Interview about new academia

Better Know a Ronin: Rebecca Willén

In this interview, we start by discussing the motivations for founding IGDORE, how education fits into IGDORE’s mission, and discuss what “New Academia” is all about. We next talk about the importance of retroactive disclosure statements for transparency in science. We finish on the topics of co-working spaces, changing academic cultures and the future.

The interview is available here: http://ronininstitute.org/better-know-a-ronin-rebecca-willen/3182/

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Good read - thanks for sharing your story!
One more Q: how do you think Ronin and IGDORE complement each other and what’s the overlap in terms of benefits for members?
You mention that the two and other similar institutions like CORES and NCIS etc.) can work together regarding financial stability for independent researchers and develop programs together - for teaching and what else? Also research programs?
Do you already have sth. in mind we could tackle together?

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Thanks!

On IGDORE & Ronin

IGDORE has a clear focus on the latest best practices in research (i.e. open & transparent practices; fighting questionable research practices); all our researchers need to accept our code of conduct.

Ronin has a wider take-up than IGDORE and even more focus on researchers who don’t fit the traditional academic mold: researchers who want to work from home, part-time researchers, self-taught researchers.

I’m especially happy that Ronin also accepts the latter category of researchers; that is, people who have not received training the traditional way or may not have received any particular training at all. This is very important because there are a bunch of brilliant people out there who should have an institutional affiliation for their research. But I personally believe it’s also a bit problematic to the institution because of two reasons: How to assess someone’s methods skills? And, if accepting people who turn out to not know what they’re doing, then the whole institution could lose credibility (which ultimately also affects the other affiliated researchers).

However, if we would start assessing the skills of those without formal training, then we should also do the same for those with formal training. And then we will likely have a bunch of people with formal training who fail the tests. That will evoke lots of discussions and anger. I find this to be a very interesting issue and I do think it might be the proper way to do it in the future: to measure the skills instead of just assuming that someone with a certain formal degree has certain skills. For example, we do know from metascientific literature that a majority (sic!) of formally trained researchers seems to have got the basic assumptions of frequentist statistics all wrong (unless they cheat knowingly).

Measuring the skills instead of relying on formal training is frequently done in software organisations when hiring. My understanding is that many of the most skilled programmers don’t actually have much of a formal training (if any). My belief is that scientific research might not be that different.

Then we have the issue with institutional credibility. This may to some degree also be true for traditional universities, but arguably do researchers with formal degrees have much more own responsibility than researchers without formal degrees. Thus, issues resulting from lack of formal training will to a higher degree be a responsibility of the institution.

Thus, there are three reasons why I’m happy that Ronin is accepting scholars without formal training: (1) the science interested public can become even more interested in science by having the possibility to get a formal institutional affiliation, (2) because formal training is not a completely reliable measure of true methods and science skills, and (3) because IGDORE doesn’t have to do it when Ronin is doing it.

On the potential for collaborations

I haven’t actually given this much thought because IGDORE is still at a point where we are starting up and need to focus on building our own organisation. However, we do have plans on launching courses and programmes at some point in the future. The most visionary of our plans is a Massive Open Online Scientist Training (MOOST): free online training in scientific methods and statistics with the possibility of getting a formal doctoral degree through a partner institution. (I was actually gonna discuss the MOOST with you, Jo; stay tuned!)

Providing training and education is the primary way for all academic institutions, I think, to get financial stability for their affiliated researchers. But there might definitely be newer and more innovative ways too. Would love to hear ideas on that!

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Thanks for these explanations.
I am sure many of us already have ideas that could complement your suggestion for potential collaborations.
We could start by defining themes within IGDORE and working topics such as

  • Open Philosophy
  • Open Access / Open Science trainings
  • utilize the Open Science MOOC by promoting free online education courses and based on that offer hands-on trainings and moderated virtual courses and consultancies on each of the topics thereby keep improving the OSMOOC
  • Biohacking (Dinacon collaboration)
  • platform for trainings on OSH with the GOSH community
  • region-specific exchange of best practices (Americas (S/N), Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania) thereby providing a space for equal opportunities for all world regions representatives to shape the academic agenda

The idea here would be that through affiliation as independent researchers members of any of the above-mentioned communities can become trainers, consultants and educators for their respective field of expertise within the range of Open Science and Open Education.
We can also develop curricula to sell to universities to a fair fee that takes into account local purchasing capacities while at the same time ensuring sustainability of the IGDORE services.
Thoughts?

