Transcript: The Researcher’s Dilemma

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A discussion on copyright and scholarly collaboration platforms with:
Sybil Wong, Vice President, Business Development
Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable (OBR)

Recorded in London

For podcast release Monday, December 8, 2014

KENNEALLY: Say the word research, and what do most people think of? Well, teenagers, at least, and many, many older people who should know better think of Google, of course – or maybe Wikipedia. But if your idea of research is a key word search online and a tap of the return key, then you probably think cooking is heating soup from a can. No offense intended to Campbell’s or to Google, but that’s not going to get you into the Le Cordon Bleu or qualify you for a doctoral degree.

Research – honest to God white coats and test tubes research – is what our next guest does. As a Ph.D. student jointly affiliated to the University of Nottingham and the Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London, Sybil Wong focused her research on a protein regulator of microRNA mediated gene silencing.

Now, understanding how microRNA silenced targeted messenger RNAs has been the focus of intensive research in a field that is barely 20 years old. The last few years have seen tremendous advancements in our understanding of the molecular mechanics of microRNA mediated gene silencing. Now, why should everyone in this room care? Because gene silencing has the potential to lead to suppression or cure for many genetically related diseases including cancer, infectious disease, respiratory disease and neurodegenerative disorders. In Sybil’s own research, she’s investigated a key mechanism of human tumor suppression.

After submitting her thesis, Sybil joined Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable as vice president, business development. OBR is a global platform that connects academia and industry to move ideas forward in health care and the life sciences. OBR works with the world’s top pharma and VC firms, including Johnson & Johnson Innovation, Roche, and SR One, as well as research institutes around the world. Sybil’s colleague, Daniel Perez, founded OBR in June of 2011 out of frustration with the lack of academic and industry ties in the life sciences. Since then, Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable has expanded from Oxford across the UK and to America, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Now, Sybil Wong previously graduated with honors in biochemistry and economics at the University of Hong Kong. In her free time, she volunteers in London to encourage hard-to-reach students to expand their horizons through studying science, complementing the OBR mission to facilitate young innovators to pursue their own ideas.

She also maintains her Japanese sword-fighting skills with weekly practices at London’s Hizen kendo club. The club’s dojo or training hall is nearby here at King’s Cross, and practices are open to the public. So welcome, Sybil Wong. (applause)

WONG: Thanks.

KENNEALLY: You should be fine. Yeah.

WONG: Can you hear?


WONG: All right. OK.

KENNEALLY: Now, I have to say – so researcher, entrepreneur, martial arts master – Now, that certainly disproves the idea that, if you want to get a lot of research done, you can’t have a life. Clearly you do. And our invitation today has taken you out of the lab, where the hours are long and the benches are hard and the lighting is harsh to this really rather sumptuous setting. And I guess one place to start is for you to tell us a bit about your work with OBR – with the Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable – because it’s all about connecting research and the real world, which is one of the things we’re discussing here today. So tell us a bit about OBR.

WONG: Right. So OBR is a global organization. And what we really want to do is to bring the younger generation of researchers in touch with the people who can provide them with the funding and the support in the long run. So, as a Ph.D. student, I’m faced with the dilemma of whether I go into academia to try to get a tenured position or whether I can leave academia – you know, see if I can secure a job in industry, where I can be working on an exciting project that is going to bring some form of treatment into the market – or if I would start my own company.

Now, all of these options are available to me. But actually the most difficult one is staying in academia and trying to get a tenured position, because there’s so much competition. And so we, as an organization – we wanted to make sure that young scientists weren’t going to give up science. This is our main aim. We did not want them to give up science. And whether it be that they go into industry to continue their research or whether that they start their own company to continue their research, we wanted to make sure that this was going to happen.

We felt that the easiest way to do that was not to connect them with the funding bodies, which, in the UK, is mainly governmental or charity. We actually wanted to find industry funding for them. We wanted to see – you know, what the pharmaceuticals wanted, what they saw were the real trends in treatment, and also what the VC firms saw.

