Thursday, August 29, 2013

Do you have to publish in Cell/Nature/Science to get a professor job?

A decade ago, I asked Michael Eisen at the party celebrating the launch of PLOS Biology, "Mike, what if refusing to publish in Cell/Nature/Science hurts your prospects of getting a faculty job?"
Mike replied in his typical fashion, "Then we'll open a research institute for open access authors."

Four years later, I had been through too many conversations about the "sacrifice of submitting top work to PLOS Biology instead of CNS." It all boiled down to a classic Russian joke:

   A mental institute patient who thinks he is a grain is being discharged. Doctors are quizzing him, "Are you sure you are cured and you are not a grain?" The man says confidently, "A grain? Are you nuts? I am a person - I have hands, legs, a head. I am talking to you. Of course I am not a grain." So he is released, and 30 seconds later rushes back into the room slamming the door behind him in panic. "There is a chicken out there!!!!" The doctors are puzzled, "But you just told us that you are not a grain." The man replies, "Of course I am not a grain. I know that. But the chicken doesn't!"

And so it was with PLOS Biology. "I know my story is good. I know papers in PLOS Biology are not inferior to those in CNS. But the hiring committees don't believe it, and if I submit to PLOS, it will hurt my job prospects." Given this, I tried to measure whether submitting to PLOS really does undermine you in the faculty search.

As a proxy for postdoc->professor transition, I measured the frequency per journal of first authors subsequently becoming last authors in later years. I never got around to writing this up, and I think the analysis needs to be redone now with more open access journals and more authors. But it's still useful to share, and so I just uploaded the results to figshare.

I know all of the caveats. Those publishing in PLOS Biology in 2004 and 2005 could have been in labs where the PI is so well known and established that it didn't hurt them. More importantly, I did not ask where these people got the jobs, so it is possible that the PLOS Biology authors had fewer authors and ended up in less prestigious universities and had lower startup packages. Most importantly, this analysis says nothing about whether committing exclusively to open access journals and forgoing CNS entirely has a negative impact on downstream funding and tenure decisions.

I will write a separate blog post on the topic of open access commitment and who can afford it, but I do think that my analysis from 2007 shows something important. It shows that the postdocs from the Eisen lab who ended up in faculty positions are not the only people who can forgo CNS and still get a professor job.

(I would love to see someone repeat/expand this analysis. So, I am also posting all of the scripts and detailed documentation on figshare)

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