It’s not “Publish or Perish” but rather “Do Great Science”

Lenny Teytelman Oct 30, 2014

Everyone knows the destructive influence of the impact factor on academic research. This journal-citation metric is abused as a proxy for the quality of the published paper (see Mark Johnston's editorial and DORA). However, the impact factor maintains its grip and publishing in high-impact-factor (HIF) journals is commonly seen as a requirement for getting fellowships, faculty appointments, tenure, and funding. Academics may hate the torture of submitting their work to Science, Nature, Cell (SNC), but most believe that it is career suicide not to chase the glam publication. Most academics are wrong about this.

A recent research paper showed a very tight correlation between publishing in HIF journals and getting a faculty position. This report further cemented the illusion that one’s academic career is contingent on HIF publications. It is a classic case of mistaking correlation and causation. Surprisingly, the very people lecturing undergraduates and railing against journalists about confusing correlation with causation are entirely oblivious to this mistake in the case of the impact factor.

Michael Eisen has written a whole post on this in 2012, arguing that it is doing amazing science that lands people faculty appointments. That same ground-breaking work gives the glossy pubs, but it’s a mistake to think that the glossy pub is the cause of the hiring decision. He often mentions that four of his postdocs got faculty positions, not just without HIF papers, but before publishing their postdoctoral research altogether. Every time Michael mentions this, the response is, “Sure, it’s because they are coming from your lab. You started PLOS, you are HHMI, you are a superstar. Wouldn’t be possible out of any other lab.” So I e-mailed a few professors last night and posted the following question on Twitter:

Just overnight, I got a list of professors who got hired before publishing their work (see the bottom of this post). Of course, all of them subsequently published the work they presented at the job talks, and most often in the HIF journals. So if you look at the correlation between SNC and their appointments, it’s very high, but it happened after they got hired.

This list shows clearly that having a Nature paper is not a prerequisite for getting a faculty position. It also shows that having a Nature paper in no way guarantees that you’ll become a professor – for every person below who was hired without having published yet, there were probably 50-80 applicants with SNC pubs who did not get that job.

People are often shocked when I say it’s possible to get hired even before publishing. In response to my question last night, one student replied, “Do such unicorns exist?” They do, and it shouldn’t be that surprising. As James Fraser just told me, “It’s very obvious that publications are not the key criteria at good places - opening up a new field is!”

As soon as I publish this post, there will be a stream of comments that the people below are super-stars. They are, but considering the competition today, most people who get faculty positions are super-stars. Does chasing the HIF publication help your application? Possibly, but clearly not as much as most assume. And the chase itself is often time-consuming, draining, and destructive to the science itself. In fact, it is entirely possible that over-focusing on getting into Nature can actually hurt your prospects of becoming a professor. So my advice is to worry less about where you will publish the work and to focus more on the work itself.


Postdocs who got a faculty position before publishing their main postdoctoral work:

Angela DePace, Harvard
Sri Kosuri, UCLA
Andrew Hires, USC
Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra, UC Davis
Justin Fay, WashU
Mansi Srivastava, Harvard (Invited before acceptance, but paper accepted in Current Biology two days before the interview)
Aaron Baker, UT Austin
Jasper Rine, UC Berkeley
Mark Johnston, U. Colorado
Fred Winston, Harvard
David Schoppik, NYU Langone
Audrey Gasch, U. Wisconsin-Madison
Arjun Raj, U. Penn
Daniel MacArthur, MGH/Harvard
David Baltrus, U. Arizona
Katie Wilkinson, SJSU
Aaron Meyer, MIT
Sagar Khare, Rutgers
Rebecca Williams, U. of Hull
Nicola Allen, Salk (waiting for confirmation from Nicola)
Erica Bree Rosenblum, UC Berkeley (initial faculty position at U. Idaho)
James Fraser, UCSF
Dan Needleman, Harvard
Bret Payseur, U. Wisconsin-Madison

(The above is clearly a tiny subset, biased toward my circle of genetics/genomics folks. I will continue adding names below, so please share other names or your own and e-mail lenny at zappylab dot com.)

Amy Brock, UT Austin
Sean Eddy, HHMI Janelia
Jason H. Moore, Dartmouth
Albert Cardona, HHMI Janelia
Marta Zlatic, HHMI Janelia
Janna Fierst, U. Alabama
Daniel Pollard, Western Washington Univ.
Harpreet Singh, Drexel Univ
Ian Holmes, UC Berkeley
Aziz Aboobaker, Oxford
Matt MacManes, U. New Hampshire
Robert Bradley, U. Washington/Fred Hutch
Lior Pachter, UC Berkeley
Graham Coop UC Davis
Ran Blekhman, U. Minnesota
Melissa Wilson Sayres, Arizona State Univ.