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IN MY OPINION

Many universities are basing hiring decisions on unfair criteria

Publish in Nature or perish.

By RYAN J. MAILLOUX | APR 23 2014
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Photo courtesy of Carleton University.

Postdoctoral work involves mentorship, specifically between the junior academic (the postdoctoral fellow) and a senior scientist at an academic institution. Typically this type of mentorship allows junior academics to refine their skills as they prepare for the rigours of academic life and apply for academic positions.

As a postdoc, my personal experience with the job search shows that some universities are more focused on whether a candidate has published in Nature rather than their overall qualifications. I was unaware that “Publish in Nature” (or Cell, or Science) policies existed until I started my job search for an academic position three years ago. This policy was revealed once I was long-listed for an interview at a certain Canadian university. After learning I would not be interviewed, I asked why. In a meeting with a member of the hiring committee, I was told it was because I had not published in Nature.

A few weeks later, I was told that I was passed over for another position — this time I’d had an interview – because I had not published in Nature. It happened twice more, and several faculty made clear that a “Publish in Nature” criterion is being actively used for hiring. Is it possible that publishing in Nature was a legitimate hiring policy? I shared my job-search experiences with a few other junior academics, only to find that they too had fallen victim to this myopic hiring policy. How many institutions practise this?

Some people, hearing about my experience, have responded, “Then just publish in Nature.” I wish it was that easy. Publishing in a top-tier journal is more of a beauty contest than a real demonstration of academic superiority. If your work is sexy enough, if you work with the right people at the right institution, then your work might be considered for review.

In a study published 30 years ago in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Douglas P. Peters and Stephen J. Ceci illustrated that who you are and where you work play significant roles in whether or not a study will be reviewed and accepted for publication at a top-tier journal. The authors took 12 articles already published in top journals by prestigious investigators working at prestigious institutes. They changed the author names to fictitious ones, substituted the real institution’s name for a less prestigious one, and resubmitted the altered articles to the journal that had published it originally. Strikingly, 89 percent of reviewers recommended against publication and the editors rejected the articles.

There are major issues associated with the “Publish in Nature” criterion. First, it devalues the science published in other peer-reviewed journals. Journals are rated by impact factor and the higher the impact, the more important the scientific discovery, presumably. This is an antiquated notion, since important findings are published in a lot of lower- to medium-impact journals. (For example, the original observations made by Fisher and Krebs concerning the regulation of the liver enzyme glycogen phosphorylase were published in Biochimica Biophysica Acta and The Journal of Biological Chemistry, journals that are deemed medium-impact. Fisher and Krebs subsequently received the Nobel Prize for this discovery.)

Second, there are financial issues associated with this. A typical postdoc salary in Canada was $30,000 to $40,000 a year before taxes a few years ago (Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars in its survey, 2009). The federal government gives science-funding agencies money to support postdocs who are selected by peer review. What is troubling is that postdocs are eligible to apply for only three to five years after completing their doctoral work. But postdoctoral work actually lasts four to seven years, or even longer. So, postdocs become increasingly reliant on their supervisors – rather than granting councils – for a paycheck.

According to the 2009 CAPS survey, 50 percent of postdocs depended on their supervisors for a paycheck, with a large share of respondents being three to seven years into their postdoctoral training. Thus, junior academics have a meager salary and, as time progresses, an increasingly unstable work pay.

This may seem like a tangent but it comes back to the “Publish in Nature” criterion. Postdocs know they need to publish in high-impact journals to be attractive to hiring committees. Some dedicate years to trying to publish in top journals, often without success. With the goal of publishing in Nature dangling before them, junior scholars drag out their postdoctoral work, leaving them financially vulnerable. Moreover, supervisors often delegate various administrative tasks to postdocs, making it even harder for them to transition to a real academic position.

Requiring scholars to publish in Nature and equivalent journals was denounced by U.S. biologist Randy Schekman, who won the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine last year, and declared he would boycott three major journals (Cell, Science and Nature), telling the Guardian that leading academic journals are distorting the scientific process and represent a “tyranny” that must be broken.”

