Expectations for trainee publication output

A question arrived about publication expectations for trainees at the blog mailbox recently.

I was wondering if you would consider a blog post and perhaps encouraging discussion on a related topic, on how do you evaluate your student/postdoc performance and how common is the 1 paper/yr "rule"?

At the outset I was skeptical that much use would come of trying to answer this because the real answer is "It depends very much on subfield and ultimate career aspirations, therefore broad sweeping pronouncements are of little value.". And this is true. But what the heck? I'll give you my thoughts from my point of view, no doubt some others will go shitnutz about how it is clearly different and maybe we can hash out the space of useful answers.

Some detailed stuff that I thought about, but often are not discussed thoroughly include:
- I always assumed that when people talk about 1 paper/yr it refers to 1 first-author paper but not in a top-tier journal (usually "best in the sub-field" journal, e.g. Org. Lett., J. Med. Chem., etc.)

Yeah. I think one paper per year is a pretty good general starting point. Emphasis on general. For trainees, I think this average will be lower, ditto if you only count first-author papers. But it is a pretty good target expectation for the central tendency. One first author per year in a "top tier" journal is a ridiculously absurd expectation for postdocs. Even one per year in a "top tier" journal as senior author is only possible for the very top laboratories and is therefore not the expectation for everyone. If you can do it, good on you, but it ain't typical. So if you are in a place where you think this is the standard for postdocs? please. I'm familiar with a lab that has probably one of the highest CNS counts ever and the postdocs do not hit one CNS pub per year as first author. They have not done so over the ~15 years I've been watching the lab's production. So anyone who does this out there in the whole postdoc population is the rare exception.

- How do you factor in non-1st author papers? Ignoring the effects of journal IF, would one 1st-author paper = two 2nd-author paper?

There is no direct relationship, I would argue. Non-substitutable quantities. No amount of non-first author papers makes up for not having any first-author papers. They are just that important in the minds of many people, including me. Conversely, the existence of some 2nd-Xth author papers is better than not having any, because more is better when it comes to publications on the CV. I suppose at some point there would be a balance point in which too many Nth author papers starts to subtract from the credit generated by the first-author list. It would be related to the thought of "why doesn't this trainee have more firsts if she is this experimentally productive?".

- Do people even consider anything greater than 2nd-authorship (i.e. having 3rd authorship is basically useless or not counted)? If so, does the level of the prestige of the journal change this perception (i.e. having 3rd authorship in PNAS is equivalent to a 1st-author in some 2nd-tier journal like Biochemistry)?

In my view, no, the Nth author on an article in a higher IF journal doesn't trump first-author in a lesser journal. See above, the Nth authorships count but I would say they are independent of the first-author credits. So within the sphere of Nth authorships, sure, the higher IF is better.

- How do you factor in the prestige or IF of the journal? Does publishing in Science/Nature/Cell count as having 2-3 1st-author papers in 2nd-tier journals?

Indubitably the CNS first-author counts more than several first-authors in lesser journals. One might even suggest that CNS first-author as a postdoc trumps infinity non-CNS first-authors. For some situations. There are those that assert that the presence/absence of very specific journals on the CV is the difference between round-filing an application for an Assistant Professor position and placing it on the long-list for consideration. I credit these assertions but would also point out that there are many perfectly acceptable jobs that would not have this absurd criterion.

- Do people take a time-average (i.e. as long as you get 5 papers in 5 years it's fine), or is having a regular output more important (i.e. would prefer to have 1 paper every year as opposed to 2 papers in 1st year and 3 papers in 5th year but nothing in between)?

I would say that it is only once one becomes a PI that it is ever reasonable to look at consistency of output. This particular example would not even be noticed, I would say. And even then it sort of depends on the type of work you do. I know of multiple types of work in my areas of interest (particularly human studies) that have years of data collection followed by a flurry of papers.

When I have recommended shooting for consistent output, being concerned with whether a manuscript submitted to Journal X at this point in the year will have a pub date from this year, etc it has to do mostly with motivation. Most of the time the pace of submission for a postdoc is not going to be easily controlled. The experiments have their own timeline. Things come up. New things need to be done to wrap up the paper. Then there are the many sources of delay in the review process. There is no reason to obsess about 2 in first year / 3 in fifth over meeting a strict rate of 1 per year for 5 years.

The clock is ever ticking, however and since one cannot go back and fill in missing publication-years, one is best keeping one's eye on the prize. If you haven't had a paper in a two year span, well maybe it is better to dump out a quick one, give up on hitting the highest possible IF, etc. You have to make this judgement thinkingly, of course. And no, there are no formulaic answers such as my correspondent seems to be seeking.

Balance. That is my best suggestion.

25 responses so far

  • whimple says:

    Different rules for grad students and post-docs. In an ideal world, EVERY grad student would have at least 1 first author publication, and in many places I've been this is the unofficial guidance. The goalposts are mobile however; a grad student who gets a first-author paper relatively early in their career is expected to get another one before they graduate.

    First author pubs are the cake, non-first author pubs are the icing. No amount of icing makes up for not having cake. To me there is no difference between any of the non-first author positions (the quality of the icing doesn't matter).

