Scientists Have the Power to Change the Publishing System

Author: David Kent
Original: University Affairs | The Black Hole


Earlier this month I read an article by Julia Belluz that ripped into the scientific publishing system. The saddest, and truest, sentiment of the article can be summed up in the following quotation:

“Taxpayers fund a lot of the science that gets done, academics peer review it for free, and then journals charge users ludicrous sums of money to view the finished product.”

This is certainly not the first attack against the publishing process nor the first to encourage open-access publishing. In the remainder of her article, Ms. Belluz focuses on the role that governments can play in getting more scientific research freely and instantly available. In sum, she suggests that government funding agencies (e.g., the United States National Institutes of Health or the Canadian Institutes of Health Research) could refuse to give grants to those scientists who did not publish in open-access journals.

This is a laudable, and indeed it is the approach being taken bit by bit by funding agencies – the Wellcome Trust in the U.K. for example has a very robust open access policy that includes providing grant funding for the open-access charges. While this will certainly get more research out sooner and without charge, I believe it misses out on an important aspect of the power dynamic that plagues the scientific publishing process.

The fact is that journals with high impact factors wield enormous power because they hold the key to scientists’ careers – the field has become so obsessed with metrics that it is insufficient to be a good scientist with good ideas and the ability to perform good research. As things stand now, if you want research grants (and in most cases, this means if you want a job), then you need to publish a paper (or several!) with a big-name journal.

So what can scientists do? Well, it turns out scientists are involved in just about every aspect of the publishing power dynamic. First, one needs to understand what’s at stake. Scientists want big name papers for three main reasons:

  1. Grants
  2. Jobs
  3. Recognition

However, papers in big-name journals do not directly give you grants or jobs, nor are they the only way to be recognized as a good scientist. Other scientists make these decisions, but far too often their judgment is impacted by the glitz and glam of the big-name journals.

Jobs are often won by those doing research that has good institutional fit – they bring a novel technology, a new way of looking at things, or a broad network of excellent former colleagues – but jobs are often lost because the candidate is “not fundable.” The latter is more often than not decided based on where they have published and how a grants panel will view them. So it basically comes down to who can get grants. And who generally decides funding outcomes? Scientists.

I wonder how many grant panels have heard the phrase “the project looks good, but the candidate has only ever published in mid-range journals.” Indeed, I know several scientists who rank applications based on a candidate’s publication record irrespective of how good or bad the project is or how well-resourced the working environment is.

One suggestion: Ban the CV from the grant review process. Rank the projects based on the ideas and ability to carry out the research rather than whether someone has published in Nature, Cell or Science. This could in turn remove the pressure to publish in big journals. I’ve often wondered how much of this could actually be drilled down to sheer laziness on the part of scientists perusing the literature and reviewing grants – “Which journals should I scan for recent papers? Just the big ones surely…” or “This candidate has published in Nature already, they’ll probably do it again, no need to read the proposal too closely.”

Of course I generalize and there are many crusaders out there (Michael Eisen, Randy Sheckman, Fiona Watt, etc.) pushing to change things and I mean them no offence. I just wish that more people could feel safe enough to follow their lead. In my own journey to start up a lab, I am under enormous pressure to publish in a big journal (i.e., my open-access PLoS Biology paper doesn’t make the grade and open source juggernaut e-Life has yet to achieve high-level status despite its many philosophical backers).

So, in sum, scientists in positions of power (peer reviewers, institute directors, funding panel chairs) are the real targets for change. Assess based on research merit, not journal label. Let’s make journals tools of communication, not power brokers of scientific careers.

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Interviews: How to Handle Tricky Questions

Author: Steve Joy
Original: Early Career Blog


This post is a companion to my last piece about preparing for an academic interview [and is a re-posting of my piece on the Guardian Higher Education Network‘s website]. I’ve trawled the archives to pick out common yet tricky questions, and I offer some ideas for how to handle them.

Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list. You will always get unexpected questions. The trick is to take a deep breath and let go of the anxiety that you need to find the “right” answer. Interview questions have countless plausible and convincing answers, but what sets good candidates apart is their ability to deliver structured answers, to articulate their thinking clearly, and to speak to the concerns of their interviewers.

