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Cultural Infrastructure: Or why the ‘Big Society’ and post-pub peer review will fail in their current forms

13 June 2011 2 Comments

As a wooly headed social liberal with a strong belief in the power of the internet to connect people it is probably natural for to me have some sympathy for the ideas behind the “Big Society” espoused by the UK Prime Minister. The concept here is that many of the support roles traditionally taken by or at least mediated by government can be more effectively and efficiently provided in the community by direct interactions between members of the public. The potential of the web to inform, support critical debate, and above all connect people is enormous. There is a real potential to create markets for exchange of resources, primarily time and money, between those who have and those who need, while naturally tailoring these services to what is really needed at a local level. The efficiency of markets can be combined with a socialist vision of community responsibility combining the best of both political visions and jettisoning the failures of each.

There is of course trouble in utopia. What actually happens as government withdraws as the guarantor or service provision and hands over the reins to local community groups is a mixture of triumph and farce. A few communities are strong enough to engage their members and deliver services competently and effectively but these are usually the wealthy areas that are already well served. More widely a mixture of incompetence (in a purely technical sense) and a simple lack of people prepared or able to carry this load leads to those areas with poor service provision to receive less. There are groups that will step in to take up the slack but they tend to fall into two groups, either wealthy benefactors or groups with a specific agendas, sometimes with extreme viewpoints. Regardless of motivation, these groups come into communities from the outside. In that sense they are just like government, only with less regulation, probably less experience of service provision, and above all, not part of the community.

Building the technical infrastructure to support the Big Society is easy. But just because technical infrastructure is there doesn’t mean that community members have the time, the resources, or most importantly the motivation to use it. The cultural infrastructure, the assumptions that would motivate people to get involved, the support for people to take time off work (or work shorter hours) so as to spend time in the community, and the trust in systems for pooling the necessary resources simply doesn’t exist.  This cultural infrastructure will take a generation to build and will require a focused effort from government, communities, and industry. And it will require money.

So what does this have to do with peer review? Researchers contribute to traditional peer review because it something we expect to do. It is often claimed that we do peer review because we expect the favour of high quality review back in return. I just don’t buy it. If this were true we’d find it much easier to get people to share data (because they’d get data shared back in the future) or materials (similarly). None of this happens because we don’t have a cultural infrastructure that supports and values these behaviours. We do however have an existing cultural infrastructure which supports the need for traditional peer review to be done.

Naturally it follows that those things that aren’t seen as an assumed part of the job don’t get done. Post-publication peer review, despite its potential is one of these things. Data and process sharing are others. Data sharing plans and funder mandates are really just scaffolding. They support the structure that we can see that we want but they aren’t the foundations and pillars that will support a robust community. The moral debate on these issues has fundamentally been won, it is merely a question of implementation and managing the transition. But we now need to look beyond the technical problems and the application of big sticks to understand how we can build the cultural infrastructure that supports a world where reproducibility, effective communication of all research outputs, and ongoing critique of the outputs of others are assumed to be part of the job.


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  • Chris Leonard said:

    Surely if there were an incentive to engage in activities not directly related to publishing (research, papers, peer review) then we may get people contributing more of their time and energy to post-pub review, data sharing etc? In this current atmosphere of finding a way to measure a scientist’s whole output and influence, aggregating non-publishing research activities such as these could contribute to their own personal ‘impact factors’?

  • Cameron Neylon said:

    Hi Chris, Yes, and I strongly believe that this I the right way to go in the short term. It’s why I am spending time working on research evaluation. My point is in the longer term you’ve got to get beyond simple reward cultures and really embed those values in the community. So for instance when the deposition of PDB structures alongside structure papers was mandated, everyone knew it was the right thing to do but relatively few people were actually doing it. It went through a phase where the mandate (or reward of publication if you prefer) worked but now it unthinkable not to. It’s deeply embedded practice. That’s whee we ultimately need to a for, and the rewards help us along the way but they are not in and of themselves the endgame.