A question arrived about publication expectations for trainees at the blog mailbox recently.

I was wondering if you would consider a blog post and perhaps encouraging discussion on a related topic, on how do you evaluate your student/postdoc performance and how common is the 1 paper/yr “rule”?

At the outset I was skeptical that much use would come of trying to answer this because the real answer is “It depends very much on subfield and ultimate career aspirations, therefore broad sweeping pronouncements are of little value.“. And this is true. But what the heck? I’ll give you my thoughts from my point of view, no doubt some others will go shitnutz about how it is clearly different and maybe we can hash out the space of useful answers.

Some detailed stuff that I thought about, but often are not discussed thoroughly include:
– I always assumed that when people talk about 1 paper/yr it refers to 1 first-author paper but not in a top-tier journal (usually “best in the sub-field” journal, e.g. Org. Lett., J. Med. Chem., etc.)

Yeah. I think one paper per year is a pretty good general starting point. Emphasis on general. For trainees, I think this average will be lower, ditto if you only count first-author papers. But it is a pretty good target expectation for the central tendency. One first author per year in a “top tier” journal is a ridiculously absurd expectation for postdocs. Even one per year in a “top tier” journal as senior author is only possible for the very top laboratories and is therefore not the expectation for everyone. If you can do it, good on you, but it ain’t typical. So if you are in a place where you think this is the standard for postdocs? please. I’m familiar with a lab that has probably one of the highest CNS counts ever and the postdocs do not hit one CNS pub per year as first author. They have not done so over the ~15 years I’ve been watching the lab’s production. So anyone who does this out there in the whole postdoc population is the rare exception.

– How do you factor in non-1st author papers? Ignoring the effects of journal IF, would one 1st-author paper = two 2nd-author paper?

There is no direct relationship, I would argue. Non-substitutable quantities. No amount of non-first author papers makes up for not having any first-author papers. They are just that important in the minds of many people, including me. Conversely, the existence of some 2nd-Xth author papers is better than not having any, because more is better when it comes to publications on the CV. I suppose at some point there would be a balance point in which too many Nth author papers starts to subtract from the credit generated by the first-author list. It would be related to the thought of “why doesn’t this trainee have more firsts if she is this experimentally productive?”.

– Do people even consider anything greater than 2nd-authorship (i.e. having 3rd authorship is basically useless or not counted)? If so, does the level of the prestige of the journal change this perception (i.e. having 3rd authorship in PNAS is equivalent to a 1st-author in some 2nd-tier journal like Biochemistry)?

In my view, no, the Nth author on an article in a higher IF journal doesn’t trump first-author in a lesser journal. See above, the Nth authorships count but I would say they are independent of the first-author credits. So within the sphere of Nth authorships, sure, the higher IF is better.

– How do you factor in the prestige or IF of the journal? Does publishing in Science/Nature/Cell count as having 2-3 1st-author papers in 2nd-tier journals?

Indubitably the CNS first-author counts more than several first-authors in lesser journals. One might even suggest that CNS first-author as a postdoc trumps infinity non-CNS first-authors. For some situations. There are those that assert that the presence/absence of very specific journals on the CV is the difference between round-filing an application for an Assistant Professor position and placing it on the long-list for consideration. I credit these assertions but would also point out that there are many perfectly acceptable jobs that would not have this absurd criterion.

– Do people take a time-average (i.e. as long as you get 5 papers in 5 years it’s fine), or is having a regular output more important (i.e. would prefer to have 1 paper every year as opposed to 2 papers in 1st year and 3 papers in 5th year but nothing in between)?

I would say that it is only once one becomes a PI that it is ever reasonable to look at consistency of output. This particular example would not even be noticed, I would say. And even then it sort of depends on the type of work you do. I know of multiple types of work in my areas of interest (particularly human studies) that have years of data collection followed by a flurry of papers.

When I have recommended shooting for consistent output, being concerned with whether a manuscript submitted to Journal X at this point in the year will have a pub date from this year, etc it has to do mostly with motivation. Most of the time the pace of submission for a postdoc is not going to be easily controlled. The experiments have their own timeline. Things come up. New things need to be done to wrap up the paper. Then there are the many sources of delay in the review process. There is no reason to obsess about 2 in first year / 3 in fifth over meeting a strict rate of 1 per year for 5 years.

The clock is ever ticking, however and since one cannot go back and fill in missing publication-years, one is best keeping one’s eye on the prize. If you haven’t had a paper in a two year span, well maybe it is better to dump out a quick one, give up on hitting the highest possible IF, etc. You have to make this judgement thinkingly, of course. And no, there are no formulaic answers such as my correspondent seems to be seeking.

Balance. That is my best suggestion.

Sandy

October 29, 2012

Stay safe, friends in the path of Hurricane Sandy.

Hoping this turns out milder than anticipated…

The latest iteration is on the Twitts, launched by queries from @JacquelynGill. You can browse the #firstgrant hash tag if you want some background.

One of the sounder bits of usual advice to new grant writers is to get some examples from established scientists. The closer to your field and the closer to the agency you are soliciting, the better.

All true. I can’t imagine someone drafting a credible NIH application from the instructions alone.

