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Science Moneyball: The Secret to a Successful Academic Career

samzenpus posted about 3 months ago | from the publish-or-perish dept.

Education 42

sciencehabit (1205606) writes "For biomedical researchers who aspire to run their own labs, the secret is to publish frequently, as first author, and in top journals. That career advice may seem obvious, but this time it's backed up by a new analysis of data scraped from PubMed, the massive public repository of biological abstracts. The study, reported today in Current Biology, uses the status of last author as a proxy for academic success. Those corresponding authors are likely to be running their own labs, the brass ring that young researchers are trying to grab. See what your chances are using Science's PI Predictor graph."

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Meanwhile, on Wall Street (4, Funny)

russotto (537200) | about 3 months ago | (#47150303)

It turns out that the secret for success in the stock market is to buy low and sell high. Get to it, folks.

Re:Meanwhile, on Wall Street (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47150623)

And as it turns out a similar rule works for Academics.

If the temperatures are low you publish a paper about climate change.
If the Temperatures are high you publish a paper on global warming.
if the temperatures are constant you publish a paper why it doesn't matter.

Re:Meanwhile, on Wall Street (1)

green is the enemy (3021751) | about 4 months ago | (#47154225)

In this case the relationship is not necessarily directly causal. If you can bring in the grant money, you can get a career. The quantity of papers may simply be a consequence of running a successful research program.

Re:Meanwhile, on Wall Street (1)

interkin3tic (1469267) | about 4 months ago | (#47154657)

That's actually more relevant than you think: if someone found that ONLY buying low and selling high was important to success, then that would actually be surprising since it seems to me that success has more to do with convincing people to give you their money to invest.

Likewise, TFA points out that impact factor matters less than number, which IS surprising.

Their analysis incorporated more than 200 variables, from the global rank of a scientist’s university, to the total number of papers, citations to those papers, and the impact factor of the journals in which they appeared. One revelation: The first few years of papers are enough to predict who will become a PI. Another is that impact factor isn't everything. At least later in a career, a large number of publications in low-ranking journals can be just as good as a few in the big ones. That’s “perhaps the most interesting finding,” says Sam Gershman, a computational neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

That goes contrary to conventional wisdom in biomedical research that you need to publish in a glamor journal in order to get hired as a PI.

Or rather, it could indicate that long term SUCCESS as a scientist has little to do with those big name journals, thus hiring committees which are focusing number of Nature or Science publications, aren't hiring the best scientists, they're just hiring scientists who happened to get lucky.


The prestige of journals is still too strong of a determinant of career destiny, Gershman argues. “If impact factor eventually becomes less important than the number of citations, our relationship to journal publishers will profoundly change,” he hopes. “We might no longer need publication in prestigious journals to further our careers, as long as our publications are highly cited. For now, however, "impact factor is still the strongest predictor of becoming a PI.”

With print-only journals, you had a lot of scientists who only skimmed the big name journals for interesting articles since you can only pick up so many physical magazines at one time before you die of papercuts. With online publication, that's an idiotic approach. Between RSS feeds, google scholar, F1000, arvix, and a bunch of other services, it matters far less where it's published, people are going to see it and cite it. There's still a bias in favor of the big name journals, but part of that is old professors who still don't know what RSS is, and I get the sense that glamor journals are (slowly) beginning to diminish in importance.

The article suggests that will not be disruptive: we already overvalue those big name journals.

Correlation is not causation. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47150325)

Correlation is not causation.

Re:Correlation is not causation. (1)

Bill, Shooter of Bul (629286) | about 3 months ago | (#47150333)

Speak for your own universe. In mine, I posted this first.

Don't get caught (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47150343)

when you cheat. And if you reading this, you do.

Chicken or Egg (1)

Crashmarik (635988) | about 3 months ago | (#47150363)

Really publishing quality results is what will get you that and being the guy behind the projects will more often than not get you the lead author spot.

Re:Chicken or Egg (4, Informative)

Obfuscant (592200) | about 3 months ago | (#47150473)

Really publishing quality results is what will get you that and being the guy behind the projects will more often than not get you the lead author spot.

No, the exact opposite is what these folks used. They didn't look at the status of the last author as the summary claims, they used the last author position as a proxy for identifying who the PI was -- which is not really a measure of academic success. They didn't bother looking anyone's status up directly.

