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Science Moneyball: The Secret to a Successful Academic Career 42

sciencehabit (1205606) writes "For biomedical researchers who aspire to run their own labs, the secret is to publish frequently, as first author, and in top journals. That career advice may seem obvious, but this time it's backed up by a new analysis of data scraped from PubMed, the massive public repository of biological abstracts. The study, reported today in Current Biology, uses the status of last author as a proxy for academic success. Those corresponding authors are likely to be running their own labs, the brass ring that young researchers are trying to grab. See what your chances are using Science's PI Predictor graph."
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Science Moneyball: The Secret to a Successful Academic Career

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  • by russotto ( 537200 ) on Monday June 02, 2014 @06:20PM (#47150303) Journal
    It turns out that the secret for success in the stock market is to buy low and sell high. Get to it, folks.
    • In this case the relationship is not necessarily directly causal. If you can bring in the grant money, you can get a career. The quantity of papers may simply be a consequence of running a successful research program.
    • That's actually more relevant than you think: if someone found that ONLY buying low and selling high was important to success, then that would actually be surprising since it seems to me that success has more to do with convincing people to give you their money to invest.

      Likewise, TFA points out that impact factor matters less than number, which IS surprising.

      Their analysis incorporated more than 200 variables, from the global rank of a scientist’s university, to the total number of papers, citations to those papers, and the impact factor of the journals in which they appeared. One revelation: The first few years of papers are enough to predict who will become a PI. Another is that impact factor isn't everything. At least later in a career, a large number of publications in low-ranking journals can be just as good as a few in the big ones. That’s “perhaps the most interesting finding,” says Sam Gershman, a computational neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

      That goes contrary to conventional wisdom in biomedical research that you need to publish in a glamor journal in order to get hired as a PI.


  • Really publishing quality results is what will get you that and being the guy behind the projects will more often than not get you the lead author spot.

    • Re:Chicken or Egg (Score:5, Informative)

      by Obfuscant ( 592200 ) on Monday June 02, 2014 @06:45PM (#47150473)

      Really publishing quality results is what will get you that and being the guy behind the projects will more often than not get you the lead author spot.

      No, the exact opposite is what these folks used. They didn't look at the status of the last author as the summary claims, they used the last author position as a proxy for identifying who the PI was -- which is not really a measure of academic success. They didn't bother looking anyone's status up directly.

      Maybe bio-whatever is different, but where I work "last author" isn't always the highest status, and there may be three or four co-PIs on a project, even multiple Universities.

      • It varies a lot from field to field. In my field (mathematics), authors generally seem to be listed in alphabetical order. Anecdotally, I have been lead to understand that in anthropology and sociology, authors are generally listed in order of seniority; and that in neurology the first author is assumed to be the head of the primary lab at University A, the second author the graduate student running that lab, the last author is the head of the secondary lab at University B, and the second to last author i
        • by Quirkz ( 1206400 )

          In medical research, at least as my wife experienced, the first author is the surgeon with the biggest reputation/ego, followed by every other associated surgeons. The first non-surgeon author is probably the person who wrote the article and did 90% of the research and analysis, followed by a string of interns and contributors in order of amount contributed.

      • In larger research institutions employing several researchers, it is common for the head of the institute to be put as the last author on all papers, whether they had much of anything to do with the research or not. This is how you get "top researchers" claiming authorship to hundreds of papers. Honestly at that point they aren't doing much research anymore.
    • Re:Chicken or Egg (Score:5, Insightful)

      by OneAhead ( 1495535 ) on Monday June 02, 2014 @06:55PM (#47150549)

      Regarding the "publishing quality results is what will get you that" part, I'd argue it's exactly the opposite. Maybe we have a different idea of quality, but really groundbreaking science is high-risk science and will rarely get you the prescribed frequent publications, especially early in a project. Dull "me-too" science will. So will milking out every small incremental finding in a separate publication and spending more time writing and revising papers than doing actual science. This is partially demonstrated by the fact that papers in "lesser" journals count just as much.(*) To me, this is a big part of what's wrong with the current state of science.

      (*) At the same time, I feel we should do away with journal rankings and impact factors altogether. They're a relic from the pre-internet age, where it wasn't trivial to know the number of citations an individual paper or author gets. But that's a different discussion.

