Should we provide incentives for answering BenchQs?

As I was reading through questions and answers in the Epernicus BenchQ archive the other day, I was struck by how many questions have been receiving helpful replies.  Without the expectation of reward, Epernicus members from across the country have been helping fellow scientists (strangers though they often are), providing advice on equipment, kits, techniques, candidate antibodies, and much more.   Third parties have been reading and benefiting from these exchanges as well.  Overall, it has been quite exciting to see.

One of the things we’ve often discussed is if and how these types of contributions should be incentivized.  Should people be rewarded for sharing their knowledge through BenchQ or should it be left up to inherent goodwill?  And if answering questions is rewarded, should it be with public recognition, tangible rewards, or something else?  Shirley Wu raised this issue of rewards in a thoughtful blog post earlier this year, and it generated quite a discussion.  I’m not yet sure what incentive structure would be best (or if incentives are even necessary), but any incentive system will carry the inherent risk of distorting motives.  The question is what kind of distortion and to what degree. 

A related issue that comes up is whether contributions in a forum like BenchQ should be represented in a scientist’s professional record.  A scientist who helps 100 colleagues through BenchQ has made a real contribution to the community – should this be represented in his or her resume or tenure file?  We’d be interested to know what our colleagues in the scientific community think about these questions.

Last summer, there was a lively discussion at BioBarCamp about considering new standards for scientific contribution.  Despite a growing recognition that peer-reviewed publications and impact factors are insufficient measures of contribution, we haven’t seen a significant change in these traditional standards.  Cameron Neylon, Chris Patil, Shirley Wu, and many others raised alternative activities which could be factored into a scientist’s curriculum vitae of contributions: blogging, sharing data (from failed and successful experiments), making protocols widely available, engaging in collaborations, and answering questions, to list a few.  There are many uncertainties about how we would quantitate and standardize such contributions; but even from a qualitative perspective, we have yet to see these types of contributions make their way to the score cards of tenure committees or admissions councils.

In the case of BenchQ, we want to reward people for helping other scientists and adding to a larger body of knowledge.  We’re open to experimenting with incentives and would welcome any suggestions.  Our hope is that tools like BenchQ will become a growing opportunity for scientists to make contributions, learn from their peers, and establish helpful relationships. 

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One response to “Should we provide incentives for answering BenchQs?

  1. Vivek, these are all great questions and it would be very interesting to hear what thoughts people have. Phrasing it in the context of Epernicus and BenchQ is useful because it’s a real situation, and more tractable. It’s clear something has to change, and things will, but it may take one step at a time.

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