Promoting Openness and Transparency in the Contemplative Sciences

For the past two decades, a small but growing number of scientists, philosophers, and scholars of religion have been building a unique community at the crossroads of their disciplines — a place where they can push the boundaries of traditional research to shine new light on fundamental questions about the human experience. What is this thing we call “mind”? Is it all about the brain, or does it extend into our bodies and even into the physical and interpersonal environments around us? Can we use contemplative practices like meditation to change our minds to be more aware, more engaged, more compassionate? And what could this mean for our physical health, our social relationships, our world?

By integrating diverse approaches like neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, religious studies, physiology and social science to wrestle with these questions, a new transdisciplinary area of research and scholarship is forming, often referred to as the “contemplative sciences.” Scholars combine traditional methods of scientific inquiry with careful examination of subjective experience, resulting in a more complete approach to studying how minds work, and how meditation can best be applied in today’s society. Research in this area has skyrocketed in recent years, mirroring our culture’s growing interest in meditation. Over 2,500 studies have been published since 2010 alone.

The Mind & Life Institute has been a hub for the contemplative sciences from the earliest conversations, and it now supports this emerging field by providing research funding, holding annual research institutes for young scholars, convening interdisciplinary dialogues, and hosting a large biennial international research symposium.

A big part of our role within the contemplative research community is to support rigorous investigations across disciplines — providing funding opportunities for cutting edge studies, and creating forums for that research to be shared. To date, this has happened through avenues like academic conferences, blogs and essays for a wider audience, or live-streamed dialogues with influential leaders like the Dalai Lama. This year, Mind & Life has turned its attention to a new way for researchers to share their findings with other scholars and the public.

Behind closed doors

In any investigation, openness and transparency are key values. After all, what good is research if the knowledge it generates stays hidden in an ivory tower? For findings to be properly critiqued and to have impact, data should be fully accessible to all (i.e., open) and communicated clearly and thoroughly (i.e., transparent) so that results can be tested independently by other investigators. Researchers overwhelmingly agree about these ideals, but the system is set up in ways that often discourage putting these values into practice.

The conventional model of sharing scholarly findings is to publish results in academic journals. The familiar adage that scholars must “publish or perish” is very real, as publications are seen as the primary indicator of the thinking and research that is performed in academia. For scientists, both the number of publications and the prestige of the journals in which one publishes are critical markers of success. Let’s look more closely at the basic structure of the current publication process, along with some of the problems that come with it.

Submission and review

When a research project is complete, authors submit a manuscript summarizing the work to a journal, and it is then reviewed by a few other scholars with expertise in the topic or methods. Reviewers serve as the vetting committee, and can either reject a paper outright if it is viewed as highly flawed or of little interest, suggest changes or improvements, or allow the paper to be published “as is.” If a paper isn’t rejected — over 90% of submissions are rejected from top-tier journals like “Science” and “Nature” — additional work is usually suggested. This process of feedback and revision often improves the final research product, yet it slows the publication process considerably, sometimes by years, restricting the availability of information from the study.

In addition to the lengthy process, which slows the pace of research in general, limiting the vetting process to a small number of reviewers means that certain viewpoints may not be considered, and it allows for personal bias and politics to enter the picture. It would be better if many colleagues could provide feedback on each paper, but given the pressure to publish as much as possible and as fast as possible within the constraints of the traditional journal system, this is simply not feasible. With slow publication and limited review, the existing journal industry offers what is increasingly viewed as an outdated and inefficient model of scholarly communication.

Publication bias

It’s becoming increasingly clear that biases exist within the academic publishing sphere that influence what is deemed relevant or interesting. For example, so-called “negative findings” are notoriously difficult to publish in scientific research. These occur when a variable is shown to have no statistically significant effect on a given outcome — an example in contemplative research would be when a study finds that meditation is not helpful for a given population, or has no effect on brain function, etc. While it seems obvious that these kinds of results are as important to publish as the more exciting “positive findings,” they are seen as less interesting or valuable in academic publishing. After all, journals are in the business of selling subscriptions, and as with other media outlets, ground-breaking headlines catch more attention.