Maybe bio-whatever is different, but where I work "last author" isn't always the highest status, and there may be three or four co-PIs on a project, even multiple Universities.

Re:Chicken or Egg (2)

the phantom (107624) | about 4 months ago | (#47151275)

It varies a lot from field to field. In my field (mathematics), authors generally seem to be listed in alphabetical order. Anecdotally, I have been lead to understand that in anthropology and sociology, authors are generally listed in order of seniority; and that in neurology the first author is assumed to be the head of the primary lab at University A, the second author the graduate student running that lab, the last author is the head of the secondary lab at University B, and the second to last author is the grad student running the secondary lab.

Re:Chicken or Egg (1)

Quirkz (1206400) | about 4 months ago | (#47157397)

In medical research, at least as my wife experienced, the first author is the surgeon with the biggest reputation/ego, followed by every other associated surgeons. The first non-surgeon author is probably the person who wrote the article and did 90% of the research and analysis, followed by a string of interns and contributors in order of amount contributed.

Re: Chicken or Egg (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47152485)

In biomedical sciences, the lead author is most often a PhD student. The last author is nearly invariably indeed the PI. While one should take this study with a grain of salt, their method is quite reasonable for this field.

Re:Chicken or Egg (1)

DrLang21 (900992) | about 4 months ago | (#47154291)

In larger research institutions employing several researchers, it is common for the head of the institute to be put as the last author on all papers, whether they had much of anything to do with the research or not. This is how you get "top researchers" claiming authorship to hundreds of papers. Honestly at that point they aren't doing much research anymore.

Re:Chicken or Egg (4, Insightful)

OneAhead (1495535) | about 3 months ago | (#47150549)

Regarding the "publishing quality results is what will get you that" part, I'd argue it's exactly the opposite. Maybe we have a different idea of quality, but really groundbreaking science is high-risk science and will rarely get you the prescribed frequent publications, especially early in a project. Dull "me-too" science will. So will milking out every small incremental finding in a separate publication and spending more time writing and revising papers than doing actual science. This is partially demonstrated by the fact that papers in "lesser" journals count just as much.(*) To me, this is a big part of what's wrong with the current state of science.

(*) At the same time, I feel we should do away with journal rankings and impact factors altogether. They're a relic from the pre-internet age, where it wasn't trivial to know the number of citations an individual paper or author gets. But that's a different discussion.

Re:Chicken or Egg (1)

tsa (15680) | about 4 months ago | (#47152493)

And don't forget overview papers. If your career is really down you should write one of those. If it's good enough it will be cited a lot for years to come.

Re:Chicken or Egg (1)

guru42101 (851700) | about 4 months ago | (#47154265)

Medical / Biology has it's own author order convention. First author is generally the person that did the most work/research on the publication. Last author is the person who managed it. Second author is generally the primary grunt of work. After that is anyone else that contributed / edited, often in order of amount contributed.

Source I worked at a research hospital for several years and actually managed to snag myself a second authorship on a project.

Success = going for... (4, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47150381)

... low hanging scientific fruit it appears. Since any serious science problem is going to be non-trivial. No doubt this 'success' is all about chasing low hanging fruit to get money.

Re:Success = going for... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47150557)

Mod parent up.

Pretty much anyone of average intelligence could be a "researcher". It's the stuff which takes years which actually advances humanity. If you're publishing for its own sake, you're wasting time and resources.

I blame the neoliberal trend of ranking everything to keep the proles fighting each other. I'm surprised that academics fall for it, though.

Re:Success = going for... (1)

Fwipp (1473271) | about 4 months ago | (#47152739)

Academics need to compete for grant money. You can't just ignore securing funding - if you do, you're out your job.

Re:Success = going for... (1)

TapeCutter (624760) | about 4 months ago | (#47152743)

So, how do you explain the explosion in scientifc aknowledge and technical prowess over the last 50yrs? - Or were you just trying to feel good about yourself by belittleing the achivements of others?

Re:Success = going for... (1)

qwak23 (1862090) | about 4 months ago | (#47152927)

So, how do you explain the explosion in scientifc aknowledge and technical prowess over the last 50yrs?

Extraterrestrial social experiment?