So VC, the venture capitalists, they’re looking for early stage or high-risk investments where they’re going to spread out their investment over many, many different ventures, and, hopefully, one of them is going to be that rock star and get all their money back. They’re actually very willing to listen to young people, to try out different ideas. You know, if they see there’s promising science behind it, they’re often very interested in talking further and maybe giving you that seed funding, seeing if you can get to that first milestone of proving some part of your concept and then continuing from there.

KENNEALLY: Right. Well, I was reading, there was a presentation at the STM conference in Frankfurt just about a month ago, and a researcher here in the UK was talking about some of the challenges. We call this session here The Researcher’s Dilemma, and certainly you’ve pointed to one thing, which is that the opportunity for a researcher like yourself to find a full-time faculty position in the academic world is shrinking very fast. The numbers that he reported were something like only 15% of Ph.D.s have a chance of getting a full-time faculty position. So really, moving out of the institution into what I’m going to call the real world is something that isn’t just a nice-to-do, it’s a have-to-do for you.

WONG: Yeah.

KENNEALLY: And it really makes a difference, too, with the relationships that research are having with industry and with the related marketplace, from big pharma to scholarly publishing. So from OBR’s perspective and from your own perspective in the lab, talk about that, talk about how important the relationship is for you between the work you’re doing in the lab with the industry firms that you’re speaking with, and also with publishing itself.

WONG: Right. So if you talk to any academic researcher right now who’s trying to get funding, they will tell you that the first thing they need to put on their grant, one of the biggest portions and the most meaningless portions, is an impact statement. So they need to tell the funding body why this research, however early stage it may be, is going to lead to some sort of societal impact, which, for myself, actually, I’m a basic molecular biologist, somewhere down the line, our research will affect cancer patients, but it’s so basic. For me to say that my research is, in 20 years, going to lead to a drug is very close to a lie. There’s so much that could happen. This might not even be validated as a drug target. But that is the type of thing that a researcher needs to put in to their grant application to be funded.

In the same way, that impact also is a public profile for them, so they need to say, I think it’s the BBSRC, now you can build in some sort of public engagement portion into your grant, into your research to support why you need this money, which, for a researcher, actually that’s taking time out of their research. So one of the ways that they want to perhaps – I think the younger people are trying to address the fact that they don’t get enough of this public engagement or enough of an impact on society is to build a public profile.

I think sometimes it’s not just about that next career move, sometimes it is about actually seeing that my research that’s on this one single gene or this one single protein is somehow important to people who aren’t in the field, I think, more so with research. It is about feeling that they are in a community where people care about what they’ve done.

KENNEALLY: Right. And that real challenge there is that, as a researcher, you’re about more than producing articles, but yet you really have to do that. And what Mark Ware was talking about was the ways that some of these platforms allow you to do more than just worry about producing the articles. It’s about the profile. It’s also about sharing, which covers a multitude of sins. So talk about that, talk about how academics or researchers like yourself are sharing through these platforms. Are they excited about that? Are they hesitant about that? Is it a little bit of both?

WONG: I recently found out that my supervisor suddenly got on ResearchGate, and he started following me, which is a little scary, frankly. But he was sharing papers that he had published and – sharing PDFs. And I have the feeling that he doesn’t know that this is against the rules. So I have done the same thing Mendeley. Actually, what had happened, I use Mendeley as a –so when I’m writing my thesis, I used it purely as a way to store my PDFs in an organized manner. And I thought my library was private. And it turned out that somehow it had been turned on public automatically or something. But if anybody had seen my profile, they’d also be able to access the PDFs I’d stored on the account. And this was completely not really –I didn’t know.

And so I was contacted by, I think it was Nature or something, and they told me that I had to take it off the Internet, and so I did. But I didn’t actually know that was an infringement, or that was happening at all.