Where I think the typical advice goes wrong is in emphasizing successful applications. As if this is all you need.

I think new grant seekers should ask their friends and senior colleagues for the losers too. With, preferably, the reviews.

There is much about the NIH review process and one’s likely success within it that can be gleaned best from comparing successful and unsuccessful grants.

UPDATED: A prior post on what is wrong with the NIAID sample grants.

The R56/Bridge mechanism of the NIH is called the High Priority, Short-Term award

will fund, for one or two years, high-priority new or competing renewal R01 applications with priority scores or percentiles that fall just outside the funding limits of participating NIH Institutes and Centers (IC). Investigators may not apply for R56 grants.

Sounds good right? It gets better:

The R56 award will help early career stage scientists trying to establish research careers as well as experienced scientists who can benefit from interim funding while they revise their applications.

Woo-hoo! Sign me UPPE!!!!

Except, sigh, they don’t fund very many of these. Or at least my ICs of interest never seem to be that interested in giving me a hand while I revise my awesome applications. And in fact I seem to see these things quite often awarded to year -2xA1 projects and fairly infrequently awarded to noobs. But that’s kind of subjective….

I took a search REPORTER for R56 awards since July 1. And sorted by the IC.

WOWSA. First thing I noticed is that my ICs of closest interest aren’t handing (m)any of these out right now. So, sucks for me. But at least I don’t have to whinge about fairness.

NIAID and NIDDK however clearly LOVE these things. Just LOVE the R56. I count 88 of the 1R56 awards out of 136 from NIAID and an additional 30 from NIDDK. The next biggest players are NIDCR with 5 and NIMH with 4, not even close.

I noticed something else interesting. 72 of 136 are for A1 versions of the proposal.

NIAID seems to be the ONLY IC to fund R56s for competing continuations, picking up 17 of them. Some for original submissions sure, but some for A1 revision.

I emphasize. The A1 version of applications are being awarded R56s. Which can’t be revised. And can’t be resubmitted except in clearly-different guise. Yet the announcement clearly says the R56 is for preparing a revision of a just-miss, meritorious proposal.

So what in the hell are these being awarded for? One might ask.

Now I didn’t delve down into trying to determine who was a new investigator versus and established investigator. Mostly I was hoping to complain about my favorite ICs where I could sort based on name recognition with this little exercise. But perhaps some NIAID mavens could review the list for us.

Here’s what I want to know. To what extent are these being used to give a break to genuine noobs and to what extent are they being extracted out of POs by long term investigators who haven’t managed to get a fundable score. To what extent are they letting Professor Bluehair keep her extra postdoc or technician around but completely missing the point that Assistant Professor Noob would like to get her first one of those, thanks.

To what extent are they propping up labs of PIs nearing the common (nonscience) retirement age and to what extent are they failing to sustain momentum for people more in my age bracket who have a fair bit of productive science ahead?

Teacher Ms. S. has requested support for her science class to learn basic vertebrate biology with the time honored dissection lab.

This grant will provide our science classroom with the equipment necessary to complete two laboratory dissections with 100 students. After an in depth study of the circulatory system and the chambers and structures of the heart, we will dissect a sheep heart. I selected a sheep heart since they are almost identical in size and structure as a human heart. We will continue with our anatomical studies of the other human organ systems, including the respiratory, digestive, excretory, reproductive, muscular, and skeletal systems. As a final culminating project, we will dissect a large bullfrog to develop a much deeper understanding of how the organs work together in the human body.

The REALM Charter school in Oakland California has an admirable goal

MISSION
The mission of Realm Charter School is to cultivate resiliency, develop critical thinking skills, advance knowledge through rigorous studies, and equip students to serve our communities and the world in the 21st century. Realm Charter School will serve diverse urban students in grades 6-12 using a student-centered model that features project-based learning, an emphasis on technology, research and action on concerns in the community and activities that develop emotional resiliency.

and is described further by Ms. S.:

The REALM Charter School student body consists of 80% students of color living in Richmond, Berkeley, and Oakland. Approximately 60% of our students are Latino, and the remaining 40% are African American, Asian and White. We are a project based design school. We teach students to tackle problems and seek solutions through creative ingenuity.

As my longer term readers know, I’ve had my eye out for the dissection projects for a few years now because I think they are some of the most memorable primary and secondary school experiences when it comes to scientific education. This has been recently reinforced because one of my children was afforded the ability to do several dissections in a summer program that my spouse and I could happen to afford. Not every child in America is so lucky, as you well know, and this is a High Poverty school.

This is not a cheap project, the remaining balance sits at $1,089 as of this writing. This makes it a steep hill to climb, but I think we have a shot at making it a reality. So please, if you can, donate. Even just a little bit, $5 or $10, chips away at the total and creates momentum.

If you cannot, please consider forwarding the link on your Twitter, on your Facebook and even by email to your friends and families.

I am already humbled by the generosity of the Readers of the DM blog and of the Scientopia Collective. Thanks to everyone who has already pitched in.

Via brain wrap at DailyKos

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Obama has a better approach

This one is mostly for the PIs in the audience but I’m sure trainees will have experiences to share as well.

What fraction of the people who have spent time in your laboratory have ended up with authorships on published papers?

(Including students and techs)