In clinical research, for example, it’s been reported that positive findings are three times more likely to be published than negative findings — and for half of all clinical trials, the results are never published at all. Knowing that there is a lower probability of publishing negative findings, researchers may choose not to put in the time and effort to write them up — understandably, as their careers and livelihood depend on publishing and they need to allocate their overstretched bandwidth towards making that happen. This leads to what is called the “file drawer effect,” where valid but less exciting results remain unpublished, collecting dust in labs and offices.

In the end, this unequal reward structure sets up a publication bias where only a subset of the work that’s actually being funded and conducted gets shared, resulting in an academic literature that tells only part of the story. This can lead to serious misperceptions in any field. Within contemplative sciences, publication bias has certainly contributed to the “mindfulness hype” so prevalent in recent years, where mindfulness is presented as a kind of cure-all that’s been proven time and again by overwhelming scientific evidence. Researchers know the story is more complicated, and we need a way to balance the scales.

Money and access

While it may seem like a niche market, academic publishing is big business, bringing in total revenues somewhere between the recording and film industries. But this sector is far more profitable. For example, a 36% profit margin for the scientific arm of Elsevier (a giant multinational publisher) eclipsed that of Apple, Google and Amazon (individually) in 2010. In large part, publishers are able to make these massive profits by outsourcing much of the required labor at no cost, and then charging hefty fees to authors, university subscribers, and individual readers.

Many people who aren’t familiar with academic publishing are surprised to learn that the authors and reviewers who provide the actual research papers and expertise in peer review are not paid for the publication process. In fact, authors often must pay the publisher to cover costs of publication (from several hundred to several thousand dollars per article), and they must sign over their copyright on the published product. Furthermore, publishing companies reap billions in profits by charging pricey subscriptions to access the knowledge held in their journals. For non-academics who are unable to use a university subscription, it can cost $30 or more to download a single article. This places a significant restriction on access to knowledge, allowing only the privileged academic elite to fully and easily obtain research findings. Academics and laypersons alike have argued that this limited access is unacceptable given that most research is funded by taxpayer money through government grants.

It might be assumed that the media provides an avenue to translate between the ivory tower and the general public, but media outlets are hampered by quick turn-around times and the need for flashy, “clickbait” headlines, which skews their interest in reporting. In addition, the media can oversimplify or misconstrue the careful and nuanced conclusions scientists offer in the hopes of telling a simple, impactful story. Particularly in our current environment of “fake news” and the use of political spin to influence the way scholarly findings are interpreted and communicated, we need a way to circumvent bias and get to the objective facts. Society should have full and unfettered access to the data, methods and analyses that researchers are producing. When this access is restricted and knowledge is available just to the privileged, it stifles scientific advancement and contributes to a potentially dangerous power dynamic where information can be controlled and manipulated.

A new way forward for open sharing

The good news is that major shifts are afoot within the academic community in terms of how research gets published and shared. Across disciplines, many journals are shifting toward open-access publishing, removing paywalls and allowing anyone to download articles for free. Among the pioneers are the journals from the Public Library of Science (PLoS), which began in 2001. Since then, the open-access movement has been growing rapidly, and there are currently over 9,000 open-access scholarly journals. This is an important step, and aligns with the view that the results of publicly funded research should be available to all. Some funders require the work they fund to be published in open-access journals, and many researchers make a point to submit preferentially to these journals as a matter of ethical practice. And not just within science — humanities scholars have also been pushing towards publishing in open-access journals to increase availability and dissemination of critical thinking. Despite this broad movement, however, even open-access journals perpetuate problems such as limited reviewer input, slow review/revision process, publication bias and high costs for authors.

An alternative model has been gaining traction in the past few years, and its roots go back to the early days of the internet. In 1991, scholars in physics launched a free and open online server to host scholarly manuscripts known as “preprints” — completed research papers that had not yet been submitted for publication to a journal. This digital repository, named arXiv (pronounced “archive,” the X is a Greek letter chi), now hosts over 1.2 million publications, freely accessible to anyone.