Just volume (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47154039)

It's really just a volume question: The volume being pushed through is what has caused the explosion in scientific knowledge. If you don't believe me, look at the explosion of patent applications on "every single imaginable variation of a theme" so that they can then brute force the research to see if any work.

Re:Success = going for... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47155479)

"So, how do you explain the explosion in scientifc aknowledge and technical prowess over the last 50yrs? - Or were you just trying to feel good about yourself by belittleing the achivements of others?"

Please list exact examples and how people with graduate training in biomed were involved. I am looking for people to look up to.

Re:Success = going for... (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47150955)

There is always this complaint about people going for low-hanging fruit, though groundbreaking ideas do not happen in isolation. It is rare to find people with very strong results and not having a paper trail of other results on related problems.

You need a constant stream of good publications, though not groundbreaking ones, to get your lab funded, and while you keep that alive you can work on your crazy ideas on the side. This is at least one proven approach for having a career in academia while not risking your life's dream for something that might not work out. Most other strategies are pure lottery and many fail, unable to pursue their life dream because they thought too big without a backup plan.

Re:Success = going for... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47152293)

... low hanging scientific fruit it appears. Since any serious science problem is going to be non-trivial. No doubt this 'success' is all about chasing low hanging fruit to get money.

Peter Higgs (yes, that Higgs) said basically the same thing recently:

Ha ha ha! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47150501)

That article is so full of fail it's not even funny.

I'm well beyond the limits of that graph, with something like 15 or 20 articles as a first author. Still looking for a PI job.

And I've seen first hand that some grad students are promised a PI job long before they even finish theire Ph.D. or publish anything significant.

correlation vs causation? (1)

TsuruchiBrian (2731979) | about 3 months ago | (#47150939)

For tennis players who aspire to be successful (e.g. get lots of endorsements, etc), the secret is to win lots of tennis tournaments and preferably grand slams. That career advice may seem obvious, but this time it's backed up by a new analysis of tournament data.

So now the question becomes whether the tennis players became successful because they employed the strategy of winning lots of tournaments, or whether some 3rd factor (like raw talent and/or work ethic) somehow caused both the winning of tournaments *and* the success. Looking at tournament data is not going to tell you this.

In order to get to the bottom of this, you need to do something like simple random sampling. You might randomly select players to win tennis tournaments, independently of their skill. Lets say we declare the winner of Wimbledon based on a lottery for a few years rather than by having a skill based tournament, and see how many tennis endorsements the winners get, compared with the winners of other grand slams that are based on skill.

If the winners of the Wimbledon lottery get just as many tennis endorsements as the US/French/Australian open winners, then we might conclude that winning tournaments is what causes a players success.

Re:correlation vs causation? (2)

rritterson (588983) | about 4 months ago | (#47151031)

I see your point, but unlike your tournament analogy, where their is direct competition between players to determine who is the best, academic publishing is only pseudo-competitive--more like figure skating.

There are far more great papers that could be in top tier journals than get published there. Whether your paper ends up there is a combination of which reviewers you happen to land, how your editor at the journal feels that morning, and how many papers you had published there previously. Thus, the majority of the determining factors in the number of top tier papers are not directly related to the scientific skill of the authors.

Certainly scientists who publish many top tier papers are great, but not all great scientists publish many top tier papers. For the number to correlate so strongly with academic success is a bit sad.

Extraordinarily famous and wildly successful scientists are publicly saying they never would have been successful if they had started in today's academic publishing world: []

Re:correlation vs causation? (1)

TsuruchiBrian (2731979) | about 4 months ago | (#47151407)

I don't doubt that there isn't some aspect of luck to all of this, whether it be luck in getting published by a big journal, or something else. I question whether the right conclusion was reached from the data. The logic seems a bit circular, in that it seems to suggest is that the more successful scientists are more successful.

Certainly scientists who publish many top tier papers are great, but not all great scientists publish many top tier papers. For the number to correlate so strongly with academic success is a bit sad.

If it didn't correlate with success, then we would see some other different scientists becoming successful, and then they would start getting published in big science journals, and then it would correlate again. Wouldn't we expect these numbers to correlate highly regardless of how fair the process was?

Re:correlation vs causation? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47152767)

Think of it like the rookie cop who joins the corrupt force. Your success is primarily determined by willingness to play the game, which is not necessarily positively correlated with good science. In biomed it is not so much corruption that's the problem, just extremely low standards and no time for new researchers to think about what they are being told before becoming invested themselves.

