The impact of that factor

One of the least pleasant aspects of the scientific profession consists of engaging in lengthy and tiresome arguments with referees, after submitting an article for publication and failing to receive the enthusiastic reports, the accolades that our work clearly warrants. This is especially the problem when the manuscript is submitted to a so-called “high impact” journal.

Seldom are the reports those which any self-respecting author would seek and welcome — accurate, knowledgeable, attentive, capable of pointing out serious shortcomings (thereby avoiding a potential embarrassment for the authors). Submitting a report of that type would require that the average referee, a fellow scientist, spend on the manuscript much more time than one can be realistically expected to do.
Normally, authors have to deal with tardy, negative reports (recommending rejection of the manuscript) based on subjective assessments of value, reflecting primarily the reviewer’s opinion (read: prejudice), rather than some accepted criteria of scholarly excellence [0]. Lengthy and bitter discussions can ensue, the aggravation can be significant, and more importantly, a conspicuous amount of time is wasted in drafting rebuttals (and the aggravation can be significant).
The question is: is this worth the hassle ?

Often times, it would be much easier to withdraw the manuscript after the first round of reports, especially if there is consensus among the referees that the work does not meet the “special criteria” that would warrant publication on that prominent journal [1], and re-submit it to a less prestigious one (i.e., more focused, addressing a narrower readership and with a lower Impact Factor (IF)). In my experience, reports are usually of higher scientific quality, are submitted much more timely, and the Editor arrives at a decision fairly quickly. Everything is drama-free, to the benefit of both efficiency as well as scientific progress. And yet, most of us will insist with seeking publication in the journal of higher IF, even if this means going through several rounds of reports, appeals, letters to Divisional Editors. Obviously, all of this causes a non-negligible delay in the publication of the work, and because the initial rejection is typically confirmed at all levels, one is eventually stuck with the only option of submitting the manuscript to a lesser journal anyway — only, six months later than if the manuscript had been immediately withdrawn.

Why do we do this to ourselves ? I do not think that we do it to please some bean counter working for our university administration. It is true that annual faculty evaluations will emphasize the importance of publishing scholarly work on “high impact” journals, but I think it is fair to say that most of us (tenured professors) can go on just fine ignoring the bean counters.
Students and postdocs may certainly benefit from a publication in some prestigious journal, but I often wonder whether the importance of these publications is overrated (but I know that these considerations are very much field-dependent). It is true that a few articles in, say Physical Review Letters (especially as first author, even better if with not so many authors, better yet as single author) will definitely catch the attention of a search committee member. However, there can also be a negative side to insisting each time with going for the most glamorous journal, especially if that consistently results in delaying publication of work. A CV that has a lot of entries that say “Submitted” or “Under review” may not necessarily do much for job seekers.

My belief is that, in my discipline (physics), the reason why many of us prefer to go through the trouble of fighting for months with the Editor and the referees of a high IF journal, is that the gap between those and second-tier ones is widening. And what this ultimately means is that the readership of second-tier journals is becoming very small, compared to that of high IF ones. But it is truly important these days, for the career of a scientist, that one’s work be published some place where it will be read, hence cited. The main benefit of high IF journals is really that they are more widely read, and while this correlates with their IF, the IF in and of itself is not the cause. I would bet that if we were guaranteed the same number of citations, we would not worry at all about the IF of the journal to which our paper should be submitted.

Obviously, we are in the presence of a positive feedback mechanism, here. Because the gap is widening, the bulk of the scientific debate is confined to relatively few high IF journals, while the others become marginal. Thus, the incentive for scientists to send their work to high IF journals grows, and with that the gap widens even further.
Highly specialized journals, focusing on a relatively narrow field of inquiry, end up hurting, and I am afraid some of them may be at risk of disappearance. This would be a shame, because many serve a very important function, namely that of collecting highly focused articles, offering thorough descriptions of experimental or theoretical work, whose level of detail greatly exceeds that afforded by more general, higher impact journals, which usually impose severe length restrictions on submitted manuscripts. These longer communications can be invaluable for scientists, especially graduate students looking for technical advice [2].