KENNEALLY: Right. Well, you’re not alone, Sybil. In my own research for this particular discussion, I spoke with another researcher on the social science side of things. He’s at – I won’t say where exactly, but he works for a center that’s studying intellectual property policy, copyright, essentially. At one point in our discussion on the phone, I asked about how important are copyright considerations to your decisions of what you post to these various platforms and repositories and others? Charming man with an Italian accent and so forth, and I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was smiling when I asked that question, because he said, well, ironically, it’s not that important to me. So even somebody whose study is copyright and intellectual property is doing some of the same sort of thing.

But I think it’s again an interesting way to understand better how these platforms are used. It’s not just about posting the materials, but it is about young researchers like yourself putting up their articles and so on, but also asking questions, looking for help.

WONG: Yes. So ResearchGate, I don’t know how much of you actually use it, there is a score, there’s something called an RG score on there, and it’s kind of like an h index, but it’s not. So it build in not only your publications, but also your involvement in that community. So one way you can build up an RG score is actually to use their discussion forum and answer questions or ask questions. So these are questions such as I’m trying to build this, or I’m trying to do this bacterial culture. What temperature should I set it to? And it’s something as simple as that. People are really, really good on those. You’ll have five to six answers for a simple question, and all of them going, you know, this, from my experience, this is the best way to do it, but it might depend on your lab. And especially with biology, there’s just so many things that could be different between the labs. And you actually see very good engagement there.

What I’m finding, and I’ve used it a little bit myself, people really enjoy that engagement. People enjoy the fact that the skills that they’ve honed over the last 10 years are actually being put to use by somebody else in, say, India or in somewhere else completely outside of their own community. And they like to be helpful in that way. And that again builds their score.

I don’t know if that score really is the driving force, but they feel valued. I feel that, as a young academic, you’re like fifth or sixth author if you’re in a big, high-impact journal. How do you tell your parents what you’ve been doing for the last 10 years. It’s something about just making sure that people know that you’ve put in that effort and it’s somehow making a difference somewhere.

KENNEALLY: Right. Well, I don’t know much about growing bacterias myself, but I do know, if I leave the food in the fridge long enough, eventually it happens. Talk about the ways that you, as a researcher, interact with the platforms, because there are two places you do that. One is at the institution where you are, at Queen Mary and University of Nottingham, but also your research continues when you leave. It’s like the rest of us, we take our work with us.

WONG: Yes.

KENNEALLY: I saw you on your laptop earlier. So why is a platform therefore useful to you when you are leaving the institution itself?

WONG: Mendeley was really, really important to my thesis writing. So what I would do is that I’d download a lot of papers before I left the office in the evening and then take them home to read. And because you could save them on the cloud, and then that would sync with all of your computers and everything, even if you didn’t have your laptop with you, you could sync it to a desktop at home. But you’d have the same library throughout all of your computers. And that was very important for me.

KENNEALLY: And that’s because you couldn’t bring your library access with you from the school?

WONG: And no, yeah, exactly.


WONG: Especially science, there was just no way of getting access to it outside of on a university terminal. So you’d have to save it to a USB or whatever, put it on the cloud, and then take it home. And if you needed to read something over the weekend, you’d either go into the lab or you’d just wait. And when you’re thesis writing, that’s a little annoying.

KENNEALLY: Right. And so I think the implication there is that this is really a matter of personal convenience for you rather than any other kind of motive.

WONG: No. I mean I wouldn’t, I mean I would buy these if I had to. But given that I had library access, I didn’t have to buy them.

KENNEALLY: So, for you, if it comes to researchers using these types of platforms as we move into the future, what are some suggestions you can think of to help publishers better understand how these platforms will remain attractive and perhaps might in fact be worth paying for? What are the kinds of things that you would actually pay for?

WONG: I would never pay for ResearchGate, just to say, because I would say it’s like a LinkedIn for researchers. It’s a way to track your CV by publication record and by your institution affiliations. And also, I would say their most attractive or their most profitable part of the platform is probably their jobs board at the moment. I think, at the moment, it’s free to post jobs, I think that will change very quickly.

