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Education Science

Elite Group of Researchers Rule Scientific Publishing 123

sciencehabit writes Publishing is one of the most ballyhooed metrics of scientific careers, and every researcher hates to have a gap in that part of his or her CV. Here's some consolation: A new study finds that very few scientists—fewer than 1%—manage to publish a paper every year. But these 150,608 scientists dominate the research journals, having their names on 41% of all papers. Among the most highly cited work, this elite group can be found among the co-authors of 87% of papers. Students, meanwhile, may spend years on research that yields only one or a few papers. "[I]n these cases, the research system may be exploiting the work of millions of young scientists," the authors conclude.
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Elite Group of Researchers Rule Scientific Publishing

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  • by Idarubicin ( 579475 ) on Sunday July 13, 2014 @05:56PM (#47444885) Journal

    The intellectual penury that comes with serving with a leader in a given field seems to be gladly endured by most young researchers. This story ignores the fact that, although the senior researcher's name may be at the top of the paper, the junior researcher's name is right there below it.

    Actually, in many of the sciences (mathematics and parts of physics are notable exceptions, where authors tend to be listed alphabetically) it is usually the graduate student or postdoc who did most of the work who is the first author on the paper. The senior researcher - a principal investigator who actually has the academic appointment, who may have secured the funding, and who is ultimately responsible for the lab - is generally listed as the last author on the manuscript. ("Middle" authorship has the least cachet by far.)

    Broadly speaking, young scientists and trainees want to accumulate as many first-author papers as possible, to demonstrate their scientific productivity. Faculty members - senior scientists - want to accumulate last-author papers, to demonstrate that their labs are productive.

  • by TapeCutter ( 624760 ) on Sunday July 13, 2014 @06:03PM (#47444913) Journal
    Yep, and no matter what you think of Edison, the modern research lab was primarily his invention. A modern lab tends to know what it is looking for (eg: practical light bulb) and is all about the finding the steps to get there (trial and error), compared to say Newton who mainly followed his own curiosity. The trick to being a lead researcher is finding a rich problem space for the students to work on that will attract grants.
  • by pavon ( 30274 ) on Sunday July 13, 2014 @06:22PM (#47444997)

    I would even argue that as long as the students who did most of the work have their name listed as first author, there is nothing wrong with this arrangement. I dropped out of my master's program after the first semester because I was being pushed to publish, but wasn't being plugged into any research existing programs. Every "unique" idea that I thought of turned out to have already been studied exhaustively back in the 70's or earlier. All the favorite students in the grad program were people who ignored this inconvientent fact and managed to get rehashed bullshit accepted into conferences.

    Several years later I went back to school at a large state U that plugged me into the work they were doing, showed me what the state of the art was and where there were gaps that hadn't been researched in detail. Without building off the ideas of my advisor I would have never been able to do meaningfull research that progressed the state of the art, and would have had nothing worth publishing. He deserved to have his name on my papers.

  • by Alopex ( 1973486 ) on Sunday July 13, 2014 @08:02PM (#47445417)

    Knowing that you could be putting in 70-80 hours a week, and potentially stumble across some major discovery (imagine: cure a kind of cancer discovery). That discovery would be published by your boss, who, adding to his life's work, would cumulatively take most of the public credit for the work. Meanwhile, it doesn't matter if you had some amazing insight or designed the actual experiment to solve the problem.

    Look at Nobel laureates and their age and their contributions. How many nameless people enabled them to win that award?

    All you can hope for is that you publish a couple papers in top journals that will enable to you to get a solid job in industry, or jump onto the tenure track treadmill, so that one day you can be in a position of exploiting others' work and creativity, potentially in a field completely unrelated to your PhD.

    The young have no power to change, and the old have no reason to give up their advantageous position.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 13, 2014 @08:51PM (#47445669)

    Wow, no sense of history there.

    No, the senior guys today did not have it as hard as the junior ones do now. Not even close. Most of the senior researchers today got their jobs during the education boom in the 80s-90s, back when it was normal for every PhD to end up with a job in academia. Now it's more like 1 in 10, and that's after a longer PhD, several postdocs and more pressure during the tenure track.

    The old geezers do almost nothing to help research. They eat up grant money, stick their names on everything and provide very little to the actual guys doing the work. I should know, I am one.

  • My experience (Score:4, Interesting)

    by felixrising ( 1135205 ) on Sunday July 13, 2014 @10:29PM (#47446101)
    I (BSc) was assisting a PhD student on a project, a project the student was having difficulty with and became very demotivated. Although his supervisor was doing all he could to keep the research going (including bringing me onboard to help), eventually the PhD candidate pulled out. The end result, a paper has been published with my name and his supervisor's name on it, because we ended up finishing the study. So yeah, I can see how his supervisor having yet another paper with his name on it published might seem like the 1%, but reality is, the supervisor had the work ethic to finish off the study and have it published when the student did not.
  • by hsthompson69 ( 1674722 ) on Sunday July 13, 2014 @11:53PM (#47446441)

    I guess our problem is that we haven't been able to accurately discern between *publishing* and *publishing something useful*. We've built an economy based on how many papers you can shove through the system, without regard to their quality. Build a system with certain incentives, and you'll get fairly predictable outcomes.

    It seems like it would take some pretty severe sanctions, and perhaps bounties for those who exposed fraud, before it will really stop.

  • by Beck_Neard ( 3612467 ) on Monday July 14, 2014 @12:05AM (#47446481)

    Having a good supervisor is extremely important. The arrangement where your supervisor is a person who is knowledgable, up-to-date, and respected in their field, and draws on his years of experience to guide your through work and train you as a scientist, is the ideal on which the supervisor-student relationship is based on. A person like that more than deserves to have their name on the work you do while under their tutelage.

    But going by what I've seen, such a relationship is, sadly, rare. A lot of students are victims of supervisors who either "don't care" or have been effectively outside their field of study for so long (with all the grant-writing) that they have simply no clue about research anymore. Your first experience seems to be the norm.

  • by HuguesT ( 84078 ) on Monday July 14, 2014 @06:57AM (#47447463)

    Grant money is given preferably to teams that already publish a lot. Even "starting grants" in the EU require a single principal investigator (PI) with a lot of well-cited publication under their belt. This can only be achieved if the PI has done their initial research in a well-heeled lab, with a well-known head of the lab who is well-connected, and so on. This encourages a pyramidal structure with a lot of grunt students at the bottom, supervised by post-docs, supervised by assistant professors, and so on. Success encourages visibility, which encourages grants, which ensures money, which ensures good grunt students can be hired, and so on.

    This is not the only possible successful structure, but one of the most common. A single researcher, however brilliant, cannot usually keep up with the outpouring of landmark papers the pyramidal structure can achieve. On the other hand, if everybody does their job, meritocracy in the pyramidal structure ensures that the best grunt students get promoted to post docs, and so on, usually in a different pyramidal structure.

    The big drawback of the pyramidal structure is that the prof at the top usually doesn't know exactly what is going on at the bottom, even though they put their name on most of the papers that the structure produces.

    Disclaimer: I'm a tenured prof. I do have a reasonable number of students, but I work with them directly. All my students are co-supervised with at least one other prof. Occasionally I do have a few post-docs but the structure is always collaborative. This is not the standard but this works well enough also as long as there isn't any ego-driven fights in the lab. This means choosing your collaborators well. I've made a few mistakes, but so far so good.

The IBM purchase of ROLM gives new meaning to the term "twisted pair". -- Howard Anderson, "Yankee Group"