eLife Ambassadors: A year on, the networks and their activities continue

Our former community Ambassadors continue to drive change, innovate solutions and advocate responsible behaviours across science.
Inside eLife
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The Programme

Even amidst the added pandemic-related pressures, our Ambassador community of early-career researchers (ECRs) continues to make science more transparent, accessible and inclusive – already trailblazing what the recent November UNESCO Recommendations on Open Science call for.

The latest Ambassador Programme ran from April 2019 to June 2020, and now, more than a year on from the end of the Programme, we want to highlight the efforts of our former Ambassadors as they continue to work together to address the longstanding biases and barriers that negatively impact research culture.

Improving reproducibility

Reproducibility for Everyone (R4E) is an ongoing initiative that offers workshops to drive forward a new understanding of reproducibility and aims to make long-lasting changes to research conduct. This year, the R4E community, which includes several eLife Ambassadors, supported volunteer instructors to host their own workshops, as well as developing their teaching materials, enabling access for everyone to these resources.

Since June 2020, R4E has published a paper outlining its community-led approach to reproducibility education, as well as hosting over 20 R4E training events and workshops, reaching new disciplines, such as Ecology at ESA 2021; new regions, including a three-webinar series for ECR Tanzania; and new audiences.

As well as onboarding new volunteers, an R4E Train-the-Trainer Course at FSCI 2021 and an outreach campaign in June called #R4EtaughtMe were delivered alongside former Ambassadors to celebrate R4E volunteers. Thanks to new funding and the support of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative R4E has been able to hire a full-time coordinator, sustaining practical advice and learning opportunities that will continue reaching researchers across disciplines and geographies.

Meta-research, also referred to as the science of science, is a technique that researchers can use to improve science. Yet, investigators are often unaware of what it is and courses are rare. One group of Ambassadors learnt to use meta-research, and continued with their investigation into the use of scientific images in publications after the completion of the Programme. They have recently completed and published their meta-research study. This work presents detailed descriptions and visual examples to help scientists avoid common pitfalls when publishing images and to drive greater transparency in the publication of data.

Figure 1 from Jambor et al., 2021 showing 'Image types and reporting of scale information and inserts'.

Aside from the great work they delivered together, this group has vividly demonstrated the feasibility of a participant-guided “learn by doing” approach. Here, a multidisciplinary, global team of participants acquired the meta-research skills, and immediately put them into practice, designing, conducting and publishing their investigation. The reflection on this process is captured in another publication by the Ambassadors.

Accessibility for ECRs

Although there is much overlap in those mentioned above in enabling accessibility, here we review the continuing outputs from each initiative rooted in driving access for all.

Without transparency around the funding opportunities and the experiences of other ECRs, many researchers in this group would be at a large disadvantage starting off their careers. ECRcentral was started by eLife Ambassadors in 2018 and has expanded year on year in developing a central resource for ECRs with comprehensive lists of over 640 funding opportunities and more than 100 travel grants available this year, as well as the creation of a curated list of 153 resources for ECRs -from databases and workshop links, to useful templates and guidelines.

The Collaborative Science initiative worked on collating resources to support researchers to develop access to successful collaborations, such as those found on its Twitter page. The group had driven many impactful discussions within the Programme to help ECRs understand the importance in building these research collaborations. These discussions have impacted the research of former Ambassadors, for example “the need for international organizations to advance interdisciplinary research” that is addressed in an Ambassador’s paper on collaborative science in Alzheimer’s disease research.

As well as access to collaboration resources, in recent years there has been an increasing call for access and support in professional and career development for ECRs. This issue was researched by the career development initiatives team, whose survey carried out research into institutional support and resources for STEM trainees as they plan their professional development. Their findings and recommendations were published in the ecrLife blog. The conversations started among the eLife community as a result of the Programme also led to an ecrLife article on the importance of taking charge and developing your career with tips and tricks but more importantly a call to action for support.

In November 2020, the Fair Funding group initiative hosted a webinar with speakers discussing the challenges ECRs and underrepresented groups face when pursuing funding opportunities. They also suggested examples of how funding could be made fairer and be awarded to researchers based on their research ability and potential. Their article in the Journal of Science Policy and Governance examines funding practices and barriers, as well as facilitators to the current funding systems. They identified alternatives to the most common funding distribution practices, and detailed recommendations for funding agencies and grant reviewers to improve ECR funding prospects worldwide and promote fairer and more inclusive access to funding for ECRs.