      • by tsa ( 15680 )

        And don't forget overview papers. If your career is really down you should write one of those. If it's good enough it will be cited a lot for years to come.

    • Medical / Biology has it's own author order convention. First author is generally the person that did the most work/research on the publication. Last author is the person who managed it. Second author is generally the primary grunt of work. After that is anyone else that contributed / edited, often in order of amount contributed.

      Source I worked at a research hospital for several years and actually managed to snag myself a second authorship on a project.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 02, 2014 @06:33PM (#47150381)

    ... low hanging scientific fruit it appears. Since any serious science problem is going to be non-trivial. No doubt this 'success' is all about chasing low hanging fruit to get money.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Mod parent up.

      Pretty much anyone of average intelligence could be a "researcher". It's the stuff which takes years which actually advances humanity. If you're publishing for its own sake, you're wasting time and resources.

      I blame the neoliberal trend of ranking everything to keep the proles fighting each other. I'm surprised that academics fall for it, though.

      • by Fwipp ( 1473271 )

        Academics need to compete for grant money. You can't just ignore securing funding - if you do, you're out your job.

      • So, how do you explain the explosion in scientifc aknowledge and technical prowess over the last 50yrs? - Or were you just trying to feel good about yourself by belittleing the achivements of others?
        • by qwak23 ( 1862090 )

          So, how do you explain the explosion in scientifc aknowledge and technical prowess over the last 50yrs?

          Extraterrestrial social experiment?

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      There is always this complaint about people going for low-hanging fruit, though groundbreaking ideas do not happen in isolation. It is rare to find people with very strong results and not having a paper trail of other results on related problems.

      You need a constant stream of good publications, though not groundbreaking ones, to get your lab funded, and while you keep that alive you can work on your crazy ideas on the side. This is at least one proven approach for having a career in academia while not riskin

  • For tennis players who aspire to be successful (e.g. get lots of endorsements, etc), the secret is to win lots of tennis tournaments and preferably grand slams. That career advice may seem obvious, but this time it's backed up by a new analysis of tournament data.

    So now the question becomes whether the tennis players became successful because they employed the strategy of winning lots of tournaments, or whether some 3rd factor (like raw talent and/or work ethic) somehow caused both the winning of tournaments *and* the success. Looking at tournament data is not going to tell you this.

    In order to get to the bottom of this, you need to do something like simple random sampling. You might randomly select players to win tennis tournaments, independently of their skill.

    • I see your point, but unlike your tournament analogy, where their is direct competition between players to determine who is the best, academic publishing is only pseudo-competitive--more like figure skating.

      There are far more great papers that could be in top tier journals than get published there. Whether your paper ends up there is a combination of which reviewers you happen to land, how your editor at the journal feels that morning, and how many papers you had published there previously. Thus, the majori

      • I don't doubt that there isn't some aspect of luck to all of this, whether it be luck in getting published by a big journal, or something else. I question whether the right conclusion was reached from the data. The logic seems a bit circular, in that it seems to suggest is that the more successful scientists are more successful.

        Certainly scientists who publish many top tier papers are great, but not all great scientists publish many top tier papers. For the number to correlate so strongly with academic success is a bit sad.

        If it didn't correlate with success, then we would see some other different scientists becoming successful, and then they would start getting published in big science journals, and

  • That I'll get the job I have now.

    I'm not at a major university, I'm at a large agricultural NGO with my own lab of 11 researchers and a PhD student who is hosted at the uni down the street. However, according to their model there's less than 80% chance that I'll become a PI.

    I'd be interested to know what's different. I realise that it's a model, thus it's wrong. Still, I guess ~80% is a pretty strong relationship for something like this. It was fun to try.

  • I found this part interesting, as it is a question I've been wondering about. It may directly affect my career - soon.

    TFA said:
    > a large number of publications in low-ranking journals can be just as good as a few in the big ones. That’s “perhaps the most interesting finding,”

    That is indeed interesting. I work on the fringes of academia, where most people don't publish at all, but the boss certainly wants people to. So I'm just starting to learn about how to get my work out there. Number

  • But what about other disciplines? It has been my observation that each discipline has a unique culture, esp. when you throw engineering into the mix. And the juries for the proposals are usually people from the same or related disciplines.

I've finally learned what "upward compatible" means. It means we get to keep all our old mistakes. -- Dennie van Tassel