Tips to promote equitable, non-toxic scientific communities
“We are not all in the same boat. We are in the same storm. Some have yachts, some have canoes, and some are drowning. Just be kind and help whoever you can.”
Variations of this quote (sometimes attributed to author Damian Barr) appeared in social media feeds in the past two years, mostly in the context of the pandemic. These past years have certainly been a daunting storm that we all encountered and may have changed our perspective on life and what it means to be part of a community. This quote resonates even deeper, not only because of the pandemic, but also in the context of weathering the storms during our scientific journeys. How does being part of a kind, helpful and fair community benefit others, benefit individuals, and steer scientific progress?
Working in research can often feel very stressful, especially for junior scientists. We must not only deal with the common and well-known setbacks and troubleshooting of our experiments, but also the competitive nature of the academic and research environment. The pressure to publish an impactful, complete, and novel story adds up because science takes time and there is always the possibility of being ‘scooped.’ Publishing seems to be key to obtaining the limited positions and funding available, which adds tremendous pressure, particularly to trainees and new PIs. Unsupportive work or training environments further intensify this overall uncertainty, and the negative effects of a stressful and hostile environment on performance and health are well known. While it can feel beyond our abilities to change some of the stressors, such as the amount of funding or the number of positions available, there are many things we all can do that contribute to supporting each other and moving forward.
In this piece, we describe resources available to the scientific community to help build fair, equitable, and supportive working environments and scientific communities.
Lab Environment and Mentoring
The inherent power imbalance in many training settings can create toxic work environments where members are scared, abused, discriminated against, or isolated. Unfortunately, academic bullying and harassment are common, and some studies suggest that at least one-quarter of scientists have experienced this during their career (1,2 3). Institutions and members of our scientific communities play an important role in creating a supportive and welcoming environment. In addition to institutional protections available to faculty, staff, and trainees, many excellent initiatives are available for raising awareness, such as the Association for Women in Science and the Parity Movement (4, 5).
Science is a team effort, and ongoing open discussions, feedback, and conversations with colleagues are indispensable for scientific discoveries and progress. Most discussions will begin within a lab amongst its members. A lab environment where individuals feel accepted, heard, and appreciated is an important factor in facilitating the exchange of ideas, as well as the individual and whole lab success. Like a good scientific community, a good lab community is defined by fairness, tolerance, and freedom to encourage open scientific discussion and receive constructive feedback. This ‘intellectual infrastructure’ plays a vital role in scientific progress, similar to having a good physical infrastructure and access to resources.
In addition to a good lab environment, mentoring of trainees, from students all the way up to faculty, is an important component of personal and scientific growth and success for the mentee and the mentor. Mentors should provide resources to grow, both scientifically and at the personal level, to become better scientists and people. The task of a mentor is to contribute the trainees’ academic training and intellectual maturity, but also to provide feedback and to advise. Most often, the PI or senior colleagues serve as mentors. However, it can be good to assemble a team of mentors that can offer advice on different aspects of our careers. While mentoring is associated with many benefits for a mentee, among those increased career satisfaction, confidence and productivity, good mentoring will ultimately also benefit the lab and institutions.
A number of organizations provide excellent education for management and mentoring skills. These include workshops and courses provided by the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Intramural Training and Education (6) or EMBO (7), webinars from professional societies, including ASCB (8) and the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD) (9). These resources can provide skills for improving communication and articulating common goals, policies, obligations, and expectations that can promote positive interactions and good scientific conduct in the lab. In recent years, several interactive communities, such as the Graduate Student Slack (10), Future PI Slack (11) or New PI Slack (12), and several Facebook groups (i.e., C. elegans Researchers, Academic Mamas and others) have formed to provide support and the possibility to network, share experiences and resources beyond the lab. In many institutions, postdoctoral and graduate student unions can be powerful advocates and organizing hubs to drive institutional and community change to protect trainees.
Peer Review of Grants and Papers
One of the key aspects of science is that no findings are definitive and that all results are open to a diverse set of interpretations. To ensure that science advances in an unbiased manner, peer review, despite some intrinsic problems, is still the best mechanism to ensure that all aspects of a scientific finding are scrutinized and that the final product supports its conclusions. Particularly in the context of the open science movement, there have been many interesting conversations about the role of the peer review process and how to make it as equitable and transparent as possible.
In the past few years, several approaches have sought to improve the peer review process and ensure that reviewers’ feedback is constructive and free of bias. Many journals, including eLife, EMBO Press and Nature Communications, have moved towards more accountable and transparent reviewing processes. These efforts include making reviews publicly available or by facilitating discussions between individual reviewers. Also, initiatives that train individuals on how to be a good referee and serve as a database for editors searching for accredited scientists, such as Publons (13,14) are key to providing a fair and balanced reviewing process.
