Monday, December 02, 2013

On publishing

A comment on the previous post asked how much I published.

Let me start by saying, a lot more people have read this blog than ever read the scientific papers I published, if that tells you anything…

I can't give you exact numbers, but I did publish well enough to get fellowships. (for all the good it did me, since I never had sufficient financial support from my PIs...)

"How well" is kind of subjective and depends on how you look at it. When I went to grad school, I had no idea how hard publishing would be. I had no idea how hard it would be to learn how to write scientific papers. I had never done any kind of collaborative writing projects before. I had no idea how much I would detest having my boss "edit" my work (read: re-write = put words in my mouth).

I could have, should have, would have published more if it had been entirely up to me.

My thesis advisor was an obsessive perfectionist who hated my writing and was always loathe to publish. It felt like dragging a kicking, screaming, clawing, biting, rabid horse to water and forcing it to drink.

My postdoc advisors were a mix. One did not want to publish at all; one was consistently hypocritical about impact factors; one completely screwed me over… Those are great stories, but you'll have to wait for the book, since they're each at least a chapter long…

Let's say it was a bit like the movie Gravity, which I finally saw this weekend, except without the triumphant ending. Like Goldilocks who gets eaten at the end. This space station is too smashed. This space station is too on fire. This space station is falling out of the sky...

As I've mentioned repeatedly on this blog, none of my papers are Cell/Science/Nature. I have heard that factor alone is one of the major factors that kept me from getting interviews for faculty positions or at places like Genentech. Of course we know it is inextricably linked with my not having worked for sufficiently famous/well-liked PIs.

In spite of that, some of my papers are cited enough to be considered "high impact". Interestingly, unlike some trendy research that gets cited a lot and then never again, for all of my work there was a lag time where nobody noticed it came out or believed it at all, and then citations have steadily accumulated as years go by.

Which does not help me get a job now, but is somewhat heartening when I feel like nothing I have done (besides this blog) has mattered at all.

On the other hand, I have met some people who said they thought I had a great track record and a lot of publications. Which I always find amusing, because it really is relative.

Did I have a good experience publishing? Not really. I've written about that (see past posts re: rebuttal letters). I got enough of a taste of the worst that publishing has to offer - unreliable, possibly corrupt editors and reviewers, etc. I witnessed the rich and famous PIs who wined and dined the editors and hand-picked their reviewers, and bullied their grad students & postdocs into ghostwriting reviews…

Back at my desk, I was infuriated by the enormous waste of time and effort it takes to reformat references and figure labels to suit each different journal. All the inefficiency of waiting to get reviews back, especially when the editor "forgot" to send the paper out, and my PI refused to inquire…  or the editor left the journal and left my paper sitting in a pile somewhere… And those months of my life when I could not move forward, trying to guess what the reviewers would ask for and do those experiments "just in case".

It's important to note that I had a miserable time addressing reviews, because almost every time I was finally able to submit a paper it occurred at the tail end of my funding/temporary appointment, so I couldn't afford to do the laborious and/or expensive (and often ridiculous) experiments the reviewers (probably my competitors) were requesting. So in some cases where if I had $$$$$$ and a team of lab mates to help me, things would have gone differently. Instead I had to go to a different journal (read: down a tier or two) and start over, the goal being to find a journal and reviewers who would not ask for me to do those things I could not afford to do.

I've also been a reviewer, although not recently, and found it to be a very educational experience. I wrote a post or two about that, too. It was very different to be on the other side of the table.

At this point, I am glad to see that open publishing is gathering momentum. More people are seriously proposing ways to do things we discussed back when I first started blogging, when these ideas were really "out there" and controversial. A lot can change in 5+ years. Who knows where we'll be in 5 more.

I'm of the opinion that a lot needs to change in order for science to be a worthwhile pursuit for anyone with the ability to choose among other, more profitable careers. I think changing the way publishing works is fundamental to fixing a lot of the problems, since so much of hiring and funding feeds on assumptions made about how publishing reflects quality.


At 9:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regardless of your current position, you should set up a Google Scholar profile, and upload the .pdfs of all of your papers to ResearchGate. Since I have done that > 2 years ago, my work has been cited more frequently.

We are looking forward to your book.

At 1:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I find funny is that you were asked a simple question ('how much did you publish') and you didn't answer it even though you thought it was worth a whole post. In my opinion that says something about your writing skills... but maybe that's just me.

At 3:14 PM, Blogger NMH said...

