In a “publish or perish” world…

14 08 2007

Rich at evolgen has brought to everyone’s attention a very interesting opinion piece that has recently appeared in the journal Current Biology about how scientific research (and success) is all-too-often dependent on some rather arbitrary numerical statistics (Lawrence PA. 2007. The mismeasurement of science. Curr. Biol. 17: R583-R585. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2007.06.014). Should the number of citations a paper receives or the sheer number of papers an author’s name appears on determine who gets funding and who does not? While I am still on a very long and winding road to becoming a scientist, the amount of horror stories that I have heard have often made be dubious about a career in academia; I definitely have a deep desire to know more about nature, but I don’t know if I can handle all the bureaucratic B.S. that comes along with it. Fortunately for me that’s a choice that I don’t yet have to make, but I do have to wonder if the current system of publishing and becoming established are truly the best ways to advance our understanding. I may be wrong, but often it seems more about advancing the careers of certain individuals more than anything else.

As I stated, however, I’m a bit far removed from this being that I haven’t even tried to publish anything myself and I’m about as low on the academic totem-pole as one can get. (I have done some research “at the bench” this summer, although I have no idea whether my name will appear on the final product or not.) Still, I am going to try to write up a review paper based upon what I found in my evolution of human evolution post from the other day, although I don’t really know where to start. Gathering the information I need should be no problem at all (that’ll just take time), but as for the rules of writing such a paper, I don’t have the slightest clue.


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12 responses

14 08 2007
Anne-Marie

I had major authorship issues with the two papers being produced from my REU program this summer…I would love to go the faculty route for a career, but the one issue that could turn me off is just that of all the politics involved sometimes…

14 08 2007
laelaps

Sorry to hear about your authorship problems Anne-Marie; what happened to the papers (you can e-mail me privately if you like).

I also would love to be a professor or work at a high-fallutin’ establishment, but I’m dubious about the politics and such myself. If all else fails I’ll drop into Africa and try to get involved in conservation… Still, sometimes I am a bit envious of past scientists who were independently wealthy enough to support themselves and their work like Cope, Marsh, and Darwin, but regardless of whether I ever get “established” or not I’ll still try my best to make a contribution to science.

14 08 2007
TheBrummell

This paper by Lawrence is getting lots of attention. It will be the subject of our lab meeting this week, and given the activity on lots of other blogs, this may kick me enough to actually post something.

This is definitely something worth discussing, and I’m interested in the perspective of someone in your position at the entry end of the academic grinder. From my position, not much further past “start here”, the whole ‘publish-or-perish’ thing is looking rather intimidating, and don’t get me started (because I still have no coherent thoughts) on university politics. Urrghh…

Also, I still haven’t read your big post about what we think about evolution (it’s at the top of my list!), but I think you should absolutely try to publish that. I have no idea where might be the best place to submit it to, but I think that amount of work should be rewarded somehow. Good stuff, and thanks for making me feel like a tentative dabbler at this whole on-line thing. Keep up the great work!

14 08 2007
seedsaside

Beware that most journals require articles not being published anywhere before submission, and this includes being posted on the internet as well for most of them. Some fields haven’t this explicit obligation (in mathematics and physics for example), but biology does most of the time.

14 08 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the reminder; I’m gathering more material I didn’t mention here and taking a bit of a different approach, so what the end product of my work is going to be substantially different from the post as it is now (it mostly served to organize my ideas and show a pattern). Looking at PLoS, they didn’t seem to be as strict about these things as long as where the information was “published” was recognized, although I’m sure what I’m doing falls in a bit of a gray area. Worst comes to worst I’ll pull the post and make the paper freely available, but I don’t think there should be too much of a problem since I’m not doing “real” research.

14 08 2007
Brian

The reality of publish or perish is an unfortunate consequence of how we do science. As scientists we all value the concept of peer review….and we tout it when talking to non-scientists as what makes the scientific establishment (as a whole) strong. But, when you zoom in to individual scientists, the actual people, it seems like a really crappy system. Another problem is what criteria define a ‘reputable’ journal.

Unfortunately, if you want to do scientific research (for more than a hobby), you’ll need to let your peers scrutinize every last little detail of your work. Ideally, this process weeds out sub-standard work and highlights exceptional work. The messiness comes when those with a good ‘reputation’ publish crap, and others who are unknown don’t get a fair shot. To me, THAT is the real problem. That is where the ideal of objectivity falls apart.