Beyond the publication process, other metrics of how scientists are evaluated have been scrutinized. Organizations such as the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) (15) (of which ASCB and 2,600 other institutions worldwide are signatories) and its offshoot SPACE (16), have committed themselves to providing frameworks for adopting clear criteria for evaluations, hiring, funding decisions, and the role of impact factors in the decisions. These organizations aim to advance practical and robust approaches to research assessment globally and across all scholarly disciplines. Educating referees, panel members, and editors on good practices of fair, transparent, and unbiased evaluation has been driven by many efforts including new training from the NIH on unbiased review at study section and emphasis on the diversity of panel members and referees (17,18). Other initiatives have been formed that aim to promote scientific findings independently from their publication in scientific journals. For example, Molecular Biology of the Cell’s Early-Career Editor program (19) curates, highlights, and promotes significant preprints posted on open access platforms such as bioRxiv or medRxiv (20, 21). This alerts readers to the latest research, provides readily digestible summaries for preprint readers, and adds visibility for authors. Platforms like Review Commons (22) give the authors peer-reviewed preprints, including publicly available reports from a single round of peer review and the authors’ responses. Review Commons also facilitates author-directed submission of the reviewed Preprints to affiliate journals to accelerate editorial consideration, reduce serial re-review and streamline publication to speed up the publishing process.
Also, Arcadia Science (23) has been working towards a process that enables authors to use the publication platform PubPub (24) to publish smaller and more modular pieces of research with the idea of using feedback from the scientific community to build upon. Promoting this open access approach can help remove barriers that slow the release of useful scientific information, avoid the gatekeeping of journal-led peer review by opening comments to anyone, and provide the chance to experiment with new, more effective formatting styles and interactivity.
Effective leaders are advocates, mentors, and educators! There are as many leadership styles as there are leaders, but increasingly business models of leadership education are being applied to scientific leadership. Several books are available that were written explicitly for leadership and management within research environments, including Lab Dynamics (25) and At the Helm (26). There are also great in-person workshops, including those offered by Science Management Associated (27), NCFDD (7), and EMBO (9), which provide leadership and management training, but also focus on improving emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills. Additional valuable resources are Adam Grant’s TED Talks and podcasts (28). Adam Grant is an expert on how we can find motivation and meaning and lead more generous and creative lives. Adam also tackles emotions and mental obstacles that impact our work, like loneliness, procrastination, burnout and bouncing back from rejection. Another approach is servant leadership, a leadership philosophy in which leader’s goal is to serve their team (29). Founded by Robert K. Greenleaf, this workplace philosophy suggests that a group leader should base their actions on a series of criteria that are vital for the well-being of the team, such as, Do the trainees grow as persons? Do they, while being mentored and guided, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely to give back to their communities and establish healthy environments when they take their turns as leaders? A shift in the way we advance science towards a fairer and healthier academic environment and how we build our communities comes from strong, selfless, thoughtful, and trained leadership. Finally, as conflicts, or rather their resolution, are also a common part of leadership and mentoring, several workshops, such as those by NCFDD (7), Science Management associates (27), focus specifically on strategies for conflict resolution and communication. For example, a workshop offered by Science Management Associates called “Leading Courageous Conversations” helps you find ways to initiate the discussion of issues you would rather avoid.
While the resources presented here are in no way exhaustive, we will further delve into this topic during a Panel discussion hosted by Women in Cell Biology during Cell Bio 2022. This discussion will feature panelists from DORA as well as funding agencies, publishers, and activists, and will develop and promote ideas and tools for promoting equitable and non-toxic scientific communities.
Keashly, L. (2019). Workplace Bullying, Mobbing and Harassment in Academe: Faculty Experience. In: D’Cruz, P., Noronha, E., Keashly, L., Tye-Williams, S. (eds) Special topics and particular occupations, professions and sectors. Handbooks of Workplace Bullying, Emotional Abuse and Harassment, vol 4. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-5154-8_13-1
Abbott A. Germany’s prestigious Max Planck Society conducts huge bullying survey. Nature. 2019 Jul;571(7763):14-15. doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02052-2. PMID: 31267060.
Woolston C. PhDs: the tortuous truth. Nature. 2019 Nov;575(7782):403-406. doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03459-7. PMID: 31723297.
Lab Dynamics: Management Skills for Scientists by Carl M. Cohen and Suzanne L. Cohen. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.
At the Helm: Leading Your Laboratory. Kathy Barker. 2002 Publisher: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.
Science Management associates: https://www.sciencema.com
Greenleaf RK (1970) The Servant as Leader. Cambridge, MA: Center for Applied Studies. Reviewed in Servant Leadership: A systematic literature review—toward a model of antecedents and outcomes. Langhof et al. 2019. SAGE Journals.
About the Author:
Maria Fernanda Forni is a Pew Latin American Postdoctoral Fellow in Valerie Horsley’s lab at Yale University.
Stefanie Redemann is an assistant professor of Biological Physics and Cell Biology at the School of Medicine at University of Virginia.