It would be beneficial for a number of reasons to have a good selection of journals to choose from, and I think that there are good reasons, aside from that mentioned above, to make sure that specialized journals do not disappear. But, how to do so ?
Many believe that the key is to raise the impact factor of the journals; some Editors are apparently willing to play all sort of “tricks” to achieve that goal. I think that that may be going at it the wrong way. It seems to me that the key is to convince groups of scientists who share similar research interests (e.g., those who attend the same focused conferences), to submit their “regular” articles (i.e., the vast majority thereof, those that are not of the type or level that would warrant seeking a high profile publication) to one of such journals which may become the de facto official repository of articles in that field.
A forceful pitch on the part of the Editors, monitoring preprint repositories, contacting and encouraging authors to submit uploaded papers for which their journal is appropriate, can be a very important part of the equation.
The short-term disadvantage of publishing on a low impact journal would be, in my view, offset in the long term by the convenience of having a reliable publication venue for incremental contributions constituting the bulk of scientific exchange, in the long run actually underlying the type of advances that ultimately warrant “high profile” publications.

Notes
[0] Hypothetical example drawn from my fantasy, not at all related to work I may have submitted recently. First sentence of the report: “This paper describes purely numerical work — no actual theory”. I have had a very hard time bringing myself to read the rest…

[1] Obviously, the fact that two referees agree does not mean that they are right. Indeed, because prestigious journals aim at being very selective, referees wanting to perform the task without spending too much time with the manuscript will take the easy way out and recommend rejection based on issues such as the insufficiently “broad interest of the work” — easy to invoke without much substantiation and very difficult to counter on the part of the authors. Editors will almost never attempt to assess critically by themselves the reliability and merit of a report, no matter how blatantly mean-spirited and preposterous — a rejection is a rejection is a rejection, and a prestigious journal must reject. A lot.

[2] The increased emphasis on high IF journals promotes a way of writing articles that is flimsy less concrete, poorer on details and “recipes”, and looking more at the “big picture” (read: full of blah blah blah). I am noticing that my younger colleagues, who are not nearly as keen as those of my generation on writing long, exhaustive articles aimed at sharing useful technical information with the rest of the community, have difficulty doing it the day they are explicitly required.

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16 Responses to “The impact of that factor”

  1. Schlupp Says:

    “… Editors, monitoring preprint repositories, contacting and encouraging authors to submit uploaded papers for which their journal is appropriate,”

    I think, I heard physica status solidi b did that at least once.

    A bit later, I am going to write long and exhaustive comment to your post, even though not explicitly required to do so.

  2. Schlupp Says:

    “with at least two names of suggested referees.”

    What? WHAT!

    And then they will claim that my comment, while possibly valid, is too specialized and not interesting enough for the general readership of this high-profile blog and perhaps more appropriate for a more specialised blog somewhere else. Yes, yes, yes, I see it coming.

    Listen, if acceptance here is not GUARANTEED without even any mention of such dirty words as “referee”, I will upload my comments, um, somewhere, and wait for blog owners, for whose blogs my comment will be appropriate, to contact me.

  3. Ian Says:

    I’m wondering how prevalent print journals are going to be in the future. I know all of the journal scanning I do is through the web, and that opens up all the potential journals (small and big). Certainly PRL and such stand out, but I’ve pulled many references for undergrad work from non-top shelf journals.

  4. Schlupp Says:

    “The question is: is this worth the hassle?”

    Are we talking Physical Review Letters (IF: 7) versus Physical Review B (IF: 3.2)? If IF is everything, then one PRL is worth two PRBs. So, the question is: Is it easier and/or more agreeable to write two papers in PRB or to write one in PRL? As for agreeable: Any time! Writing two papers in PRB involves doing physics and not too much hassle, while the annoyance involved with a PRL involves squeezing the material into four pages and fighting. The time wasted in the fights could probably be spent better – and certainly more agreeably – writing another PRB. Publication in PRB is also usually faster, whatever the ‘official’ objective of PRL says. If it was only for the IF, PRL would certainly not be worth it: Either go to Nature, Science, Nature Physics (IF: 15), Nature Materials (IF: 19), or go to PRB.

    (That said, I admit that one could argue for 1 PRL = 3 PRB, as I will explain further down.)

    “Why do we do this to ourselves? I do not think that we do it to
    please some bean counter working for our university administration.”

