Announcing the SoS Research Collective
+ offering paid subscriptions (author: Roger's Bacon)
“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.” (Richard Feynman)
We (the founding gardeners Roger, Dario, and Sergey) have always conceived of Seeds of Science as a kind of research project, with the journal serving as the first of several “experiments”. You could think of our research questions as the following:
(1) Can people outside of academia make valuable contributions if given the proper platform and support?
(2) Can we create new organizational structures that promote greater creativity and diversity of thought in science?
Nearly 2.5 years after we “planted” our first seed of science, we have some preliminary answers.
Not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but also not bad for a journal run by three people in their spare time. Since our founding, Seeds of Science has published 26 papers, recruited 303 “gardeners” (peer reviewers), and pioneered a new model for scientific journals (open to all scientific disciplines, specializing in speculative thinking, accepting of non-traditional writing styles/formats, community-based peer review with comments published in the final manuscript). We consider this a success, but still only a beginning—our ultimate goal is to grow from a sapling into a mighty oak tree that plays a vital role in the scientific ecosystem.
In order to help us reach this goal and provide some further answers to our research questions, we have decided to launch a new experiment. Before explaining the structure and philosophy of the SoS Research Collective, it may be helpful to briefly discuss why we believe the time is ripe for something like what we are proposing (sorry for all the botanical puns, I really tried but I just can’t help myself).
Science is in trouble. Replication crises and a slowing pace of progress in many fields, biased and inefficient funding systems, biased and inefficient journals, billions of dollars of spent on journal fees so that publicly-funded research can be locked behind paywalls, intense competition for jobs and grants that stifles creativity in favor of productivity and self-promotion, poor pay for many graduate students and postdocs, increased rates of fraud and questionable research practices (or at least increased awareness thereof), increasingly problematic political entanglements—I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
The overall picture is one of a scientific community bloated with bureaucracy and enfeebled by status-seeking careerism. This has turned academia into a “small-idea factory” where it often feels like “researchers spend more time announcing ideas than formulating them” (“Science in the Age of Selfies”; Geman and Geman, 2016).
You know things are bad when Nature is publishing an op-ed on how “Biology must generate ideas as well as data” (Nurse, 2021; paywalled of course).
Rather often, I go to a research talk and feel drowned in data. Some speakers seem to think they must unleash a tsunami of data if they are to be taken seriously. The framing is neglected, along with why the data are being collected; what hypotheses are being tested; what ideas are emerging. Researchers seem reluctant to come to biological conclusions or present new ideas. The same occurs in written publications. It is as if speculation about what the data might mean and the discussion of ideas are not quite ‘proper’.
I have a different view: description and data collection are necessary but insufficient. Ideas, even tentative ones, are also needed, along with the recognition that ideas will change as facts and arguments accumulate. Why are researchers holding back on ideas? Perhaps they are worried about proposing an idea that turns out to be wrong, because that might damage their chances of getting promotion or funding.
Excessively intense academic competition, the specter of the replication crisis (how can you go out on a limb when every branch seems shaky?), and fears over the spread of scientific misinformation have all combined in recent years to create a chilling effect on speculation in science. Remedying this “speculation deficit” is one of the goals of Seeds of Science and the SoS research Collective.
Be the Lizard
We don't want to be too doom and gloom here—the modern scientific community is still tremendously capable, and many scientists and non-scientists are working tirelessly to fix its problems. But systemic change is a slow and difficult process, and time is (always) of the essence. This leaves us with one other option: create new systems.
Simply put, our idea is to build a “system” (in the loosest possible sense) for those who are outside of The System.
Right now, professional science is like a world where every organism is trying to be a mammal. Mammals are great: milk-producing glands, body hair, ears that have three bones in them, what’s not to like? But if you’ve only got mammals, you’re in big trouble. Monocultures are fragile and prone to collapse because every single organism has identical weaknesses. What you need is an ecosystem—hawks, sea urchins, fungi, various types of fern, and so on.
