Why I am a product manager at PLOS: Linking up value across the research process

 Why am I a product manager at PLOS?

I am a product manager [1] at PLOS because of the thrilling opportunity to re-imagine and create better conditions for researchers to do and share science. Those far more insightful and eloquent have enumerated the existing system’s thousand points of failure to support the research enterprise.  What follows is a set of thoughts that originate from traditions borrowed outside of the everyday practice of science and, more broadly, scholarly communications.

While the research enterprise is comprised of vastly diverse activities, the overall set can be generalized at the highest level with a simple rubric (Four C’s):

Create: do something that inspires or catalyzes a new idea
Capture: externalize and preserve the idea
Communicate: make the artifact extensible and disseminate it, making it accessible for others
Credit: integrate work into existing credit systems

Science easily fits into this model. A researcher will design a project and conduct experiments (Create), analyze and synthesize the results (Capture).  She will disseminate the narrative by publishing a research article (Communicate) and seek credit for work done (Credit).  In the traditional rendering of the research cycle, you move from one phase to another in an orderly and straightforward fashion.  The sequence seems to make sense.  (What is there to “communicate” before something is “captured,” if not scientific misconduct?)

But does the process of scientific discovery actually work this way?

Not really.  Researchers continually discuss results so as to get feedback that is folded into their next set of experiments or analyses.  They do it informally through lab meetings, departmental gatherings, digital platforms (ex: Mendeley, Twitter, blogs, etc.), and any myriad of unplanned “water cooler” encounters.  They also do it formally through conference presentations, seminar talks, research articles, etc.  These recurring encounters are an intrinsic part of the process whereby scientific ideas are propagated, confirmed/refuted, and built upon by the community.  Science is very much a complex, social enterprise in this sense.  But this means that the four phases described above are more accurately depicted as overlapping modes of doing science.  Here, we no longer have a simple sequence of discrete moments. Rather, we have a dynamic set of live events that may start at an identifiable origin, but then proceeds to extend, fork into multiple branches, intertwine, double-over, etc.

The model in which research moves by sequence through the research lifecycle seems to me a paltry simplification of the larger process.  It might get frenetic and messy with multiple projects underway with different collaborator networks, each at different points of development, moving at different speeds.  But with so many simultaneous movements at play inside and outside the lab, no wonder doing science is so exciting!

I will elaborate on the first three C’s in subsequent posts, but focus here on the last one.  The fourth mode, Credit, stands apart from the others by its very nature and plays a more significant role in forming the environment where research acts play out. By and large, it is the mode single-handedly identified with the production of value.  The activity is embedded within formal institutions such as evaluation committees at institutions and funding organizations.  Informal indicators may attest to a research output as product of one’s work and thus accrue favor amongst colleagues. But credit is formalized by virtue of the outcomes available once credit is assigned. [2]  In the strictest sense, it counts as much insofar as it advances one’s reputation within the established systems that endow benefit to those awarded.  Credit forms the basis of an incentive structure, which then shapes the activities of those tied to it and in this sense, considered the least malleable.  It is considered the intended - explicit or implicit - terminus for every work unit started (in relation to the expected outcome of the work, not the personal motivations which drive the researcher to do it.)  The reward itself is presumed to account for the efforts entailed.  In the existing incentive structure for scholars, this still means publication in a high-impact journal or of a highly cited article.

Not surprisingly, this way of thinking plays a large role in shaping and reinforcing the linear view of how science works.  If there is no credit until the condition of citation is satisfied, we have no other narrative possible than the straight progression of the discrete phases depicted.  If the only work product that really counts is a research paper, published 5 years after the project commenced, which must wait another few years before citations accumulate, then we have a seriously protracted time lag before any evidence of contribution is formally recognized.  In this environment, why would we be surprised to discover that the entire practice of research has been reduced to a simple, linear process.  And this notion merely perpetuates the misconception that Credit, supposedly at the end of the single-link chain, can sufficiently reflect (and vindicate) the work which preceded.  Science is too fertile of an enterprise for this to suffice.  Researchers deserve better.  Fortunately, the prevailing notions of value and credit which underlie the incentive structure are beginning to change.

My sense – one shared by my colleagues – is that value is created throughout the lifecycle, not just when Credit is awarded.  If we share in a way that can be tracked as well as establish measurements for such outputs, we are capturing value across practices, not just recorded activities but actual practices.  If we capture value at each stage along the way, we can formally assess and recognize far more work products, not just surfaced pieces contrived to fit the final narrative.  If we think of the Four C’s as separate strands with possible outcomes which might be identified; compared; and measured, we could glimpse a far richer view of how scientific ideas impact each other to extend far beyond our anemic one recognized today.  If we take a broader view of the production of value and create formal mechanisms for its distribution and allocation, we create an economy that supports the myriad ways in which researchers are doing science and engaging with others’ work.  And we create a holistic environment more conducive to the advancement of research and far more supportive of all involved in the enterprise.

I am a product manager because I think all this is possible with social change and structural realignments (of technology and policy) across the research ecosystem.  I am a product manager because it is possible to transform how we access, track, share, discuss, discover, interrogate, and evaluate research findings — nothing short of how we do science.


1. I respectfully put the oft-asked question of “what a product manager does” aside for another occasion. If hows come also before whys, we would never get started for all the contradictory biographical minutiae to satisfy both the oppositional poles of narrative and truth.
2. Here, the point pertains to role, not person. A colleague may also be a formal evaluator of one’s work.

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One Response to Why I am a product manager at PLOS: Linking up value across the research process

  1. Pingback: Around the Web: A Creative Commons Guide to Sharing Your Science and more [Confessions of a Science Librarian] | Gaia Gazette

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