    Certainly not if we are talking about PRL and bean counters in administration, because its impact factor is not that great after all. (Indeed, PRL had an editorial on Feb. 9 discussing its not-that-great-after-all IF.) “Real” high-IF journals may be different, but I agree that most people do NOT obsessively optimize IF.

    “Students and postdocs may certainly benefit from a publication in some
    prestigious journal,”

    Yes. For some reason, the emotional value of one PRL is higher than that of two (more) PRBs, especially once one is past the first few papers. Not among some “bean counters in administration”, but as far as I know among some professors in hiring committees. Yes, that would be the same people who apparently are so much more keen on writing nice long detailed papers instead of the flashy stuff we like to produce.

    “However, there can also be a negative side to insisting each time with going for the most glamorous journal, especially if that consistently results in delaying
    publication of work.”

    Yup. These citations to the preprint won’t got to the paper. And this is condensed matter, where the arXiv mitigates the problem, because the stuff is at least out there.

    ‘A CV that has a lot of entries that say “Submitted” or “Under review” may not necessarily do much for job seekers.’

    No kidding. Not even if it’s “submitted to PRL” or my favorite “in preparation for Nature”. Back when I was doing my PhD, one professor and his students always went on about how important their stuff was and how it “just needed to be written up” to go to PRL. For at least one of the students, the question of a PRL’s importance is has long since become moot, because he finished his PhD with one publication in Acta Physica Podunkiana. What with all the polishing
    they thought necessary, they never got around to actually submitting their ground breaking work.

    “My belief is that, in my discipline (physics), the reason why many of us prefer to go through the trouble of fighting for months with the Editor and the referees of a high IF journal, is that the gap between those and second-tier ones is widening.”

    Is it? I don’t have the experience to talk about time series, but the short-term data available at ISI give a pretty stable IF for PRB and PRL over the last four years, and 1997, one year for which I found data on the web has 6.1 for PRL, which is not much lower than the current 7. Ha, found another webpage that claims it was 7.5 in 1990. I think, the bigger change may have been the advent of the “Nature Whatever”s. (Am I the only one anxiously awaiting “Nature Fridge”
    in order to publish my findings about the interesting new life forms recently discovered at said location?)

    “I would bet that if we were guaranteed the same number of citations, we would not worry at all about the IF of the journal to which our paper should be submitted.”

    Certainly true. The ‘cited half-life’ gives this information to some extent. Pretty much the same for PRB and PRL.

    “This would be a shame, because many serve a very important function,…”

    Some say that their job could be taken over by the arXiv. Not sure, because we could just as well say that the high-impact journals’ job could be taken over by online ratings. As I see it, it takes all kinds to make a publication list.

    “offering thorough descriptions of experimental or theoretical work, whose level of detail greatly exceeds that afforded by more general, higher impact journals, which usually impose severe length restrictions on submitted manuscripts.”

    Um, there is the “supporting material” option, for PRL as well as for Nature/Science. Granted, we prefer not to make use of it and instead ship the details off as another paper in PRB, if we can get away with it, but it is not as if they really prevented us from giving the information. And the opportunity for this extra “details” paper is an advantage that one should admittedly include into the benefits of a PRL publication, leading to the PRL=3 PRB estimate.

    “a rejection is a rejection is a rejection, and a prestigious journal must reject. A lot.”

    Sure, but: Other people! Not me!

    “I am noticing that my younger colleagues, who are not nearly as keen as those of my generation on writing long, exhaustive articles aimed at sharing useful technical information with the rest of the community, have difficulty doing it the day they are explicitly required.”

    RRIIIGGGHT. Can’t say I’ve noticed a generational divide on this one. Sure, we want PRLs in order to get your jobs, but I can’t say I really see a consistent pattern concerning level of detail. For students’ first papers, which I think is not what you mean, I find both possibilities: Some include every detail, because it is new to them. Other include no details, because they assume everyone else
    knows so much more that they.*

    So, you gonna accept this comment or what?

    *In some cases, this is not a sign of humility: It can also mean that they think ‘everyone of any importance’ closely follows their subsubsubsubtopic and that they fail to appreciate how many other topics are investigated out there.

  5. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    Dear Dr. Schlupp,

    your comment to the post has been received, and forwarded to our editorial board for consideration. We receive a large number of proposed contributions, and the selection process is quite rigorous. Following their preliminary review, we have the following suggestion for improvement.