Thank you for your interesting response. I too had a manuscript sit on an editors floor (back in 2001) and I had to call him personally to get it out for review. I guess it was exciting because I got to talk to a super famous NAS member on the phone. So maybe it was worth it.

Did you do three post-docs? If it makes you feel better, Im kind of a staff associate doing bench work being paid a little more than a post-doc at a large state R1 university, and I am 50! Just kind of can't think of anything else to do...

OK, another question. Are you still a bench worker/ Are you doing science?

At 9:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an editor myself, and someone who would like to think of myself as not belonging to the corrupt/overly inefficient/absent group, I found this statement very interesting:

"I think changing the way publishing works is fundamental to fixing a lot of the problems, since so much of hiring and funding feeds on assumptions made about how publishing reflects quality."

These words suggest to me that the true problem is in hiring/funding decisions, and the assumptions made there. Thus, wouldn't it be logical to focus efforts on changing those processes, rather than (or at least in addition to) publishing? I'm not trying to dodge here, just genuinely curious for your thoughts.

At 5:20 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Thanks, Anonymous 9:53, that is good advice, although I can't attribute my citations to where the papers are available, because I can't be bothered to track that. Maybe I should.

The book is coming. It is still unfinished, but closer to finished than not.

Anon 1:13, What I find funny is that you wrote that comment under an Anonymous login, but you sound like you don't understand the issue of keeping a pseudonymous identity private.

NMH, see my response to Anon 1:13. I don't disclose a lot of details here if I can help it.

Anon 9:50,

That's a fair point since I think fundamentally the problems are the same. Too much of evaluation relies on reputation.

Too many reviewers don't want to be bothered to read or think too deeply about the quality of the work, absent of who did it.

And nobody wants to think too deeply about who ACTUALLY did the work, vs. who gets the credit for it. Have you seen that PhD comic about that? The list of authors and who actually did what?

The way I see it, though, I'd rather fix problems at the source. Hiring and funding decisions are based on publications, so the earliest place in the pipeline that things starts to go wrong is in publishing, where the names of the authors count for way too much, not to mention all the games people play with co-publishing back to back, etc. Nevermind that the reputation of the journals is not sufficient to guarantee that the work in any one particular paper was done well or honestly, but people use it as shorthand for that because they're too lazy to read the whole thing (see points above).

Anyway that's my thinking on it. There are LOTS of other things that go wrong in hiring and funding, but for example if my same identical papers had included the correct Famous Dude as last author, and if even one had appeared in Cell/Science/Nature, I would have had a faculty position. At least, that's what I've been told. The fact that those decisions about whether my paper was good enough come down to 3 random reviewers? And in some cases just one reviewer who didn't like it even though the other two did? Infuriatingly unscientific.

At 11:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is anon @9:50. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I haven't seen the particular PhD comic you mention (though now I will go find it), but I do know what you mean - for example, hearing people talk at conferences and referring to other people's papers as only 'work from Dr Famous Person' instead of 'Dr FD's lab', or 'Ms Awesome First Author', etc. I have noticed a trend among most of the conferences I go to that speakers acknowledge their labs (and the specific people who did the work) much more than they did ~5-10 years ago, so maybe we're making progress...?

One follow up question - what do you think about the journals that effectively operate via crowdsourcing to find the gems (either by peer reviewing after publication or the PloS One model where views/likes/etc raise the profile of the paper, for example)? Those models effectively eliminate barriers to entry, but I don't have a good sense of whether people feel like they can trust what they're seeing and/or have time to investigate.

At 4:39 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

I have noticed a trend among most of the conferences I go to that speakers acknowledge their labs (and the specific people who did the work) much more than they did ~5-10 years ago, so maybe we're making progress…?

That's good to hear. I had a conversation with a PI once about acknowledgment slides. He said, "Does anyone actually pay attention to those?" I said I do. He seemed to think that was extremely strange. I am generally really impressed when a PI puts the acknowledgment slide FIRST in the talk, before presenting all the work that was done by people in the lab. That's still pretty rare, I think.

re: "crowd sourcing" journals, I don't know that people pay attention to views/likes etc. so much as citations, but if more views means more citations, then that helps. For example re: the comment above recommending posting papers on Research Gate, etc.

I have noticed that availability of articles makes a huge difference in what gets read, though, so articles that are free/open-access are more likely to be cited for something in the full text. Sadly, too many people still cite papers based on the abstract alone, especially if it's in a High Impact Journal (!).


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