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…