…What I’m saying is: be the lizard. The mammals—that is, mainstream scientists, the ones who get PhDs and professor jobs—have their niche covered. What we need is more people doing botany in their backyards. We need basement chemists. We need amateur geologists and meteorologists.
— Adam Mastroianni, “An Invitation to a Secret Society”
This is the fundamental premise and promise of independent research: freed from the incentives and constraints of academia (e.g. publish or perish) or industry, amateur independent researchers can pursue more idiosyncratic and unorthodox lines of research, thereby creating a healthier and more diverse research ecosystem.
Sounds wonderful, but going it alone outside The System comes with its own difficulties and limitations. This is where the SoS Research Collective comes in—we want to create an ecosystem that supports lizards and help them be as lizardy as possible.
The SoS Research Collective
Here is what we hope to offer independent researchers:
A title (SoS Research Fellow) and dedicated profile page
Payment of $50 per peer-reviewed article (we will be dropping our $25 payment to all authors in lieu of this payment to members of the collective)
Editing services and advising (time and expertise permitting)
Promotion on the SoS website/substack (featuring your work on our Best of Science Blogging feed, researcher spotlight posts, etc.)
We know this isn’t much, but we have to start somewhere. We also aren’t asking for much (almost nothing really) from the SoS Research Fellows (see below). In the future, we hope to offer much more (research funding, stipends, and...), but for now we just hope to get the ball rolling and show the value of this model (any further ideas on what we could offer research fellows are welcome!).
And what exactly is this model—why do we call it a collective and not an institute or an organization? Of course we aren’t opposed to collaboration and we expect that some of it may emerge organically over time, but collaboration is not an explicit goal of the collective—we really would like to keep the “independent” in independent research. We subscribe to the idea that collaboration has almost become too easy and that this has had a detrimental effect on our collective creativity, or at least the particular strain of it needed to make the most radical breakthroughs.
Easy travel, many more meetings, relentless emails, and, in general, a low threshold for interaction have created a veritable epidemic of communication. Evolution relies on genetic drift and the creation of a diverse gene pool. Are ideas so different? Is there a risk of cognitive inbreeding? Communication is necessary, but, if there is too much communication, it starts to look like everyone is working in pretty much the same direction…Great ideas rarely come from teams.
(“Science in the Age of Selfies”)
The bottom line here is that we envision the SoS Research Collective as something more like a loose confederation of scientific rebels, renegades, rogues, rascals, and ruffians than an institute society with meetings, memberships, and duties. If multiple research fellows are interested in the same topic then we will happily make an introduction, but that is all the collaboration we plan on facilitating (for now).
So what is it that we expect from the SoS Research Fellows?
Publishing something—anything—with us once a year. This could be a peer-reviewed article1 (read about our format here) for which you will be paid or a more informal essay (non-paid) on our Best of Science Blogging feed.
Reviewing any submissions to the journal (a vote and a comment, however brief) which fall under your area of expertise
And that’s about it, and frankly none of these “requirements” are actually required; we understand that progress in research isn’t linear and that sometimes life gets in the way, especially for independent researchers. In contrast to academia, we will not prize productivity for productivity’s sake and will generally aim to be as flexible and non-bureaucratic as possible. As long as you are continuing your work as an independent researcher and you feel like you are benefiting from being a part of the collective then we are happy to have you.
What kind of people are we looking for and how do I apply?
Again in contrast to academia, we do not care about credentials or experience and aim to be as inclusive as possible—any and all independent researchers are welcome to apply. However, this doesn’t mean that all will be accepted—our line will be drawn less conservatively than it typically is in academic science, but there will still be a line; researchers whose work seems obviously flawed or pseudoscientific will be rejected (and yes this is a judgment call and we may get some wrong—if you have some fool-proof method of separating science from pseudoscience please let us know). To apply, shoot us an email that tells us who you are and what your research is about—CV, website, blog, twitter, etc.—and we will reach out if we would like you to be a part of the collective (email@example.com). If you are just getting started as an independent researcher and don’t have much to show yet, just tell us about your interests, goals, dreams, nightmares, etc. over email and we will go from there.