Despite arXiv’s success and popularity as an open database of scholarly work in physics, other fields have been slow to replicate these efforts, and the legacy journal system has remained dominant. But this now changing. In 2013, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories launched bioRxiv as a preprints server for biology, receiving hundreds of submissions per month and currently hosting over 13,000 papers. Other fields are rapidly following suit, and today there are open preprints servers for research in chemistry (ChemRxiv), psychology (PsyArXiv), social sciences (SocArXiv), law (LawArXiv), agriculture, engineering and more.

Why preprints?

As a form of scholarly communication, preprints offer a number of benefits over traditional academic journals. First, researchers are able to post their findings as soon as the study is complete, speeding dissemination of results considerably. In addition to increasing the overall advancement of knowledge, publicly sharing results also helps establish precedence for researchers, reducing concerns that another group may get credit for an idea if their publication process happens to unfold more quickly.

Preprints are fully accessible and free to anyone by design, which means information can be shared much more equitably than in the current paywalled system. Moreover, peers within the academic community can comment on preprints and authors can reply or even upload revisions based on feedback, enabling an open online discussion of the merits of the work, and a clear record of its evolution. This expands the peer review possibilities tremendously compared to the journal system, and increases transparency throughout the process.

Importantly, work that has been shared as a preprint is still eligible for submission to traditional journals for publication. Many journals previously prohibited submission of findings appearing in the public domain, but most (including top-tier journals like “Science,” “Nature” and “Cell”) have changed their policies to allow submissions that have been shared on preprint servers. In fact, preprint advocates argue that the open review process can improve the quality of a manuscript, leading to more impactful publications.

In addition to unpublished manuscripts, preprints servers are becoming robust repositories of published work (either open-access articles or unformatted author versions). As journal owners like the American Psychological Association are cracking down on authors who post unauthorized versions of their own articles to their university websites, preprint servers are becoming a preferred solution for sharing unformatted, authorized versions because online archives are more discoverable and preservable than personal or university sites.

The preprint model also combats publication bias toward positive or exciting results, since all results can be shared equally. Some servers include a vetting process for initial submissions to ensure basic criteria are met, but the intention is for research to be valued based on the quality of the study, as opposed to the results. Efforts are also underway to advance pre-registration of research, another strong approach to increase transparency and reduce publication bias.

In light of these benefits, many research funders are actively encouraging the use of preprints servers as a preferred means of sharing findings. Recently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest funder of biomedical research in the world, released an official statement encouraging the use of preprints to “speed dissemination, establish priority, obtain feedback, and offset publication bias.”

MindRxiv

The Mind & Life Institute supports the movement toward open and transparent sharing of research. As part of our mission to catalyze and advance contemplative sciences, we are pleased to introduce MindRxiv, a free preprints server for research on mind and contemplative practices. The goal is for MindRxiv to be a central, open repository for emerging work across the many disciplines in the broader field, integrating basic, clinical and social sciences, as well as the humanities. MindRxiv is built on the Open Science Framework platform, a free service provided by the Center for Open Science, and will be managed by the Mind & Life Institute and an interdisciplinary advisory council of leading scholars.

Scholars, scientists and applied research professionals in the contemplative sciences are encouraged to submit papers to MindRxiv. All completed work related to mind and contemplative practice/philosophy is welcome, including scientific research, contextual studies, theoretical models, critical commentaries, etc. Please consider this server as a resource to view the latest thinking in our field, and as a home for your own scholarly work. The goal of this service is to facilitate knowledge sharing, enhance communications and encourage input across disciplines, thus improving the overall rigor of the collective research. Submissions can be new, unpublished work written in the style of an academic manuscript, or previously published articles (open-access or unformatted author versions). Submit your work here, and use this step-by-step guide to answer common submission questions, or see this video tutorial. The MindRxiv FAQ is also a useful resource.

We look forward to seeing the good work of our community on MindRxiv, and to supporting a more open environment for research that aims to reduce suffering and enhance flourishing in our world.

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