Over the summer, I have been finishing some work in the lab for one of my main projects. While I spent about a year making and optimizing vector constructs for my experiments, the second phase of my project, assessing them in vivo, went a lot faster. Within a few weeks, there was strong evidence the vaccine worked (in mice, let’s not get ahead of ourselves! ;). I varied the conditions and established the minimal required dose, I set up additional controls, and I asked a collaborator to validate the efficacy in his hands. The data were convincing, not least for my PI.
So…I have a story. Now I just need to write it! When it comes to papers, I like a concise, snappy title, and keeping it as simple as possible, for clarity. I like to start by organizing the Results section, followed by Materials and Methods (yawn –but useful!), then drafting the Introduction and finally the Discussion (the best bit!). But…it’s not always possible to do things your way. Having had a few debates about the article with my boss, I’ve had to compromise and take into account her recommendations and requests. It’s difficult, especially when it’s not something you agree with entirely, and you have to change the way you prefer to do things.
One disagreement arose over the authors of the paper. To me, it was crystal clear who should be on the paper, and the order was pretty obvious. However, as I found out, authorship can be a sensitive issue filled with political agendas. In the end, the decision remains the supervising PI’s responsibility. Our bosses, our mentors and role models have the moral obligation to recognize each and every author’s contribution appropriately, especially for graduate students and junior postdocs.
I say *especially* since the articles we write up and publish during our early career are a major determinant of the opportunities we will be able to access after our training. They really do affect what we go on to professionally. One of the first things a recruiter looks at on a scientific candidate’s cv or resume is their publication record, be it for a position in academia or industry. Additional importance is given to the impact factor of the journal where each article was published.
While I can understand the necessity for a surrogate marker of success such as this, I find the system a little scary, since I’ve been around long enough now to realize it has its flaws. I believe there is a certain amount of serendipity involved in each scientific discovery, even more so for the big breakthroughs that get the most press attention.
How can you assess someone simply based on their publications’ titles, author lists and journals? While someone might have been working solidly and masterfully for years to get an article in a low-medium impact journal, someone else may have come into a high-profile lab at the right moment, with reagents and assays set up, requiring minimal input beyond project management. There are so many external factors that can explain why some good science is never published, and lots of irreproducible data end up featuring in top-tier journals. See Begley and Ellis’s recent comment in Nature on reproducibility
and a fellow Bio Careers blogger’s perspective (http://biocareers.com/bio-careers-blog/ethics-repetition-replicates-vs-repeats).
There is more behind an article than just its most ‘visible’ parts (the first author and the institute publishing in a journal of a certain impact factor). I am convinced that reducing the value of a person to their publications and impact factors, and basing their hiring potential on this alone, risks the inaccurate evaluation of a candidate. Scientists should realize that judgment based on publications isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. I also hope recruiters recognize the short-falls of the system and maybe spend a little extra time to look for evidence of a candidate’s talents beyond their publication record. In the end, the order of the authors and the journal which publishes my article is not important, what matters to me is the work I actually did and what I learnt from it as a person.