A Call to Make the Human Dimension of Science a Core Component of Scientific Journals
The human dimension of science refers to the personal aspects of investigators—their life experiences, values, beliefs, habits, behaviors, philosophy of life, approach to challenges and setbacks, and so on. Although this aspect of the research enterprise is the engine that propels scientific progress (and thus is at least as important as the discoveries themselves), it is usually ignored in the literature. As a result, the community of researchers knows the discovery (the tip of the iceberg), but not the foundation that made the discovery possible. In this essay, I argue that the human dimension of science should become a core component of scientific journals.
Since the inception of the current editorship in July 2009, Circulation Research has undergone a major transformation—shall we say, a revolution? The number and magnitude of the changes made have been even greater than those I articulated in my manifesto back in 2010.1 Of all of these changes, perhaps the one I am most proud of is that I have expanded the mission of the journal from being a vehicle of impactful scientific knowledge to being both a vehicle of impactful scientific knowledge and a repository of impactful human content. This dual mission places Circulation Research in a rather unique positions because the former content (scientific knowledge) is common to all biomedical journals but the latter (human content) is rarely found in the biomedical literature, yet, it is just as important to scientific progress.
Indeed, I believe that a journal should not only disseminate important new discoveries but also reveal the human factors that make those discoveries possible in the first place. If the ultimate goal of scientific publishing is to advance science, then journals must inform their readers not only about what investigators have discovered but also about how and why they were able to carry out the work that led to those discoveries. The human dimension of science is large, complex, and very important but usually hidden: it is the invisible (submerged) portion of the iceberg that supports the visible tip (the discovery) (Figure). It includes the personality of the investigators, their life experiences, values, beliefs, habits, behaviors, philosophy of life, approach to challenges and setbacks, and so on.
For a variety of reasons, the human aspect (or dimension) of science is not adequately addressed in educational curricula and in scientific journals. In both settings, much effort is made to provide students and readers, respectively, with the technical skills and scientific knowledge necessary to conduct experiments, but little or no effort is made to inform them about the human traits and behaviors that underlie success in science—or to promote such traits and behaviors. This is unfortunate because it is a missed opportunity. When one studies the personal aspects of successful investigators, one can find striking commonalities among them, suggesting that these common traits and behaviors play an important role in the outcome of their endeavors. Thus, exploring the human dimension of science may help students and readers to adopt values, habits, attitudes, and approaches similar to those of successful scientists, ultimately promoting scientific progress. Disseminating this human component is at least as important to the advancement of science as the discoveries themselves.
In view of these considerations, it is surprising that so little attention is devoted to the human dimension of science in the scientific literature. I believe journals have a responsibility to fill this gap of information. Both beginning and seasoned investigators can benefit from this knowledge. Informing readers about beliefs and behaviors that made a scientist successful can have just as much impact on the field as what that scientist discovered. For example, realizing that nothing can be accomplished without hard work is a far more important determinant of an investigator’s career than his/her prowess in molecular techniques. Practicing discipline and perseverance is a better predictor of productivity than being an expert in RNA-seq or single-cell transcriptomic analysis. Learning how another scientist overcame challenges is more important than learning how to use the latest piece of equipment in the laboratory.
It is for these reasons that, in 2010, Circulation Research began publishing a panoply of articles focused on the human dimension of science (Table). We started with Profiles in Cardiovascular Science,2 followed by Leaders in Cardiovascular Science,3 the Lucian Award winners,4–10 and more recently, Promising New Investigators,11 the Trainee and Young Investigator Corner,12 Trainees in the Spotlight,12 and Meet the First Authors,13 thereby spanning the entire gamut from Nobel laureates to postdoctoral Fellows and graduate students. In each case, we sought to inform our readers about the personal experiences and traits of a successful or promising cardiovascular scientist at different stages of the academic ladder, in hopes that that message would help others. Thus far, we have published a total of 72 personal profiles (Table), more than any other journal I am aware of. They can all be found in our website at http://circres.ahajournals.org/content/profiles. These personal portraits are a treasure trove of inspiration, teachable moments, valuable lessons, and useful solutions that can be tremendously helpful to countless other investigators.
As discussed in the editorial manifesto,1 the purpose of these initiatives is not only to promote scientific progress but also to make the journal more interesting for our readers. Circulation Research must be more than a conglomerate of research papers. It must have a personal component that goes beyond the scientific and technical content. Adding the human dimension of science has definitely accomplished this goal.
One of the best examples of personal profiles that we have published heretofore appears in the Trainee and Young Investigator Corner of this issue of Circulation Research14: a superbly written autobiography in which Sakthivel Sadayappan recounts his extraordinary journey from his humble origins in a rural village in southern India to his current position of Professor at the University of Cincinnati. The article is riveting but, more importantly, it is chock-full of thought-provoking and invaluable messages.
