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.