1) Why do you want this job?

It’s amazing how many people struggle to give sensible answers, which creates a dreadful impression – particularly if it’s the opening question. Prepare your response, which needs to be confident, specific, and well structured. For example, “There are three main reasons why I see myself as a good fit for this role”.

When it comes to the content, avoid being generic (saying the same as everyone else). And don’t sound selfish: the panel want to know how they will benefit from having you on their team as much as, if not more than, how you will benefit.

2) What’s your best paper?

This might be your highest-impact paper, but it doesn’t have to be. What counts is that you give a sound rationale for your choice. Perhaps you’re proudest of the paper which marks a transitional moment in your research or your career. Or perhaps it’s the paper that you know had a direct, positive impact on someone else’s work. It doesn’t matter, as long as you’ve thought it through.

3) Why do you work on X? Surely, Y is more important

Try not to interpret this sort of question as an attack. Fundamentally, interviewers want you to address their concerns. You work on gibbons – I work on gorillas, so how is your work relevant to mine? You study Shakespeare – I study Marlowe, so what can I learn from you?

Take a structured approach: “Let me break that question down into two. The reason why X is an important topic is […]. I understand that what Y is trying to achieve is […]. What I think that the two studies have in common, therefore, is […].”

4) What will you do if something goes wrong?

What happens if your hypothesis is wrong? Your experiments fail? You can’t get access to the archive you need? Your grant is unsuccessful? Don’t pretend that your research is impervious to failure. Doing so will probably come across as denial or, worse, a lack of self-awareness. What matters is how you handle setbacks, and how you plan to overcome predictable hiccups.

5) Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?

Lots of people tackle this question by naming the job title which they hope to have attained, for example: “10 years from now, I want to be a professor.” This is OK (provided you can explain how you intend to get there), but it’s awfully predictable. Think about achievements rather than status. This question also gives you an opportunity to show that you have a vision for where your field is going. What’s the next big question that, in a decade’s time, you expect to be working on, or even to have solved?

6) How does your work fit with the group/department/university?

Interviewers don’t recruit candidates who see themselves in solipsistic isolation. So, based on all your preparatory research into this employer, identify the specific ways that your work aligns with their needs and priorities. Think about: particular specialisms, research clusters, possible collaborations, undergraduate or graduate curricula, interdisciplinary links with other departments, outreach initiatives, etc. Don’t turn this into a conceptual answer – ground what you say in a couple of specific, tangible examples.

7) Describe a course or topic that you would teach

Too many candidates talk about prospective teaching as if its value were entirely self-evident, or they simply lean on the intrinsic intellectual interest of the topic. Instead, think in terms of outcomes and learning objectives, because evaluation is integral to good teaching. What will the students get out of the course? What work will you set, and how will it be assessed? What skills will they acquire? How will it complement the rest of their studies?

8) What does collegiality mean to you?

Panels are recruiting someone to work alongside themselves or other members of their institution, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that working relationships are on interviewers’ minds. In truth, some people are simply not good colleagues. So, what kind of a colleague do you intend to be? How are you going to help others to be successful?

9) If we offered you this job, would you accept it?

This isn’t a trick question, and the best response isn’t necessarily just to say yes, without hesitation. There are innumerable factors that could have a bearing on what you might say, not least the vexed issue of waiting to hear back about other applications. But let’s not assume that being honest is always a bad thing. The crucial point is that, before you get in the room, you should take time to think through whether you would accept the job, and to discuss it with peers and mentors.

10) Do you have any questions for us?

This will almost certainly come up and is generally taken as a measure of how interested you are in the role. You should therefore be prepared with a couple of questions. Bad types of question to ask are: essentially selfish (e.g. asking about benefits, annual leave, sabbatical entitlement); ill-informed (i.e. things you could have found out for yourself if you’d spent a few minutes on the employer’s website); or downright naive (e.g. “Would you say that the Research Excellence Framework is important to this department?”).