    Your comment is largely about hard facts, precisely stated and substantiated. That is really not in the spirit of this journal, which traditionally aims at a vast readership, more interested in the qualitative “big picture”.
    We would be less hesitant if your comment contained, for instance, at least one sweeping generalization, or some baseless contentions aimed at making yourself and a few others feel good, perhaps some courageous (if utterly non-sensical) “j’accuse” taking aim at some ill-defined, even non-existent categories. As it is, your comment comes across as too dry, overly specialized, likely correct but also of interest only to a small community of specialists.

    (come to think of it… Hey, that’s a hell of an idea… from now on, each time someone criticizes me for anything, or irrefutably shows that I did something stupid, I’ll brush them off as “specialized comments, only of interest to few experts”… what do you say ?)

    Are we talking Physical Review Letters (IF: 7) versus Physical Review B (IF: 3.2)?

    No, PRB is doing fine, I am just thinking of journals such as “Journal of Low Temperature Physics”, Jstat, Journal of Computational Physics, Journal of Magnetism and Magnetic Materials…. Acta Physica Podunkiana may really not be salvageable 🙂
    I do think that the gap between PRL (or even PRB) and those is widening.

    Some say that their job could be taken over by the arXiv.

    Yeah, yeah, I know, that would be me — but in that context I am talking all peer-reviewed journals, not just the low IF ones. I still believe that that would be the best solution and, regardless, it’s probably what will happen anyway.

    So, you gonna accept this comment or what?

    now, now, these are not decisions that can be taken lightly, young lady. I think that this one of yours is a fine piece of commentary, which will warrant publication in some form, but am unsure if it meets the special criteria of preposterousness for which this Blog is famous.
    In fact, this may well go in the end to the Blog’s Divisional Associate Editor (DAE) for final deliberation…

    • Schlupp Says:

      Dear Blog Editor,

      Please find attached out revised manuscript for a comment on your blog. We would like to sincerely thank you for your helpful suggestions, which we tried to take into account in rewriting the comment. However, we feel that some inclusion of ‘hard facts’ has a place even in a comment to a blog like yours, even if ‘substantiated’. As an example, we would like to point out that we performed extensive data analysis (=surfing ISI) and found that the last five year did not show any pronounced downward trend in the journals pointed out by you. J. Low Temp. Phys. may indeed be suffering from a bad spell, but JMMM’s impact factor is steadily rising. Please find below out detailed reply to some of your helpful comments.

      ‘We would be less hesitant if your comment contained, for instance, at least one sweeping generalization, or some baseless contentions aimed at making yourself and a few others feel good, perhaps some courageous (if utterly non-sensical) “j’accuse” taking aim at some ill-defined, even non-existent categories.’

      We took this point into account and hereby declare that those communist tenured professors at Canadian universities – especially the ones of Italian descent – are all out (i) to prevent excellent comments like ours from being published and (ii) to get us.

      ‘from now on, each time someone criticizes me for anything, or irrefutably shows that I did something stupid, I’ll brush them off as “specialized comments, only of interest to few experts” ‘

      Um, sorry, is there another way?

      ‘Acta Physica Podunkiana may really not be salvageable’

      Perhaps if they stopped sending their editorial comments in Podunkian. Now, nothing against Podunkian, great language and everything, but.

      Hoping that you will find the revised manuscript suitable for the comment section of your blog,

      Schlupp

      • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

        Dear Dr. Schlupp,

        we are pleased to inform you that the revised version of your comment has met the approval of the referees and our editorial board. It is felt, however, that a few minor changes are required, so as to “soften” some of the harshest criticisms that you make of our Editor-in-Chief (EiC). Although most of them seem grounded and difficult to refute, we still expect you to refrain from exposing some of the EiC’s most obvious limitations.
        In particular:
        As an example, we would like to point out that we performed extensive data analysis (=surfing ISI) and found that the last five year did not show any pronounced downward trend in the journals pointed out by you.

        Of course. The EiC knows that very well. Why did he say it anyway, if he knew it to be inaccurate, you may ask. To which we respond that you should refrain from asking such questions.

