Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Surviving in academia: Young, dumb and full of dung

I wanted to share an article I read recently on todays scientific culture and how this reflects on young scientists.
As a "young" scientist I found the article of extreme interest, as it highlights much of my limited view of the system I hope to join. It taps into the general feeling of being considered (and perhaps feeling) inadequate based on your publication rate and eventually forced into publishing anything and everything you can, in the vain hope that you can carve out a meaningful career or at least not have to get a real job.
But what really struck me most was the authors comparison with a young Darwin, and the time he spent nurturing his ideas without the necessity to publish them into bite size portions. Of course much has changed and the birth of "big science" can be considered a hugely positive step in its advancement of ideas, but it does highlight a need for us up-and-coming whippersnappers to take the time to absorb and digest ideas, rather than just spitting out whatever we feel we can publish.


  1. Thx for sharing this interesting article Tom and providing us with this thoughtful post!!!!

    I could not agree more with the general message. There is an unhealthy tendency to focus on scientific "excellence", "numbers" (particularly number of publications) instead of the things that should be central in science: curiosity and interest in the natural world and a desire to understand it. Science has largely become a "paper factory", where (for many) the important thing is to have a long CV with small papers, rather than striving to understand the world.

    Over the last years I have become more cynical about this, particularly the unfortunate habit on giving "excellence"-money to a few, which are often (in my opinion) neither excellent nor the best scientists.Those who succeed in this game are the networkers, the politicans and the opportunists among scientists, i. e. those who are prepared to do a lot to get money, even sacrificing ones own integrity.

    There is not much we can do about this, at least in the short term. However, I think if we are aware of it, and see through it, we might avoid getting in to the traps of striving to become "excellent", and rather strive to become good scientists(which is NOT the same thing as "excellence").

    As an advisor, I have become more and more aware of this problem, especially when these kinds of attitudes spread among PhD-students and postdocs. The advisors main obligation should often be to SLOW DOWN the (quantitative) ambitions of younger co-workers, and force them to think more, and not rush to publish papers in this destructive arms race of numbers. It is often difficult, as research groups do not live in an isolated world from other groups, and we compare ourselves with other seniors/postdocs/PhD-students the whole time. But I think that too many advisors push their co-workers to publish a lot, even if it is not always that high quality, which I find shameful and destructive. Too many papers are published, in general, in my opinion, and advisors could pave the way by promoting other attitudes, particularly emphasizing quality instead of quantity.

    I also thinks it helps to have a lab where these things are discussed, and where students and postdocs could get some support and mentoring from more experienced seniors. In particular, I would like to emphasize the need for writing good applications and develop good research programmes, which are often at least as important to get funding as very long publication lists (at least they should, and often are, in my experience).

  2. Wow, great response Erik, even better than the original post!

    Agree with all you have said. It is extremely hard not to be influenced by the "more is better" philosophy of todays publishing climate, especially when you start looking for work and comparing yourself directly to your peers who have more papers.
    I also think you hit upon something else that is a consequence of this, that is the number of papers published in a year has become overwhelming, it is difficult to keep up with the flow of results from labs, even just in the higher ranking journals (not that this has anything to do with quality, I don't want to rile up Prof. Shawn!).

  3. I agree, particularly given there are now a stupendous number of papers being published where no one aside from the authors, the referees and perhaps the editor read them, and they are never cited.