Publishers could provide better support for early-career researchers

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In an article based on his presentation at the recent STM Frankfurt conference, Jonathan Foster asks how early-career researchers and publishers can help each other

The days in which students completing a PhD could expect to spend a few years doing a postdoc abroad before walking into a faculty position back home are long gone. The statistics are not well documented, but a recent survey showed that in the biological sciences only 15 per cent of post-doctoral research associates will go on to gain a permanent academic position within six years of completing their PhD (a situation that is well illustrated in this infographic).

This means there is a growing population of researchers, estimated to be around 90,000 in the USA alone, who are spending many years employed on temporary contracts and who don’t fall into the traditional categories of ‘student’ or ‘faculty’. These early-career researchers (ECRs) are often the ones in the laboratory training PhD students, undertaking research and writing, reading and reviewing literature on a day-to-day basis. There is therefore a strong incentive for the publishing industry to try to understand the distinct circumstances of this growing market of researchers in order to tailor products that meet their needs.

One key difference between tenured academics and ECRs is their lack of job security in a highly competitive market place. Researchers must ‘publish or perish’ if they want to secure their next position. A typical post-doc position lasts two years, although many ECRs are employed on much shorter or even rolling contracts. In the session on ECRs at the STM Frankfurt conference, a fellow speaker, Anna Villar-Piqué of the University Medical Center, Goettingen reported the situation of month-by-month contracts for many researchers in her home country Spain since the financial crisis there.

This type of situation leaves a very short window in which to move to a new institution, develop new skills and publish a paper. It therefore favours research on well-established, low-risk projects with a high chance of a publication at the end. Papers that take several months to get published or come back with years’ worth of further experiments can leave ECRs with nothing to show for their previous years of work when applying for their next job. This is particularly important in the case of fellowship applications, which have annual, fixed deadlines and often don’t acknowledge publications in preparation or under review.

The reputation of the journal title is often the most important consideration for where to submit a paper as other metrics, such as citations, are meaningless for recent work, which is most important in securing the next position. Job insecurity means that ECRs must operate on tight time scales. Anything that publishers can do to speed up the review process or bring rapid recognition to their research would attract ECRs to journals.

Building reputation

Without a permanent position at a university or other research institution, ECRs are not eligible to apply for most research funding. ECRs therefore typically work in the laboratory of a tenured academic, employed either on a grant won by the academic as a ‘post-doctoral research associate’ (PDRA) or as a ‘research fellow’ having won their own (full or partial) funding.

This arrangement makes it difficult to establish an independent reputation because credit for work often goes to the last author on the paper rather than the first. ECRs often spend considerable time training PhD and masters students, collaborating with peers and proof reading manuscripts, all of which takes time away from producing all-important first-author publications. Increased acceptance and prominence of joint first and corresponding authorship status, as well as author contribution statements that state in black and white who brought what to a paper, help bring recognition to the other contributions made by ECRs.

Peer review

Most peer review is undertaken by ECRs. It would be interesting to know if statistics back this assertion but very often busy academics ask post-docs (as well as PhD students) in their labs to review papers. This often makes sense as ECRs are experienced researchers but have more time to read the detail of the papers, are undertaking lab work on a day-to-day basis and have fewer vested interests in the politics of who wrote the paper as opposed to the quality of the science.

However, very often the reviews are submitted in the name of the supervisor without acknowledgement to the person who actually wrote the review.  Journal editors would have access to a much larger pool of reviewers if they insisted that academics gave recognition to ‘co-reviewers’. In that situation ECRs would benefit from being able to build reputations with journal editors and science would benefit from a dilution of ‘peers’ in the review system.

Very little training in peer review is currently given by universities and publishers and societies need to step up to ensure that there is proper guidance on how to scrutinise a paper and write feedback. Editors also need to be very shrewd at spotting vested interests in reviewer’s comments and should not accept unreasoned one-line rejections as publication decisions can often make or break an ECR’s career.

Keeping up with the literature

The sheer scale of the literature makes keeping up to date increasingly impossible, and this is all the harder for ECRs who may have to keep moving from field to field as they try and secure their next position and gain a distinct set of skills. Better tools for searching and accessing literature, learning new techniques and keeping up to date with developments would all be valuable to ECRs. Most citations, at least in a paper’s introduction, are arbitrarily chosen from a vast literature based on their title, journal, last author, year of publication and perhaps abstract without being read in any detail.

However, most research builds on specific techniques and observations detailed in the results and experimental sections. The trend to condense several years of work in the form of a higher-impact communication can mean key details and insights are missed out from methods and discussion sections leading to precious months wasted trying to reproduce results. Most ECRs are keenly aware of which journals have good reputations in their field and cite accordingly.

The lack of faculty positions means that the majority of ECRs will not continue in academia. However, in many cases the tools and brands that ECRs are exposed to in the academy will transfer to jobs in industry, science communication and government. ECRs also often move between countries and this trend provides an opportunity to transfer brand loyalty built up in one country to new markets.

A key frustration of ECRs is that their years spent beyond their PhD in academia are often not valued by employers. This raises the stakes when deciding whether to take ‘one more’ post-doc in the hope of securing something more permanent. Are the extra years of ‘post-doc experience’ reading, writing and reviewing literature valued in the starting salaries of ECRs who turn to a career in publishing? Learned society publishers in particular have an important role to play in promoting the benefits of employing ECRs and highlighting the transferable skills they bring.

The interests of ECRs and publishers are closely aligned and both need to better understand the pressures and challenges faced by the other in order to survive in a competitive market place. ECRs consume, supply and refine publishers’ products. Publishers bring recognition to our work and help us climb the ivory tower. 

This article is adapted from a talk and panel discussion at the STM Publishers conference in Frankfurt by Jonathan Foster, an early career researcher (ECR) in the Material Science Department at the University of Cambridge. His place on the panel was the result of an essay competition organised by Wiley and his winning essay is published on the Wiley Exchange Blog