The main message of this essay is that motivation is everything. What Sakthivel calls “resourcefulness” is a byproduct of motivation. As I have written before, among all of the qualities necessary for success in research, hard work is, by far, the most important one.15–18 Hard work, however, does not develop in a vacuum; it is the result of motivation. Striving to overcome difficulties and use resources wisely, as Sakthivel suggests, does not happen in a vacuum; it happens when the individual is highly motivated to achieve his/her goals. Persistence, tenacity, perseverance, doggedness, willingness to make sacrifices, and ability to postpone gratification, which are all essential for success,14,18 do not develop in a vacuum; they are also the results of motivation. Having a talent or a skill, in itself, does not make investigators productive; it is the motivation to use it that makes them productive. Thus, motivation is the common root of the most important qualities necessary to succeed in research—and, for that matter, in anything else in life. It was Sakthivel’s motivation that enabled him to overcome tremendous obstacles and succeed, despite finding himself at a significant disadvantage compared with many others who did not start their journey where he started.
Motivation is key to succeed in everything. It is far more important than intelligence. One ounce of motivation is more powerful than two ounces of intelligence. It is more important than luck. A motivated individual will overcome bad luck (anyway, I don’t believe there is any such thing as “luck,” because nothing is random). It is more important than a “privileged” upbringing. Children who grow up in privileged families, but are not motivated, do not keep up with more motivated colleagues from less affluent homes. Motivation enables individuals to overcome difficult socioeconomic environments, low National Institutes of Health pay lines, unsupportive or even hostile colleagues, lousy bosses, wrong hypotheses, unfavorable circumstances, physical illnesses, personal handicaps—just about anything. If there is one take-home message to be found in Sakthivel’s autobiography, it is the power of motivation.
Sakthivel’s personal journey is a great example of how information that could help many members of the scientific community is not divulged in the literature, despite the fact that the impact of this information could be even greater than that of an investigator’s discoveries. What I mean is that readers know Sakthivel through his work on cMyBP-C (cardiac myosin binding protein-C), but few are aware of his personal background. Yet, knowing the latter could potentially have a significant influence on many people. His personal story and his message of motivation, hard work, and perseverance are invaluable lessons relevant to the broad cardiovascular community, not just to those relatively few scientists who work specifically on cMyBP-C.
Sakthivel’s autobiography also teaches us other lessons. His journey makes us reflect on the tremendous contributions of scientists who immigrated to North America from other countries. The Editorial Board of Circulation Research is a cogent example. An astounding number (approximately half) of the Editors and Consulting Editors who live in North America are immigrants: Eugene Braunwald, A.J. Marian, Aruni Bhatnagar, Karin Bornfeldt, Joshua Hare, Jose Jalife, Alan Tall, Joe Wu, Alan Daugherty, Victor Dzau, Hossein Ardehali, Buddhadeb Dawn, Nikolaos Frangogiannis, Asa Gustafsson, Roger Hajjar, Evangelos Michelakis, Matthias Nahrendorf, Junichi Sadoshima, Rong Tian, Sean Wu, and myself. Many more are in the Editorial Board proper. It is impressive to realize how much America has benefited from these scientists, how much they have benefited from America, why they chose America, and why they thrived in their new country. This, in itself, is a huge topic for in-depth reflection, as well as a source of inspiration and wisdom. (I would love to delve into this subject further, but I must stay within the topic of this Editorial.)
Another important lesson to be learned from Sakthivel’s autobiography is that successful individuals do not spend their time and energy complaining, but rather focus on overcoming their problems. Complaining is the easiest thing to do. It is the favorite pastime of losers. We should ask ourselves this question: if an unknown trainee from rural India can become a Professor in an American university, why can’t we overcome our challenges? Are they as severe as his? And, importantly, let’s not forget that he is not alone—his story is similar to that of millions of immigrants who landed in America and built a better life, not just in science but in all kinds of human activities, despite having little or nothing to start with. How did they do it? They worked hard, persevered, and sacrificed. They did not spend their time complaining. They came from all over the world, from all walks of life, from all kinds of hardship. They came because they wished to build a new life by using their God-given talents. Many of them had little or no money, no connections, no friends or relatives. Some of them spoke little English. Some did not know much about the culture of their new home country. But they all had a dream in their hearts. And they were able to fulfill their potential through motivation, hard work, tenacity, sacrifices, and self-discipline. This incredible fact must never be forgotten or ignored. In fact, it must be taught, especially to those who complain and look for excuses.
In conclusion, Circulation Research has made a massive effort to make the human dimension of science a core component of its content in the field of cardiovascular biology and medicine. Here I call on other journals to do likewise in their respective fields. Regular, widespread analysis of the human factors that underlie scientific success would do much to facilitate the advancement of science.
I wish to thank Jonathan Schultz for his help in preparing this article.
The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the editors or of the American Heart Association.
- © 2018 American Heart Association, Inc.
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