Two more things: (1) pseudonymous researchers are welcome (the author of this announcement, Roger’s Bacon is one), and (2) we will also consider undergrads and graduate students who conduct independent research outside of their academic work (e.g. you publish speculative ideas on your blog that probably won’t make it into a traditional journal, or you do research in another area different from your academic research).
How can I support what SoS is doing or get involved?
Seeds of Science was lucky enough to receive a small but generous grant from Scott Alexander’s ACX grants about two years ago. Prior to this funding, we were self-funded by the founding gardeners, and while we were/are technically a business enterprise, there were no plans for bringing in revenue (we joked that we weren’t a non-profit but a "no-profit). Now with this new venture and the author fees that we hope to pay our research fellows, we anticipate the grant money will run out some time this year and we will have to go back to the no-profit model.
So that’s why we are now offering paid subscriptions to this Substack. Here’s the rub though—putting ideas (i.e. seeds of science) behind a paywall is sort of against our whole philosophy. So we aren’t going to do that. So what is a paid subscription getting you then? The sheer bliss that comes with knowing you are one of the good guys, that you stand on the right side of history, that your descendents will smile upon your deeds. What I’m really trying to say is that a subscription is really just a donation.2
As far as non-financial ways of supporting us (we know all you students and early-career researchers reading this are just ROLLING in the dough), the first thing you can do is spread the word by sharing this post (and the journal) with your friends, family, colleagues, lovers, haters, etc. The second thing you can do is repeatedly shout SEEDS OF SCIENCE at the top of your lungs from the nearest mountaintop. Beyond that, we'd love to hear from anyone who is interested in what we're doing and would like to get involved or help in some way (we can imagine a few roles that might be of interest to some). Lastly, all are invited to join us as gardeners (free to join and participation is 100% voluntary—we send you submitted articles and you can choose to vote/comment or abstain without notification; register here).
In closing, I'd like to offer a glimpse of our grand vision for Seeds of Science so that potential research fellows (and potential subscribers/funders) have a better sense of what we are ultimately trying to accomplish.
Several times throughout this announcement/essay I have noted how the SoS Research Collective will have an opposing structure and philosophy to that of academia (i.e. The System). This mirroring is representative of Seeds of Science’s ultimate goal of pioneering a new style or “flavor” of science, a way of doing and thinking about science that is something like the “evil” twin or alter ego of our current ethos, the yin to its yang. If the science we have now tends towards conservatism, then our flavor will favor risk-taking and speculation. If the science we have now almost completely ignores aesthetics and values only clarity and concision in its expression, then our style will have style and our scientists will aspire to beauty as well as truth. If academic scientists are self-serious and strive for objectivity above all else, then ours will acknowledge their subjectivity and infuse their work with humor, emotion, and personality. We do not wish to supplant or eclipse the science of today; rather we would like to birth it an annoying younger sibling who occasionally has something novel or interesting to say.3
Launching such a movement will require more than virtual organization. Long-term, we envision an informal set of events, conferences, and communities arising not from the top-down but the bottom-up, a grassroots effort blossoming from the inspiration, passion, and loving care of all who tend the scientific garden.
The Seeds of Science is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Wait, this seems weird—you are going to host researchers under your umbrella but also expect them to publish in your journal? Doesn’t this create perverse incentives? Perhaps, but we aren’t exactly motivated to give away $50 for low-quality articles just because the author is one of our research fellows—our primary incentive is still to be the best speculative science journal we can be. If your work meets our standard, we will do whatever we can to publish and promote it, but if not then better luck next time. Also, it’s not as if more traditional journals don’t suffer from editorial nepotism and other improprieties.
One thing we can do that might provide value to some is to periodically promote websites/research/whatever on our substack (but we will also probably do something similar for our research fellows). We will try to find other ways to compensate subscribers, but I’m not entirely sure what else we can do, so ideas are welcome.
Only as admitted belatedly and begrudgingly by the older sibling of course.