Webinar Report: Organising and advocating

How can early-career researchers make their voices heard?

Moderator: Brianne Kent, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of British Columbia, and member of the eLife Early-Career Advisory Group

Speakers: Corina Logan, Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow, University of Cambridge; Gary McDowell, Executive Director, Future of Research; Osman Aldirdiri, Founding Director, Open Sudan; Nick Shockey, Director of Programs & Engagement, SPARC.

eLife Early-Career webinar panel May

Early-career researchers make up a majority of the scientific workforce, meaning that as a group they have enormous power to improve how science is performed. Getting started in advocacy can seem daunting, but is ultimately rewarding. Here is some advice on how to get involved:

Join an existing initiative, or set up your own

There are many communities and groups already campaigning to improve science: “there’s probably a group out there that really wants your energy” says Gary McDowell. To find them, you could try asking around your campus, contacting your union, or searching through the OpenCon Community. And if none of them is quite right for you, don’t be afraid to start your own campaign. Nick Shockey has a suggestion for setting up an organisation that other people want to join: “try to have as collaborative an atmosphere as possible and get shared ownership so other people feel that they’re invested in these initiatives”.

Talk to your fellow lab members

If you are passionate about a cause, talk to your collaborators and colleagues about it. McDowell recognises that there can be a barrier to starting this conversation in the lab because it feels like it is not “science” that you are talking about. “But really all these factors are so important to how we’re practicing science”. By telling the people in your lab about what you are campaigning for, and finding out what they think and what issues most affect them, you may also find some more allies for your initiative.

Use the “two whys” to start the conversation

Why do you advocate for the issue? And why should others get involved in your project? In Osman Aldirdiri’s words, “You need to think about the ‘why’ that will connect you and your peers”. You should also consider what the people you’re advocating know. For example, in Aldirdiri’s experience researchers in developing countries have relatively little experience of research communication. He therefore worked first to educate his audience about issues around research practice and publishing, before moving on to advocating for good, open practice.

You’re a researcher – do the research

Collect data to support your points – whether through a survey of early-career researchers, or searching the literature for studies that discuss your issue. Presenting this evidence makes it harder for your stance to be ignored in meetings. In addition, try to find out how the committees, boards or governments that you’re trying to influence work. For example, Open Sudan first worked to bring early-career researchers and policymakers to a common understanding of how research and government work. Only once trust had been built between them, did researchers start lobbying the government for change.

Get loud!

To have an impact, you need to spread your message widely and make sure it is heard by the people who have the power to make the changes you want. Find allies who can help you – for example, librarians are often valuable sources of knowledge and support for open science. If your campaigning goes well, it may also lead you to new opportunities – for example, Corina Logan has been invited to join some of the “super-secret” committees she was trying to influence.

Take the leap

It is common for researchers to feel that they don’t know enough, or that they’re not the right person, to lead an advocacy group. Maybe you are worried that speaking out about an issue will have a negative effect on your career. In fact, many advocates have found that their advocacy work – and being open about it – has been beneficial. For example, Logan recently got a new academic job in part because she highlighted her publishing ethics on her CV. It has also helped to make her research more rigorous: “if I’m engaging in more open practices […] it improves my science”. Of course, the biggest benefit is that if you’re successful, you’ll have helped to improve science for researchers everywhere.