As a PI (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47150957)

As a PI, I would normally get a kick out of these replies, but I'm too busy writing a grant and have to get back to work . . .

frist sTop (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47151027)

user. 'Now that are ingcompatible

~80% chance (1)

the plant doctor (842044) | about 4 months ago | (#47151147)

That I'll get the job I have now.

I'm not at a major university, I'm at a large agricultural NGO with my own lab of 11 researchers and a PhD student who is hosted at the uni down the street. However, according to their model there's less than 80% chance that I'll become a PI.

I'd be interested to know what's different. I realise that it's a model, thus it's wrong. Still, I guess ~80% is a pretty strong relationship for something like this. It was fun to try.

Another study... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47151679)

... found that athletes that win almost all their events at a national level tend to make it to the olympics. Further, if they win or are close to winning in each event at the olympics, they often medal. Fascinating research.

I was wondering about lesser known journals (1)

raymorris (2726007) | about 4 months ago | (#47151839)

I found this part interesting, as it is a question I've been wondering about. It may directly affect my career - soon.

TFA said:
> a large number of publications in low-ranking journals can be just as good as a few in the big ones. That’s “perhaps the most interesting finding,”

That is indeed interesting. I work on the fringes of academia, where most people don't publish at all, but the boss certainly wants people to. So I'm just starting to learn about how to get my work out there. Number if citations matters, I've read, so now I need to find out how one goes about getting exposure so that people might cite my work.

I guess it IS worthwhile for me to submit lower-impact journals related to my field, information security.

Wasted publications? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47152091)

There must be more to it than just publishing:

So many talented postdocs without any lab funding. To get F32 fellowship you do need few publications.

Coming next on PubMed (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47152285)

Their exclusive, breakthrough theory on the Brontosaurus.

Is it actually good research? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47152711)

Where is the evidence for any success the last 30 years? What has been cured? Are cancer researchers still studying every possible mutation rather than looking at aneuploidy? Are the people doing translational research still avoiding characterizing their models correctly (use more than 20 animals, publish the distribution of results seen for control only under various conditions, then investigate why these individual differences exist)? Are a few pictures of some stained tissue still accepted as justifying some claim? Are they still dismissing unexplained bands on western blots as "breakdown products" and multimers without ever actually checking this?

Re:Is it actually good research? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47152759)

When looking at cell growth in culture are they acknowledging the role of the substrate (different plastics/etc can have huge effect)? Are they looking at different timepoints, or studying an exponential phenomenon by cherry picking some early timepoint that magnifies any differences? What about dose-response, are the dose response curves predicted by theory? Is anyone trying to come up with theory to explain the observed curves?

Then there are the "outliers" that pervade biomedical research, is anyone looking to explain these or do they just dismiss them? How much attention is payed to whether effect sizes are similar from study to study? Is all the focus just on whether a treatment results in higher/lower outcome? Is it possible to combine a bunch of "higher/lower" facts into a coherent model capable of predicting the effect of a further manipulation? How often are these facts being directly checked by independent replication?

Hmmm... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47153921)

It's quite surprising to see that females still have it worse even in a field (bio/med) where they are usually outnumbering their male colleagues.

And you know what's worse? Being a guy from math/eng/CS in that field. According to their predictor, taking only my 11 papers that appear on PubMed, I would have a 95% chance of landing a PI job. Yet, since I'm not a biologist by training, I can't even get an interview.

Works for Biology (1)

plopez (54068) | about 4 months ago | (#47155023)

But what about other disciplines? It has been my observation that each discipline has a unique culture, esp. when you throw engineering into the mix. And the juries for the proposals are usually people from the same or related disciplines.

And apparenty... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47155535)

I can't believe no one has pointed out that the authors don't seem to understand the difference between correlation and causality...

Of course predictors of "success" are publishing in top journals as first author and running a lab. Obviously they are correlated, but which one causes which? Or is there a third cause? (like being a hard worker, or being smart).

But the comments are right. Going for many publications instead of quality publications seems to be a better strategy if all you want is "academic success".

In mathematics, where there are no "first authors" (always in alphabetical order), many papers contain only marginal contributions by some of the authors, who share full credit.

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