Advancing research integrity

The Environmental Sustainability team came together to encourage individual scientists to act in a more environmentally sustainable manner as they do their research lab work, aiming to guide other researchers and the wider scientific community to establish environmentally friendly practices and policies. Building upon the article they published during the Programme, Ambassadors began to connect with other advocates and have been involved in aiding the organisation of the Sustainability Research Symposium and other events this year, with more lined up for 2022. A peer support group on Slack for scientists to discuss environmental sustainability in the lab and share resources has also been created, and you can join it at Environmental_in_Science.

The intersectionality initiative focused on advocating for inclusion within academic science and raising awareness that a researcher’s social identities can overlap creating compounding experiences of discrimination. They organised a webinar to share the practical resources that the group developed to raise awareness and offer solutions to improving inclusion in science. The team delivered an #ECRWednesday webinar on “Improving inclusion in science”, with great success last February.

“I watched the webinar "#ECRWednesday webinar: Promoting inclusion in science” last week and I found it very very informative. I shared the resources on Zenodo with my community. The slides are an impressive compendium of data” said Chiara Bertipaglia, Director of Scientific Programs at the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, Columbia University, USA.

The ECR Peer Review initiative aimed to address the barriers around, and to promote the involvement of ECRs in peer-review. Following on from their blog post that outlined why it is important for ECRs to become involved in peer review, the group published another blog post offering tips for early-stage researchers on overcoming barriers to participation and being invited for peer review. The team continues to advocate for transparency, access and to engage in discussions and conversations on the involvement of ECRs in peer review through outreach to journal editors and on social platforms such as Twitter.

The pandemic made it crystal clear that the small pool of peer reviewers trusted by editors was insufficient to cope with the amount of preprints and created the perfect opportunity for Ph.D students to get experience in peer review. Together we have established the COVID-19 preprint initiative at the University of Oxford, where Ph.D students and postdocs were teamed together to write short and concise reports of preprints' major findings, the flaws and strengths of the paper. Over 80 Ph.D students and postdocs have now gained training in peer review” - former Ambassador, Ewoud Compeer, on an example of the success of ECR Peer Review.

Continued commitment and collaboration

As well as the initiatives, the Ambassadors came together on various topics that affect ECRs and the research community as a whole. One Ambassador group has continued to stimulate discussion about researchers' wellbeing at work with a recent article on this topic. The prevalence and continuity of the issues associated with in-person scientific conferences were researched and addressed in a paper authored by the Ambassadors, calling for all researchers, their institutions, scientific societies and funders to take initiative to recognise these problems, and “actively participate in reorganizing conferences to create more open, inclusive, and kinder research environments as we advance knowledge”.

Figure 1 from Sarabipour et al., 2021 demonstrating a 'summary of an analysis of a database of 270 conferences held in-person and organized by over 150 scientific societies and other organizations during 2018-2019 in various scientific fields'.

Another paper that was written after the Programme - authored by 54 researchers, who were mostly ECRs and many of which were Ambassadors - focused on how important ECRs are as stakeholders leading efforts to catalyse systemic change in the conduct and communication of science. The paper summarises the outputs from their “unconference” on why ECRs are needed to improve the scientific system and the obstacles they face, highlighting the additional obstacles that ECRs in countries with limited research funding experience when working to improve research culture. The paper outlines what researchers individually, as well as alongside their institutions, can do to support ECRs who are working to reform research practice.

Our Ambassadors have continued to engage researchers across the globe in discussions about early sharing of results and publishing biomedical research as preprints. Recently, Chee Wai Chua, PI at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China co-organised a meeting with eLife editors Kathy Cheah, University of Hong Kong and Jiwon Shim, Hanyang University, South Korea, where local early-career researchers were able to share their views on this topic.

At eLife, we are inspired by and grateful to all of the researchers who have put an incredible amount of their time and effort into changing the status quo and improving science. We hope these collaborations continue to grow and call attention to the barriers scientists face, and we look forward to hearing about their continued contributions to the research community.

The full list of those who contributed to these initiatives can be found at https://elifesciences.org/inside-elife/507faf61/elife-ambassadors-contributions-start-to-bear-fruit. Read some of the blog posts produced by the initiatives mentioned above, as well as thought pieces from individual Ambassadors at ecrLife.org.

With a new cohort of Ambassadors starting early next year we can't wait to meet this group and watch as they innovate, collaborate, and engage with each other and their communities to strengthen the drive to change research culture for the better.

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For the latest developments in this year’s Ambassador programme and other opportunities for early-career researchers, sign up to the eLife Early-Career Community newsletter and follow @eLifeCommunity on Twitter.