        We took this point into account and hereby declare that those communist tenured professors at Canadian universities – especially the ones of Italian descent – are all out (i) to prevent excellent comments like ours from being published and (ii) to get us.

        While observation (ii) is irrefutable, we reject (i) as off-base and frankly ridiculous. As you know very well, most of the comments on this blog are by the EiC’s himself. We could not possibly do without your submissions, which, on the contrary, we are always encouraging. Our referees are simply trying to improve the quality of your commentary by smoothing out some of its unnecessarily rough edges — those that make you one of the most feared blog commenters. Still fresh in our memory is your gratuitous, overly harsh review of our EiC’s favorite cake, something from which he still has to recover (the review, that is, not the cake).

  6. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    Certainly PRL and such stand out, but I’ve pulled many references for undergrad work from non-top shelf journals.

    Ian, do you want me to be honest (eew) ? I read almost exclusively ArXiv, these days…

  7. ancient physics postdoc Says:

    “Students and postdocs may certainly benefit from a publication in some prestigious journal, but I often wonder whether the importance of these publications is overrated (but I know that these considerations are very much field-dependent). It is true that a few articles in, say Physical Review Letters (especially as first author, even better if with not so many authors, better yet as single author) will definitely catch the attention of a search committee member.”

    I wish this were true since it would have helped me a lot. But, based on my experience and that of a couple of others I know of, I have to say that it is simply false. Or maybe true under the “right circumstances”. Meaning: true when the competition is between students or postdocs with the right background and connections, in which case things like PRL pubs can be a tie-breaker. But otherwise false.

    To provide a specific illustration and data point, here’s my own case: For various mainly non-academic reasons I ended up doing phd at an academically non-stellar uni. The norm was that phd students from there would not go on to, or even aim for, academic careers. (E.g., it was unusual for them to even apply for postdocs; they were certainly not expected or encouraged to do so by faculty.) I didn’t think it mattered at the time since, hey, I could determine my own fate by doing good enough research and publishing it in good enough journals.

    During phd published a single-author paper in PRL and 3 other papers in supposedly major journals. The result was that my postdoc applications generated almost zero interest. Still, got as lucky break and found a postdoc in the end at a fairly non-illustrious uni in a remote corner of the world. Published another single-author PRL there along with other papers. Got another single-author PRL during a subsequent postdoc. By that time I was at the point where I should apply for faculty jobs. The outcome of those applications: absolutely zero interest.

    Regarding number of publications and citations, my numbers were generally at least as good as those I was competing against, both for postdoc and faculty jobs, provided the numbers were normalized by dividing by number of authors for each paper. (my papers were mostly single-author, in contrast to most of the people I was competing against who were mostly junior co-authors on the papers of senior people.) Anyway, the conclusion, which is also confirmed by the experiences of a few others I know of, is the following:

    **For postdoc and faculty job applications (with the possible exception of postdoc fellowships awarded in open competition), single-author publications in PRL count for NOTHING when weighed against junior co-authorships on routine papers of the senior influential people.**

    In fact, I would have to say that there are few things the powers-that-be despise more than the sight of a young person trying to forge an independent career in research. Despite what people say, true independence is really a hated quality in young researchers. They will despise you for it, and when you publish papers on your own in PRL they will despise you even more.

    The reason I’m writing this is so that any young wannabe physicists out there who are under the illusion that their career outcome depends primarily on the quality of their research can know the real deal.

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Ancient — we have been there already. As you know very well, I agree with many of the observations that you make on the state of our field. I have written posts about them (signed with first and last name). You have read them. I try to speak out about some of those things whenever I am given a chance.

      Problem is, you take it one step too far. You take your own personal experience and make a theorem out of it. That is where you lose me, and many of those like me, who are sympathetic to many of the issues you raise.

      “It is true that a few articles in, say Physical Review Letters […] will definitely catch the attention of a search committee member.”

      I wish this were true since it would have helped me a lot. But, based on my experience and that of a couple of others I know of, I have to say that it is simply false.

      No, the problem is that you read “get someone a job” where instead I wrote “catch the attention”. The two things are different. A good CV will always help, but it does not mean that one will get a job.
      There are things that should be changed, but ultimately, because there are way more qualified applicants than positions, and because the selection is made by humans and thus will always be imperfect, eventually someone who deserves a job more than someone else will walk away empty-handed. It is inevitable.