Also, something, I think, with Colwiz, I’ve never really used that, but ResearchGate has also opened something lately like that, so it’s like a project management tool on ResearchGate, so it’s completely private, and I think it’s going to stay private for free for a while. I’m not sure how long that’s going to stay. But once it becomes full feature, I can see that that’s going to be where I would pay for it.

It’s all about how does this make my life easier in the lab? I don’t think it’s anything to do with how can I infringe the copyright of the things I’ve published. It’s more about, you know, how can this make my life easier? And, if this can connect me with other people, I would love that, because we don’t get enough interaction within the lab and also with people outside.

KENNEALLY: Right. So if that payment included licensing, that would work for you, as long as the kinds of additional services that were delivered were, as you say, raising your profile, building relationships. I understand, Sybil, that you really feel like the publishers have an opportunity to encourage these kinds of cross-discipline discussions.

WONG: Yeah. I use ScienceDirect. And I often find that the recommendations on that, once I click on an article to download it, those recommendations are actually really good, and they’re different to the ones that I get when I search on PubMed. So there’s definitely something that you guys are doing really well in terms of recommending articles from my publication history. But that doesn’t happen enough. That only happens when I engage with you on your Website in one location. But what Mendeley is doing is that it’s kind of always there. And it’s doing that across all platforms. I don’t need to go to one single publisher. I can get recommendations across all the different publishers from this one site, which is why I think Mendeley at the moment has that advantage. But there’s no reason why you guys couldn’t do it better and provide a similar way for us to find articles.

KENNEALLY: What’s there too isn’t simply published articles, but it’s manuscripts, it’s notes. Talk about what kinds of things wind up in Mendeley or elsewhere as part of that repository.

WONG: In my Mendeley library, actually, we have manuscripts. I have some unpublished data, which probably I should take off before they make it public, but there’s all sorts of things. So we share stuff. The reason why it’s shared on there is just again, it’s kind of like Dropbox I can just throw it on there. There’s annotation services on there. I’ve marked it up with keywords and stuff, so, and also the thing is it’s very good with text mining. So if I type in a sentence I remember from some paper, I can pull it out. It doesn’t have to be in the abstract. It could be in some figure legend or even the supplementary data. So it’s just a really good way for me to find information from what I’ve read so far.

In terms of other things that are shared, one of my colleagues is really in to this, but I’m not sure I’m completely convinced. There’s a lot of hype about publishing negative data. And I think it’s figshare or one of those. And it’s people putting up negative data.

KENNEALLY: Negative data, tell us what that is.

WONG: It’s data that proves that basically the hypothesis you set out to prove is not true. Or most commonly, in biology, it means that I think this particular treatment will do something, and it doesn’t. That, basically is, so like you may have killed like 50 mice over the period of six months, but nothing came out of it. The control group was the same as your treatment group. And in terms of research, that’s the end of that. That was the end of that drug.

But what really should be done is that people should know, so that people don’t try it again, because that’s a huge waste of money. But you don’t publish that. Nobody wants to publish that, or it’s not a newsworthy article. But that data needs to be published somehow. And I think some people are trying to get that done. But then a lot of supervisors would be cautious about just throwing out data like that. What is the protection of us? Because there’s no rigorous publication process. I think one of the really good things about publishing an article is that it really gives you that ownership of that research project. You are the authors. You are the people who did it, whereas, with this negative data uploading thing, I’m not sure. Where is that data going? And who is using it?

KENNEALLY: Right. I think that’s what Mark Ware called sort of gray matter. There a lot of material that goes into these platforms, far beyond published articles, and it has the potential to be valuable to some people and could also boomerang on the researcher himself or herself. Yeah.

WONG: Yeah.

