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How to Use Technology to Improve Research with Aleksandra Sokolowska


  • Incentives are distorted
  • Prestige through high impact journals is not pareto optimal.
  • SEED is an interdisciplinary conference to tackle this problem through technology
  • Attributing reputation to single observations & units of work instead of research paper could be a way forward
  • Many interesting propositions exist to build alternative reputation systems

Who is Aleksandra Sokolowska?

Head of Research & Analytics Validity Labs
Computational Scientist & Astrophysicist
Founder of the women++ network
Organizer of the SEED Conference
Twitter @alex_sokolowska

What are the biggest problems in research?

Economics of Science

The overall currency in which most of academia measures itself is prestige. This counts for all parties, including the universities, the funders and, by virtue of their employers and their funders, so do the academics.

A shortage of funding relative to the amount of people who want to work in academia leads to intense competition between scientists. They will engage in activities that maximize signaling value. The most common way to measure prestige is the number of citations a particular researcher has gotten.

Many grants and jobs only last a few years, after which scientists need to go look for new sources of funding.

This can mean that the people who are best at getting citations in a relatively short amount of time are going to thrive in this system.

Safe Projects instead of ground-breaking stuff

Many people go for “safe projects” that are not ground-breaking. This can get you cited in the first 2-3 years after publication. That is the crucial time cycle in which your citations matter for your next job.

More risky research can take a lot longer to be noticed and cited.

For example, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921 for research he had done in 1905. A mere 16 years, or almost half an academic career.


Academia selects for people who are really good at getting funding and getting citations for their work. Doing great, meaningful science only partially correlates with this.

Most of the players are stuck in a Nash-Equilibrium with this non pareto-efficient way of allocating their time. Because what everyone values are publications in high-impact journals (“prestige”), they send their articles to these expensive, high impact journals. These are mostly rent-seeking off their high status.

Credit to the brilliant Equilibria book for some of those terms.

Why does Peer-review work?

We can’t be quite sure why scientists are willing to spend time in peer-review without getting paid. Aleksandra thinks it’s part of a sense of duty that researchers feel to give back to the field. There could also be connected to the fact that scientists want to stay up to date with the latest in their field, as well as making sure they’re in good standing with the people their career depends on.

What is the SEED 2019 conference?

Bringing together all the players

SEED, in partnership with ETH Zurich Library Lab, is the platform for demonstrating the benefits of blockchain technology for the research infrastructure. Decentralized technologies have a great potential for incentivizing collaboration and openness in science, providing new ways of funding research projects, and empowering the scientific community to be appropriately rewarded for their work.

SEED brings together people from various groups in the scientific ecosystem across silos. Apart from researchers, everyone is welcome – librarians, technologists, business executives, funding organizations, publishers, as well as anyone interested in learning more about blockchain in a purposeful context

The first two days are planned as a symposium with interdisciplinary keynotes, blockchain training, as well as lectures on science economics, patents, research assessment metrics, funding in research and scholarly communication. Everything will be put in the context of cutting-edge technologies and their role in research innovation. SEED will also go through the various issues we’ve talked about before.

The last two days are designed as a Think Thank, during which people with various background join forces and come up with potential technology-based solutions to those problems based on what they’ve learnt. The approach will be human-centered, making use of various design thinking tools.

By having people from various parts of the ecosystem together, SEED wants to make sure that the use cases can work for all the relevant players. The solution builders need to deeply understand the needs, desires, and incentives of the various players in order to build sustainable solutions.

At the end of the program, people will be able to pitch their solutions to the entire audience.

Finally, the best ideas will be turned into code during the incubator phase by a dedicated team of developers. Those proofs of concept can be a starting point to innovate new approaches for academic entities such as the ETH Library.

What is currently being built already?

Fragmentation of the paper into its valuable subparts

What many people are working on is the ability to publish single observations, graphs, data sets.

In the world of printing, you could mostly only publish an entire paper with a certain narrative and lots of supporting proof in the form of observations to support that. The review process though is very slow, and it can take a year or more until your paper gets published. We need to

increase the speed at which these observations could come out.

Using the blockchain we could timestamp when certain observations have been made.

This would have three main advantages.

  • Much faster release of valuable observations for a) other scientists to build upon (faster innovation, open science) and b) for scientists to mention in the job application.
  • This means more accurate attribution of credits for a particular work done in a research project, which may be equally important but for some reason not rewarded as the “first author” (the honorary place getting the glory of conducting the research project). For example, acquiring the data, the analysis or writing up the interpretation might have been done by different people with equal amount of effort, which in the new system would not be neglected.
  • Researchers can gather reputational points with single observations, without having to build a narrative around it. Most likely this would lead to more data with less bias being released.

This also opens up a new window to be recognized for other contributions such as a piece of code, videos, explanations etc. They could also get cited and rewarded but in the current system, although extremely important from the point of view of science communication, they carry close to no value

Trojan horse approach is needed

We’re stuck in a non-pareto-efficient prisoner’s dilemma where publishing in the existing, high reputation journal gives higher payoff than any other way of disseminating your results. Hence we need to build a trojan horse approach that allows to still publish in those journals while additionally building a new system where additional reputation systems can get built.

As an example, Protocols.io is allowing scientists to publish their research protocols and build a reputation on that platform. It’s quite similar to how GitHub is a very meritocratic platform for people to get rewarded for high-quality work, however small it may be.

We can also see it happening with Horizon 2020, which is a large enough player to get people to move from closed-access journals to open-access journals.

How to attend the SEED conference?

Go to seed2019.io 🙂

The conference is happening 25th to 28th of February in Davos, Switzerland.

About Bio2040

There are so many challenges in drug discovery. We are a group of entrepreneurs and scientists who want to improve things. Our first measure is to educate ourselves and the community on what the biggest bottlenecks and their underlying reasons are. This leads us to discover exciting new opportunities. Bio2040 wants to be the leading place for or entrepreneurs & academics to meet, exchange ideas and launch new ventures.

How to stay connected or get involved

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By |2019-01-18T10:24:08+01:00January 18th, 2019|Collaboration, Funding|0 Comments

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