Some people do science outside of the academy…and it may be good. But unless other scientists have a shot at evaluating it, it may never contribute to the overall understanding. Of course, if it is understanding at a personal level, then a so-called amateur scientist can have a rich and fulfilling life.

It is quite a mess.

15 08 2007
Uschi

I have just finished my masters in July and am starting my phd in september. Although I have heard loads of terrible things about staying in academia I have never given it a second thought, mainly because I have a fab supervisor who makes sure that students can concentrate on the “science is fun” part of lab work, while he deals with all the nasty grant and politics stuff… I think that’s great – I feel too young to be involved in issues like publish-or-perish…

15 08 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the comments everyone.

Brian; I know that no matter what I do I’ll have to get whatever I want to put out reviewed, and I actually have no problem with that at all. I’m just dubious as to whether I’ll eventually be successful in graduate school (if I can even get in).

Uschi; Like you said, sounds like you have a good supervisor. So far I haven’t run into many (or heard of that many), but I’m sure the experience is different for everyone. Eventually, though, I think all scientists have to deal with the politics, grant proposals, etc., but I’m glad your experience is better than most.

Martin; Like you said, you’re a bit further along than I am, but I’m honestly a bit intimidated/discouraged from my experiences so far. While I’m not involved heavily in the system yet, I do agree that the system in place now somewhat rewards people who are more prolific than necessarily accurate, and the story I read of Dr. Kroodsma from the book Birdsong: A Natural History that finished the other day was especially disturbing. Long story short, Kroodsma had an idea based on observations of field workers that a suboscine bird (songbirds that are thought not to learn their songs but know them from birth) named the three-wattled bellbird was actually learning its songs, choosing a different “dialect” based upon where it settled as an adult. Kroodsma had been well funded by the NSF or other grants for years, but when he wanted to study these birds he ran into a good deal of resistance because everyone “knew” these birds didn’t learn their songs, and the grant reviewers considered field work studying these birds to be useless. Ultimately Kroodsma carried out the study anyway, but never published the results because of how hostile some other members of the community were to the idea. Granted, that’s no good reason not to publish, but it is a sad tale all the same.

Anyway, I’m going to do my best to continue my education and publish, but whether I enter the rat race or not is anyone’s guess. Academia does allow for a lot of opportunities once you get in, but at the same time I know that I am going to have a bit of a stressful time being interested in sciences that are often not as well-funded or highly-regarded as fields like microbiology. Actually, the perfect situtation in my mind would be working for a museum and also teaching at academia whenever possible because I really would love to be a professor, but that’s just about as difficult (if not moreso) than anything else.

15 08 2007
Brian

I’ve done a master’s and am nearly done w/ PhD (yikes…I need to finish). If you are planning on looking at graduate school, I will offer some advice….for what it’s worth.

The institution and program is certainly important, but I would place more importance on the adviser-student relationship. This must be a good ‘fit’. Even if you find a top researcher, you and that person just might not work together well. Another way to say this is: they might be crazy. A lot of academics are freaks….workaholics, mood problems, bad social skills, and so on. A lot aren’t, of course. There are so many great faculty out there too.

This is a person you will work with for a number of years. You must feel comfortable with that relationship. When shopping around for potential advisers, e-mail their students and/or former students and try and get a sense. You can tell a lot from that.

good luck

15 08 2007
Michael Barton

A history of science journal seems more apporpriate for your evolution post. Go to this site, and scroll down. On the left column will be a listing of scholarly journals for history of science and related disciplines:

http://www.h-net.org/~smt/

And there are these, too:

http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/journaldescription.cws_home/574/description#description

http://www.shnh.org/PUB_ANH_main.htm

15 08 2007
TheBrummell

I was going to offer grad school advice too, but Brian said everything I wanted to say, and was probably more succinct than I would have been. I agree with what he said.

As for all this doom-and-gloom, I think it’s important to also realize the great fun and joy that is the practice of science, and all the great things about the job of an academic (scientist or otherwise). Yes, it takes a long time to get there, but I still think the rewards are worth it.

15 08 2007
laelaps

Brian and Martin; Thank you both for your input. I’ve generally heard that having a good adviser is absolutely critical. From my position it’s been difficult to find any professors even vaguely supportive of my interests (at least ones that would could be an adviser to me; I’ve made some friends in the plant pathology department due a shared love of evolution), but that shouldn’t discount everything. I’m really grateful for all the input and constructive comments from people actually going through the process, and hopefully I’ll be able to find my place in the near future. Granted, I need to escape Rutgers first, but I am overly more optimistic about things after hearing some suggestions (instead of just horror stories). Thanks guys!

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