10 December 2020

Do you think we assess each other adequately and justly at the Radboudumc? How can we create a more collaborative environment that would foster scientific integrity? These questions were discussed at the Research Integrity Round titled ‘Recognition and Rewards for Radboudumc Academics’ on December 9.

The event was built upon the position paper published collectively by Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), Dutch Federation of University Medical Centers (NFU), Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), Dutch Research Council (NWO) and Dutch Organization for Health Research and Development (ZonMw). The paper titled ‘Room for everyone’s talent: towards a new balance in the recognition and rewards for academics’ outlines the country’s new approach on how to recognize and reward the work of academics, focusing on quality over quantity and enabling diverse career paths and skill sets.

Young researchers are interested and satisfied with the new approach

The webinar aimed to inform junior and senior researchers about the new position and provide a platform of discussion with a panel consisting of Dr. Annemijn Algra from the Young Science in Transition movement, Radboudumc dean Prof. Jan Smit, and Prof. Jeroen Geurts, president of ZonMw. The event included interactive polls which made it really easy to see how people feel about the issues discussed.

Out of more than 150 people in attendance, master students and PhD candidates constituted over 80%. Young researchers, dissatisfied with the status-quo, are clearly very interested in the new developments. When asked about their opinion, 95% of the audience was positive about the new recognition and rewards plan while only a handful of people had doubts.

Quality and quantity: can we find a balance?

The new position on recognition and rewards moves away from the metrics of citation numbers, journal impact factors and h-index. Instead, a researcher is assessed based on their societal impact, international collaborations, how well they fill the knowledge gaps in science and how open they are with their outputs.

Jeroen Geurts explained that two big funders, NWO and ZonMw, started implementing a ‘narrative CV’ method to assess applications. This CV must emphasize things like the scientist’s vision, how they used their past opportunities, and how the proposal is relevant to the society. The numerical metrics of the applicant are not emphasized or possibly not mentioned at all.

Of course, the quantitative metrics are still relevant and helpful, considering that they are transparent and easily comparable. Over 90% of the audience agreed that we need a mix of qualitative and quantitative assessment criteria. 64% believed that relevance and impact are the most important quality criteria, although there isn’t a clear guide for how to define those terms.

Should we get rid of hierarchy?

‘Team science’ was another main topic of discussion. Current assessment methods focus too much on individuals and disregards the collective nature of research. Dr. Thomas Hoogeboom advocated for a more “socialist approach to science” in which the voice of a patient or a student has as much weight as a professor’s. Panel members remarked that the current system promotes competition rather than collaboration and that we need to level the playing field.

However, only half of the audience agreed that we should completely democratize the academic workplace, dismantling hierarchy. Again, the key is balance. As Prof. Jan Smit beautifully put it: “A good orchestra requires individual excellence but individual excellence needs the orchestra to flourish.” We need to have the ‘team science’ glasses on, but we still need leaders as an orchestra needs a conductor. A good suggestion by Annemijn Algra for establishing a balance was that the professors, high in the hierarchy, should be evaluated by their juniors in the same way the juniors are evaluated by them.

Early-career researchers can make a change

Young Science in Transition (YSiT) is a thinktank of early-career researchers (ECRs) from UMC Utrecht aiming to take concrete actions formulated by and aimed for ECRs. Dr. Algra of YSiT told how they changed PhD evaluation in their institution. The established PhD evaluation form asked for the number of articles and abstracts, not taking personal and professional growth into account. Thanks to the efforts of YSiT, the new evaluation form allows PhDs to formulate their own type of accomplishments. They can still write about their publications but also state their earnings from leading a project team, creating a protocol, or dealing with setbacks in their work environment.

Publishing papers and having a thick thesis book are not the main goals of a PhD. A PhD should be about developing personal and interpersonal skills that would help young people become independent researchers and future leaders who are also effective team players. The example of YSiT should motivate us to take similar actions to make sure a diverse range of skills are being rewarded at Radboudumc. Young scientists can definitely make a difference, even if only locally.

More discussion is needed

After the stimulating discussions, there were still many audience questions left unanswered at the end of the 1.5 hours webinar. How much should we care for team science when most funding schemes are not fit to value that? How would we objectively and transparently assess quality? Young people have their opinions and enthusiasm but how can we get the supervisors on board? It is very clear that especially young researchers are highly interested and enthusiastic about reshaping academic assessment culture. It is also evident that we need further discussions like this one that would bring more senior academics into the conversation so that we can all together formulate how to navigate the new waves.

Article written by Özlem Bulut

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