KENNEALLY: Well, it’s an opportunity to speak with you that I’ve appreciated. I hope it’s been helpful to the audience to understand better what it’s like when you are at that very hard bench, rather than these comfy chairs. And we have a few moments left. If there are any questions for Sybil Wong from you here, here’s your chance.

I have to say I’ve worked at Copyright Clearance Center now for more than 10 years, and we are always talking about researchers and what they do and what they write. We care a great deal about their publications. This is my first chance to actually speak with one, so I really appreciate that. Do we have any questions then from you here? Yes, indeed? We have a microphone. Yeah. Maybe tell us who you are as well.

M: Yeah. (inaudible). By the way, really appreciate the story, very recognizable and very beautiful, I think actually. I think what I really enjoyed about your story is kind of the view of, hey, you have a need to kind of expose your stuff out there, which, by the way, you’re still kind of hesitant when you’re doing it, and then there’s the ease of use of sharing, almost Dropbox-like. Do you kind of differentiate those two use cases at all for all these platforms or is it all the same?

WONG: Definitely. I definitely use Mendeley, now that I know it’s my private library, just for myself. I don’t very much share stuff with my colleagues even. And with all data, we are very, very careful, especially when we’ve not published yet. You know, we share strategically with collaborators to get their comments, but we don’t widely share it. And definitely, if it were to be leaked somehow, that would be the end of us,

KENNEALLY: Well, that’s what I was trying to get at earlier in a question I was asking you about, you know, on the one hand, researchers are encouraged to and excited about the opportunity to share. There’s also a part of you that says, well, I want to be very careful indeed.

WONG: I think there’s that balance between sharing something that’s published, so if something’s published, definitely we’d love to share it and get more citations. That’s part of that impact. But if it’s not published, there’s the dilemma of if I don’t share it, nobody’s going to be able to give me comments on it before I send it to the publishers. There could be something I could do better. Or there might be some collaborators who would like to work with us. That’s another way to get authorship on a paper that we otherwise wouldn’t have. So I can see my supervisor treading that. You know, when we go to conferences, we have our laptop with us, and we select the people we talk to.

But yeah, data that’s completely just new from the lab, we definitely need to think about it before we put it anywhere. But I think there’s that drive to say, if it looks negative, just put it out there. And I don’t think that’s wise.

KENNEALLY: And I think the other part that you mentioned to me earlier that’s important to just put on the table is that the particular platform that you may be using at the time not only allows you to share and to make things available, but it makes your research easier because you can search all of this matter at one time.

WONG: Yes. That’s the beauty of Mendeley for me, yeah.

KENNEALLY: Right. Yes? Miles McNamee?

MCNAMEE: Miles McNamee. Early in your description of how you go about your work and the company that you’re working with now, there is this bridge between your academic life and your commercial life, and how researchers are, I don’t know, kind of living in both worlds in that regard. How is that working? So you’re bringing your academic paper, your thesis and all the things you’re working on, to this commercial company so that you can determine, am I going to be a professor or am I going to get a job and do these things? Has anyone kind of helped you with the rules of copyright in some way, shape or form to understand that things are different in both of those marketplaces, both of those spheres?

WONG: I would say no. (laughter)


WONG: Also, with my research, I didn’t so much share it with OBR as take the expertise of being able to understand life sciences as a whole to OBR. And they didn’t really hire me because I had a particular background, that I’d worked on (inaudible), say, but they liked the fact that I had done that research before and I understood what researchers did.

Copyright is something that we don’t understand very much in the organization, I would say. And generally, I think, with researchers, our understanding is just that, you know, don’t share it if it’s not open access. That’s about all we know.

But then there’s that gray area where you’ve got the manuscript and you can kind of share it. And I know people do host it on their own service at the university. So that’s where that is. But as a coauthor, I’ve never really thought about what I do with my papers, to be honest.

KENNEALLY: But I think, Miles, you put your finger on something that I was thinking about, which is, if this trend continues that researchers like yourself, Sybil, less and less are in the academic world and more and more are in the corporate world, they may be carrying some of the habits that they have acquired in the academic world –

MCNAMEE: (inaudible).

