Interview: Howard Browman

An interview with scientist and editor Howard Browman, who has experience working in the US and EU

Interview: Howard Browman

I became acquainted with Howard Browman initially over social media, as he made some excellent comments and insightful additions via Twitter. I’ve since gotten to know him better, which has been both enlightening and a pleasure. Because he’s an editor, scientist, and has lived and worked in both North America and Europe, I wanted to ask him some questions about where we are today.

  • Q: Can you introduce yourself to the readers? What is your background? Current role and responsibilities?

Browman: I am a Canadian scientist who has been working for a government-sector marine research institute in Norway for 25 years. Before moving to Norway, I studied and worked in Canada and the USA. My research has covered many areas, mostly related to science in support of the sustainable use of living marine resources. I continue to be involved with laboratory and field research, while also being editor-in-chief of a leading marine science journal. I also sit on the Council of Science Editor’s Editorial Policy Committee, and I am a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics’ (COPE) Council and Trustee Board.

  • Q: You were born in Canada, trained there and then in the US, and ended up in Norway. Can you walk us through those transitions?

Browman: That’s a lot of transitioning, for sure. But it’s not atypical in this area of research. I was born in Montréal, Québec, Canada. I completed a Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology, and a Masters in Biological Oceanography, at McGill University, and obtained a PhD in Systematics and Ecology (Limnology = the study of freshwaters) from the University of Kansas. I went on to postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Montréal, University of Victoria, and Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (in Québec) before accepting a position with the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen, Norway, in 1998. My research focus has shifted from natural science to biomedical science and then back to natural science. I moved nine times between 1989 and 1998, first criss-crossing the North American continent (Montreal-Kansas-Montreal-Victoria (B.C.)-Rimouski, and then the Atlantic ocean (Rimouski-Bergen).

  • Q: Your journal, the ICES Journal of Marine Science, will be going full OA in 2023. Can you talk about how this transpired? How you think this will affect matters going forward?

Browman: This transition from a traditional subscription to an open access publishing model was driven mainly by the push from European and national (within Europe) funding agencies, governments, and NGOs to make all research free to read without an embargo period. This has been organized through Plan S. The result has been that traditional subscription journals faced a situation in which they would be non-compliant with the open access objectives of these funders. That is, authors receiving funding from a Plan S signatory would not be able to publish their work in non-compliant journals. That reality triggered a several-year long process of planning for a transition to an open access model.

The editorial policy and processes applied by ICES Journal of Marine Science will be unaffected by this transition. Our mission includes striving to publish only those articles that are signals in an ever-increasing sea of noise; that will not change, as has been made clear to our editors, authors, and readers. We are also committed to ensuring — by offering article processing charge waivers — that no author will be unable to publish in our journal because of a financial barrier. We have some control over those aspects of the transition. The effects of the transition on aspects that are beyond our control are difficult to predict. For example, we might see a change in submissions — some models say a decrease; some an increase. We might see changes in the geographic provenance of authors-articles, career stage of corresponding author, diversity of authors, etc. That will be monitored closely.

  • Q: As an editor of a journal, what are the biggest challenges you face on a daily basis?

Browman: Recruiting reviewers. Small disciplinary journals, even leading high quality ones (WoS Q1), are seeing review request uptake of less than 35%, often much less. That means that it is common to have to invite 10-20 people to obtain two reviews. One can only imagine what the situation is for Q2-4 journals. This is one reason why researchers are bombarded with requests to review. It also adds to the variability in the quality of peer review (the editor never knows who will end up agreeing to review), and to the time that the process takes (it takes time to invite 10-20 people; unless you invite 20 people simultaneously . . .). Authors should be suspicious of journals that make claims of being able to deliver a decision (after peer review) on unrealistically short timeframes.

Establishing and maintaining a reasonably consistent editorial standard amongst a large group of decision-making editors, keeping them engaged, and ensuring that they are not overburdened so that they have the time that they need to make well-informed and considered decisions.

Developing a strategy to continue to be competitive with an ever-growing number of aggressively commissioning publishers and their journals in a landscape in which authors are unaware/uninformed of the differences between journals.

  • Q: What kinds of adaptations did your journal have to make during the pandemic?

Browman: We were more flexible with people’s turnaround times. Several editors needed leaves of absence to deal with COVID (themselves and/or families). Sadly, one editor passed away from COVID complications. However, possibly counterintuitively, we received more submissions and higher review request uptake during the pandemic, and reviewers and authors were more timely.

  • Q: Preprinting is a new and controversial practice. What are your thoughts?

Browman: The scientific publishing landscape is far more complex today than it was when I started my career in the early 1980s. There have been/are multiple efforts to address what are considered flaws in the publishing system. Many of these efforts are contradictory (e.g. open peer review will solve a lot of the problems; fully anonymous peer review will solve a lot of the problems). Preprinting is one such initiative. I am not convinced that indiscriminate preprinting accomplishes what its proponents and advocates claim for it, even for early career researchers. For example, as a member of a hiring committee, I find it difficult to understand how/why a candidate would think that the committee members would find a preprint of equal value to a manuscript that is under review at a leading disciplinary journal; neither are published in the sense of having passed rigorous peer review. I work for a research institute whose mandate is to provide the best available scientific advice to stakeholders and to government agencies charged with developing regulations. It could be viewed as irresponsible for a researcher whose work is intended for such purposes to make it publicly available as an unvetted preprint. I would argue that the problems with scientific publishing that all of these initiatives want to overcome are deeply structural. But all of these initiatives, including preprinting, are procedural. As such, they are unlikely to succeed and, in fact, there are signs that they can make matters worse.

  • Q: In the US, many qualified young scientists are struggling to maintain meaningful careers. Are things better in Europe? How are prospects for young scientists from your perspective?

Browman: After my PhD in Kansas, I returned to Canada where I postdoc’ed in three places for nine years. During those nine years, I applied for >200 jobs all over the world. I was short-listed for jobs in the USA, Australia, Israel, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Canada, and Norway. When suitable permanent offers failed to materialize, I applied to be an air traffic controller. I applied to medical school and was accepted, but would have had to take a second PhD and then a specialization as a neurosurgeon. Had I taken that route, I would have been in my mid-40s by the time I finished.

The reality is that in the USA, Canada, or Europe, the path to a career in science has never been easy. There are, of course, other career path options, more so today than when I started out.

My message to early career researchers is to consider what you want and what you are passionate about. If that is doing science, then stick with it. Something will eventually work out, but you have to be patient and resilient.

  • Q: What do you think are the greatest opportunities for science to improve going forward?

Browman: Science requires scholarship. Scholarship takes time. Space must be recreated in research institutions to support stepping back from the instant-everything and output-counting culture to allow for and protect a return to scholarship, careful consideration, and organized skepticism.

Innovation and creativity come from individuals. That reality has been lost in the move further and further away from single investigator projects/funding. That is a mistake.

As noted above, these are deep structural issues. A procedural approach will not fix them.

  • Q: What do you see as the biggest threats to science and its role in society going forward?

Browman: Erosion of scholarship.

Erosion of innovation and creativity.

Erosion of scientific journals as trusted sources of information.

Erosion of trust in science.

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