Trainings in groups and 1on1, consultancies and lectures could be delivered by trainers and instructors traveling for physical presence as well as virtually with developing and selling course curricula, offering webinars, developing MOOCs
Financing

  • free/paywalled depending on the depth of topic or target audience
  • flexible fees to be as inclusive as possible or with a basic fee that is relatively low and additional sponsoring/funding
  • solely based on funding.
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Dear Rebecca and all, as you have pointed out already regarding the flexibility of admitting members with non-traditional educational/research backgrounds to a new and emerging research institute such as ours is that it can only work hypothetically.

The reality is that while most people think they are are a Faraday waiting to be discovered , they are not. We already have a huge problem with ego and delusions of grandeur on science (at least in physics and astronomy) and even those who have been already recognized by society (via Nobel prices) have had to be double/tripled checked and called upon for wrong assessments on subjects and/or fallacious results (ie Carlo Rubbia comes to mind).

I suppose what I am trying to highlight is that while our current system of checks and balances is not perfect (ie peer review and independent verification by different groups) is better than not having anything at all.

The problem I see with an institution like Ronin (physics side at least) is that some of the members can claim to be doing research that:

1.Has not been published anywhere/reputable journal .
2. Has not been verified/cross-checked by an independent researcher/institution etc etc.
3. Claim that the research performed is the simple solution to many famous unsolved problems.

Any one or combination of these three points above will immediately question the credibility and quality of the research output.

This is the problem when you open your doors (too) wide open–which is itself a noble cause I admit. You have a higher probability of getting folks which may lower the credibility of your institution.

Now to my personal experience as a Ronin :

I found out about Ronin in 2018 and I did a publication search of the founder.
I found his cause and his publication background more than legit and commendable; I then took a look at the physics member’s list and looked for people with a background close to mine (I found only one at the time). I searched this peer up and checked out her research publication. She seemed also to be quite credible and legit: that was enough for me (I did not bother checking anyone else in the physics list). I asked Ronin to accept me as a member. Soon after I requested a large Nuclear physics collaboration in the United States to accept me as a member. The collaboration knew me quite well already and they prepared a slot for me on the next collaboration meeting so I can present my case and my institution. I presented 10 slides, ~6 about me and the rest about Ronin. Then they debated on an closed session about all institutes that wanted in. I had my inside peers tell me that the first thing people did was go online and check Ronin and the physics members (this time alphabetically). Ronin was described with insults such as “80% of physics members are crackpots”, “nuts”, and finally apparently people agreed that “we need to get Astrid out of there.” At the end of the day, I (rather Ronin) was rejected and I received emails of people at other institutes offering me affiliation to solve my problem of acceptance of the collaboration.
Long story short, I felt humiliated of course but this was only temporary.
I could understand why one would feel threatened by being associated with some of the people listed there. Indeed later on I was contacted by Ronin members asking me to evaluate their research (a bit on the crazy side IMO). I gave them a list of journals they should consider but that is where my advise ended, for sure I did not want at all to get involved.

The goal of Ronin is very noble but I personally do not think it could work without a minimum set of checks (ie realistic/legitimate peer reviewed publication list at a minimum). Also the excuse of not having a degree is not very valid now-days (at least not in physics). In all developed (and emerging) countries, a physics/astronomy education is either free or financed through grants (with a paycheck every month ). Even home-schooled folks can get their education validated by a recognized institution: ie subject and general GRE’ scores in the USA, Prepa tests in France etc etc. all the way up to the Master at least. For a PhD one can always try to submit their killer thesis to a willing institution and of course defend it.

Astrid

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