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.