WONG: Right.

KENNEALLY – into the corporate world, almost the way that, when we’re at home and we’re on Amazon, we take our expectations of Amazon and bring it to the enterprise in the morning, and suddenly there’s a clash there.

WONG: Yeah, so I see what you mean there.

MCNAMEE: Thank you.

WONG: , Certainly, certainly. Yeah, I think we would – there’s been questions around the organization going, if we’re having so many academics move into the startup scene or moving into corporate, I think most big pharmaceuticals will have their own libraries. But if you’re a small biotech, you can’t afford subscription fees, how are you going to get your literature? Probably via your friends. That’s what we’re looking at. That’s a little bit.

KENNEALLY: Yeah. I think that puts your finger on another dilemma here. And I see Carlo (sp?) with a question. Carlo, tell us your name and use the microphone, if you could, please?

SCOLLOA LAVIZZARI: Carlo Scollo Lavizzari I’m a copyright lawyer. But I’m intrigued by the scope of collaboration and would like to know to what extent have these networks helped you to find people to work with, maybe even labs that are competing with you on some level, that you would not otherwise have met at conferences or other gatherings. Are there people you –there’s only one way to meet them, and that’s through these networks?

KENNEALLY: And if I can sort of sharpen that up a little bit, I mean that’s the aspect here that we haven’t talked about, which is the social network piece of this. And so, while we dismiss the idea of Facebook for scientists, there really is that element where you’re connecting with people that you can’t see or meet here in London, but they’re around the world.

WONG: I think there’s still a level of fallacy in the fact that you can find collaborators via these networks, because you can find the people who have the skills or who have the right expertise to be your collaborator, but you would never share data with them until you meet them in person. I can vouch for that. You meet them in person or you get them extensively on the phone.

This is something like, so if you want to get a reagent off a person and say, you know, hey, you published this antibody, I really want it, they’re usually quite keen to just send it to you via FedEx, and then they can be acknowledged in the paper, that’s fine. But if you’re going to be collaborating on your next paper, this person’s going to be a coauthor, you’re going to be sharing quite a lot of unpublished data. Generally, I just really do not feel that there could be any way that, other than identifying that person, you could use solely the social network to achieve the collaboration.

KENNEALLY: I think we have time for one more question. Yes, back there?

JONES: Hi, Phill Jones again from Digital Science. So you talked a lot about protecting your publication interests as a researcher, not sharing negative data, not sharing data, and being careful about who you talk to and who you work with and so forth. I think a lot of that is, in my experience as an ex-researcher, driven by the need to get the highest possible impact publication, and the waiting to get more data as well kind of draws into that as well.

So in a sense, if you were able to get credit for, let’s say, putting out a dataset, if you’re able to get credit for those discussions, if those were counted and metricized and analyzed by the tenure review committees and the hiring committees, would that change the dynamic? And could we end up with a situation where the publishing tail is not wagging the science dog quite so much?

WONG: Yes, I think so. I like that idea. I think there needs to be more of a milestone almost based publication. You know, we’ve finally – this part of the hypothesis is true. We’re not sure about the other parts, but this part is certainly true or we have data to prove that.

My problem with what we’ve done in the past four years with my research is that we’ve actually found something very interesting at the start, and then we tried to flesh it out into a bigger article, but we never published – we still haven’t published that thing we found like four years earlier. And the scientific community could have benefited with it in the public space, but we’ve not done it because we are worried we won’t get that publication. And that’s to do with our salaries.

Yeah, I think working with the funding bodies, talking about what is impact to them and really redefining that, that could help us. I don’t think infrequent high-impact publications should be what we’re aiming for in academia to show that we’re successful as researchers.

KENNEALLY: Or at least not the sole measurement. Well, I want to thank Sybil Wong, researcher, entrepreneur, kendo master, for joining is today. Thank you very much indeed.


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