      Published another single-author PRL there along with other papers. Got another single-author PRL during a subsequent postdoc. By that time I was at the point where I should apply for faculty jobs. The outcome of those applications: absolutely zero interest.

      I have no trouble believing you. I also had three PRLs when I applied for faculty jobs in 1995 (none single-author but all with two or three authors at the most, me being first author on two of them) and got zero interest. My fellow postdocs at Illinois had 3, 4, 5 PRLs and got nowhere. Dozens of other postdocs with literally spectacular CVs did not get a single interview, while others who on paper looked weaker did, and got jobs.
      In 1997, when I applied again, I had another PRL (first author, together with another postdoc), but could not find anything better than a position at teaching institution (where I am glad I applied), while others whose publication record was, in my view, weaker than mine, got better positions than me.
      I know researchers who are younger than me with 20, 30 PRLs (I kid you not — I can send you names by e-mail, if you wish) who have interviewed at countless departments but never did land a job. All of this is true. And so ?
      If you really believe that

      true independence is really a hated quality in young researchers. They will despise you for it, and when you publish papers on your own in PRL they will despise you even more.

      then I am sorry, but you are allowing your own beef with “the system” affect your judgment. The notion that search committee members, upon looking at someone’s CV and noticing too many PRLs, will think “oh, gee, this guy looks better than me, I don’t want him here”, is, I am sorry, ridiculous.

      The reason I’m writing this is so that any young wannabe physicists out there who are under the illusion that their career outcome depends primarily on the quality of their research can know the real deal.

      Maybe but, boy do you come across instead as wanting to exact your own personal revenge on a system that has failed to recognize your excellence, by trying to turn students away from it…

  8. ancient physics postdoc Says:

    Massimo — it is too bad you reply by misrepresenting what I write and putting up strawmen.

    “I try to speak out about some of those things whenever I am given a chance.”

    Yes I know, and I applaud it. I wasn’t trying to attack you, just taking issue with a specific statement which I’m sure you made in good faith but which isn’t in accordance with the reality as I see it. In the past you have also promoted the notion that independence is a valued quality when selecting postdocs and faculty. Again, this simply not true from what I have seen.

    A young would-be physicist who reads what you write is likely to come away with the impression that developing independence and publishing on their own in PRL will be good for his/her career. That is simply not the reality though. What they should be doing instead is attaching themselves to influential senior people. Junior co-authorships on the papers of such people are infinitely more valuable than single-author PRLs. This is something I can assert not just from my own experience but from many years of watching career outcomes of various young researchers in my general area. Do you really dispute this?

    I’m trying to resist taking the bait and reacting to your various misrepresentations and strawmen, but this one is just too much:

    “The notion that search committee members, upon looking at someone’s CV and noticing too many PRLs, will think “oh, gee, this guy looks better than me, I don’t want him here”, is, I am sorry, ridiculous.”

    Er, no, that’s not quite what I was trying to say. I don’t seriously think that my PRLs have intimidated any committee members (LOL). But based on various experiences I do have reason to think that they (the PRLs) invoke a feeling of disdain in said members. As in “here’s someone who refuses to pay his dues…”

    Finally, yes I’m aware that there are others with lots of PRLs. And yes, it would kind of invalidate my argument if PRLs (single-author or not) were commonplace in my field. In fact it would invalidate your point as well, since if they were commonplace there would be no reason for committee members to pay extra attention to them. As for whether they are commonplace in my field, you can look up the people who are shortlisted for jobs on the theoretical particle physics jobs rumor mill (there are separate ones for postdocs and faculty, easily found via google) and see how many PRLs those folks typically have.
    (Actually there are other ancient postdocs in my general area with more PRLs and substantially better publication records than me, but you won’t find any of them shortlisted on the jobs rumor mill pages…)

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Massimo — it is too bad you reply by misrepresenting what I write and putting up strawmen.

      Eh, don’t worry Ancient — people can read what the two of us write, and will make up their own mind as to who is “misrepresenting” and making “straw man” arguments.

      At least you can appreciate the fact that I let you make the comments that you want, call me what you will, and that I sign my name.

  9. ancient physics postdoc Says:

    Oh well, so much for the attempt at good faith discussion.