Not all universities use the “Publish in Nature” criterion. Sometimes an application may be rejected because the candidate’s research aspirations don’t fit the long-term vision of the institution. I have interviewed for positions and received a fair shake. But my point is to put the spotlight on those universities that hire based on where work was published, rather than holistic qualifications. Publishing in Nature is not an appropriate benchmark for whether a candidate is qualified to handle the rigours of academia. Holistic qualities, such as knowledge of how to balance research and mentorship with a strong teaching philosophy, should be the key feature evaluated by search committees.

Ryan Mailloux is a postdoctoral fellow with the Institute of Biochemistry and the biology department at Carleton University.

 

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  1. Mark Mercer / April 23, 2014 at 15:34

    I’ve been involved in enough hirings and promotions to know that there’s no telling what crazy criterion a colleague will insist on applying.

  2. Steven Siciliano / April 24, 2014 at 09:52

    Ryan,

    The key decision during a hiring process is: “Do I want to work with this person for the next 30 years? Will they help us teach, help us with our admin load, help us with our research?” Everyone has a different concept of how to make this decision. As Dr. Mercer points out, many of these concepts are insane. As an applicant, you should be asking the same questions of the Department.

    If the Department is myopic enough to insist on publication in Nature as a prerequisite for hiring, would you really want to spend the rest of your intellectual life there? Imagine going for tenure…. “Sorry Ryan, yes you’ve published an amazing breakthrough, won a major NSERC award, graduated numerous PhD students, given several keynotes but no Nature paper so…. Denied!”

    I would suggest you ask professors how many times they interviewed before being offered a position, the answer may surprise you.

    Best of luck in the job search,

    Steve Siciliano

  3. Ryan J. Mailloux / April 24, 2014 at 13:14

    Dear Steven Siciliano,

    Thank you for the feedback. It is entirely true that some Faculties do hire based on who would be the best fit for the long term in the department. This is a legitimate criterion that I completely agree with. Politics can also play a role. Unfortunately some Faculties at some Canadian Universities do not function in this manner. As indicated in my article, I have been told directly by Faculty on search committees that publishing in top-tier journals IS being utilized as a hiring criterion. The goal of the article here is to create more awareness of this criterion which creates a class system and devalues work published in other journals.

    I can also appreciate that a number of faculty have had to apply a multitude of times to secure a post. Some may have suffered abject poverty or even worse. A number of Faculty have called this normal. This sends chills down my spine as if to indicate that going through years of job searching is habitual and familiar. Was it not Nietzsche who urged humanity to live dangerously? Just because it is normal does not make it right.

  4. Susan / April 25, 2014 at 02:43

    More like nepotism in Canada rather than Nature or Science.

  5. David Kent / April 25, 2014 at 11:10

    Hi Ryan,

    I can certainly sympathise with you (also being a postdoctoral fellow and also looking to jump to the next level), but I wonder if it might simply be that the people citing “no Nature paper” are looking for an easy reason to give you (i.e., it’s an objective criterion).

    It would be much harder for the people you’ve asked for feedback to say “we didn’t like your personality”, “your project was pretty boring”, “we found you too defensive in your answers”, etc

    Saying “Sorry, no nature publication” is clean, easy to say and difficult to argue against.

    My understanding of hiring committees (though I do have limited experience having only been to interview once) is that they are looking for a solid body of research from multiple labs (i.e., a track record of success). If you had a paper every year in a top ranked specialised journal or a general PNAS/PLoS Medicine style journal, most hiring committees would be quite happy with the CV and bring you to interview.

    In fact, it’s difficult to imagine why a university would bring you to interview if they were employing a “publish in Nature” procedure when you clearly didn’t have one on your CV.

    I do think the big journals are over-rated and I do think that hiring committees are extremely difficult to predict, but I also believe that those people who publish regularly, consistently, and have good ideas and collaborative personalities will get academic jobs. The most difficult thing for most people to understand is that there are a lot of people out there who also have good CVs and any individual’s may not stack up on several levels.

    It would be a good idea to ask who got hired in each of the jobs you applied for (or thought of applying for) and to ask whether you’ve produced a similar (or better) body of work. My guess is that they are pretty good candidates.

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