversity and inclusion in science through activities beyond their contributions as advisors and community builders at eLife. For example, Yaw Bediako has been focusing on setting up a private biotech company in Ghana, in an effort to help address the significant underrepresentation of African populations in global genomics research, while Andy Tay has written several articles to highlight issues and realities faced by under-served and under-represented communities in science.

Over the year, Shyam Saladi met with eLife’s tech and product teams to continue developing a platform that would help editors to identify ECR reviewers to invite.

Tracey Weissgerber led the Ambassadors’ meta-research team, who completed a study examining the legibility and interpretability of images in scientific publications. Common problems included missing scale bars, misplaced or poorly marked insets, images or labels that were not accessible to colourblind readers, and insufficient explanations of colours, labels and annotations, or the species and tissue or object shown in the image. The team’s preprint includes detailed descriptions and visual examples to help scientists avoid common pitfalls when publishing images. An accompanying repository includes slides for teaching best practices.

Outlook

Over the 2019–2020 year of service, the ECAG advocated for ECRs in a myriad of ways. We hope to continue this work in the year ahead and, in particular, to push forward with our recommendations on diversity, equity and inclusion.

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