    “At least you can appreciate the fact that I let you make the comments that you want, call me what you will,… ”

    Let’s probe the limits of that then, shall we? Don’t worry, after this last contribution I will be leaving you in peace.

    “I also had three PRLs when I applied for faculty jobs in 1995 (none single-author but all with two or three authors at the most, me being first author on two of them)…”

    Oh come on, the only credit a postdoc trainee deserves for his contributions to a paper produced under the directions of a trainer is a condescending pat on the back.
    Remember, the intellectual creativity and direction of the work comes from the trainer. The contribution of the trainee could just as well have been made by monkeys from the zoo, given sufficient training. (Admittedly, it would take longer to train the monkeys, which is probably why they are not used in practice despite their lower maintenance costs.)

    The fact that monkeywork done by a trainee under direction of a trainer, and rewarded with first slot in the author list, is treated as comparable to a single-author publication, is probably the best illustration there is of the contempt that independent work is held in in academic physics.

    “I know researchers who are younger than me with 20, 30 PRLs…”

    Wow, that does sound impressive. Now let’s see if we can understand how this happens in practice.
    Just by turning up each morning, a student in the group of a prominent prof in, say, condensed matter physics, at a major research uni, can easily end up with 4 PRLs by the time he/she completes the phd. If the student has behaved nicely, he/she gets to go on to postdoc in comparibly prominent groups at other good unis. Typically for the first 3 years of postdocing the person will be in “trainee” mode, following the research directions of trainer(s). A normal PRL haul during this time would be 2 publications per year. Thus, after the first 3 years of postdocing, the PRL score may be something like this:
    Nominal score: 10 PRLs
    Effective score: 10 condescending pats on the back and 0 PRLs.

    After this, the person typically enters the new phase of being able to produce research on his/her own stream. At this point it is imperative that he/she joins a publication gang. (The necessity is because 5 publications, each with 5 coauthors, is treated as equivalent not to one single-author pub but to 4.9 single-author pubs — yet another manifestation of the prevalent contempt for independent work.) If the person has the right background, social and political skills, he/she should be able to join a well-functioning publication gang of, say, 5 people, that is able to churn out 2 PRLs per year on average. Thus, assuming the person pulls his/her weight in the publication gang, by the time he/she is 8 years past the phd we can anticipate a PRL score something like this:
    Nominal score: 20 PRLs
    Effective score: 10 condescending pats on the back and 10/5 = 2 PRLs
    Now that really is awe-inspiring.

    By the way, one of the things I learned from reading YFS’s blog is that apparently women have a harder time being admitted to these publication gangs — something to bear in mind when wondering why the woman applicant doesn’t have 20 PRLs like the lads.
    Are there any women in *your* publication gang? If not, how about doing a good deed for gender equality and admitting one?

    “boy do you come across instead as wanting to exact your own personal revenge on a system that has failed to recognize your excellence…”

    Actually I would feel quite bad if I managed to get a comfortable faculty job somewhere desirable, while knowing that there were other much more excellent and deserving ancient postdocs out there. Not that there’s any danger of that happening.
    As for you, isn’t it true that you have never had the slightest doubt that you were 100% deserving of anything good that came your way, and that if everything had been done according to merit then you would be a professor at Harvard by now?
    (Hey it’s fun to make up random stuff like this to take a dig at the other person — now I understand why you like to do it.)

    “I try to speak out about some of those things whenever I am given a chance.”

    Are you referring to the ceremonial hand-wringing ritual that some younger faculty bloggers like to perform once a year? You know, the one where you stand around wringing your hands for a bit, and then say “Ok, good we got that over with, now let’s get back to enjoying our comfortable academic lives.”?
    (Just another dig, for fun, following your example.)

    “At least you can appreciate the fact that (…) I sign my name.”

    Oh, you are so brave!

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Ancient, what can I say ? You are not going to drag me down there, hard as you may try.
      I have so much confidence in the judgment of my (few) readers, that I won’t even reply. You get the last word. One thing though: this thing that you just posted, will stay. I shall not remove it, no matter how much you beg me to do it.
      Now make good of your promise and leave me alone, will you ?

  10. Academic Career Links Says:

    Thanks for the interesting post and great discussion!

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