  • drugmonkey says:

    Yes, I see that I was mostly thinking postdocs in my comments. expectations far lower for graduate students. One first-author work as a grad student is fine with me. (and I'm on record saying I think 4 years is plenty, 6 is excessive and if the PhD is conditioned upon publications than this is stupid.)

  • Dave says:

    I know of multiple types of work in my areas of interest (particularly human studies) that have years of data collection followed by a flurry of papers.

    Important point. My grad work was 100% human and we went 3 years with no papers, then 7 society-level papers in one year (two first author). That is quite typical for relatively invasive and intensive human research and should be expected. It is also important to point out that certain types of research tend to promote more co-author pubs. Human and genome-style work are good examples. These studies tend to have multiple investigators sharing tissue samples/patients/cohorts etc.

  • physioprof says:

    Indubitably the CNS first-author counts more than several first-authors in lesser journals. One might even suggest that CNS first-author as a postdoc trumps infinity non-CNS first-authors. For some situations. There are those that assert that the presence/absence of very specific journals on the CV is the difference between round-filing an application for an Assistant Professor position and placing it on the long-list for consideration. I credit these assertions but would also point out that there are many perfectly acceptable jobs that would not have this absurd criterion.

    It is not an intrinsically "absurd" criterion. It is simply one that applies quite reasonably for some faculty jobbes, but not for others.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I wonder, PP, about the number of Assistant Professors who make it past the initial cull and/or are hired on the strength of a postdoctoral CNS paper who then go on to additional CNS papers from their new lab in the first 3, 6 and 10 years. And how many have perfectly credible careers over this time (grants and well respected non-CNS pubs). Then I would like to know how many new Assistant Professors are hired with awesome but not-quite-CNS on their CV that then go on to have CNS pubs from their new labs in the similar time frame.

    If it is more than about 15% in the first instance and over 5% in the second, I'd say my observation about it being an absurd criterion is correct.

  • physioprof says:

    You are making the unwarranted assumption that institutions/departments that use first-author CNS pubs as a cull for tenure-track jobbe applicants do so with the expectation that this is a predictor of future CNS pubs.

  • Dave says:

    Not the CNS thing again - noooooooooooooooooo!

  • physioprof says:

    DoucheMonkey pulls out this shitte when he can't think of anything else to blogge about.

  • miko says:

    Occasionally I hear this "1 paper/yr" thing and it blows my freakin mind. Are we talking first author? Is my field weird? I would either have to publish in "The Journal of Irrelevant Shit" or have a bunch of editors on payroll to publish a first author paper every year as a postdoc. Most postdocs in my field seem to publish one major first author paper, then maybe a couple 2nd author or first on a much small paper.

  • Dave says:

    Most postdocs in my field seem to publish one major first author paper, then maybe a couple 2nd author or first on a much small paper.

    That is my experience too. I am also amazed at the 1 paper/year chat, but it does happen.

  • BugDoc says:

    @miko: I don't think your field is weird. It's not impossible for trainees to publish 1 first author paper/year, but if in decent journals, said trainee would be a rock star. A 1st author/2-3 yrs (in good journals) is more common.

  • Dave says:

    [ Well intentioned or not, I am not keen on statements of a possibly outing nature on this blog - DM ]

  • drugmonkey says:

    You are making the unwarranted assumption that institutions/departments that use first-author CNS pubs as a cull for tenure-track jobbe applicants do so with the expectation that this is a predictor of future CNS pubs.

    Why is this "unwarranted"? It has certainly been the explicit expectation of anyone I've heard talk approvingly of such candidates for job applications. Are you trying to tell me that you are aware of departments/committees that use CNS as a culling criterion and yet say "well we really don't expect this candidate will actually get to this level in our department"? That would be very fascinating psychology indeed.

  • whimple says:

    We don't care if they get CNS pubs. That doesn't help us. We want them to pull in extramural cash -- then we get some!

  • bashir says:

    One first author pub a year wouldn't be unreasonable in my area. Depending on your lab situation and methods a rock star could do two per year.

  • Dave says:

    Two experimental papers/year? What type of journals are we talking about here?

  • Bashir says:

    now you've got me looking at people's cv's...

    A quick glance at a few people who seem like rockstars, they are hovering a near 2 experimental papers/year. Most below, but I found one person who has 2 per year from starting at late grad school. Big lab, a lot of resources.

  • drugmonkey says:

    now you've got me looking at people's cv's...

    Exactly the right answer. For the original questioner, this is the way to go about answering this for yourself. Do the research. What are the standards for your subfield? What do the rockstars accomplish? What do the average, normal, middlin' type folks manage? Who has managed to succeed despite looking rather dismal on paper...and why is this the case?

    Looking at the records of your close peers as a postdoc, and those of the most recent cohort of Assistant Professors hired (say the past 4 years), can give you a much better answer to the above questions than you will find on some random blog.

  • grumpy says:

    DM-
    Some liberal arts 4-year schools prefer ppl with CNS pubs but don't expect them to pull it off as faculty there.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Some liberal arts 4-year schools prefer ppl with CNS pubs

    what in the hell would they "prefer" this for? selection for disgruntled folks who think themselves far, far to good for the humble station they've ended up in seems like a recipe for total disaster.

  • Dave says:

    Some liberal arts 4-year schools prefer ppl with CNS pubs but don't expect them to pull it off as faculty there.

    [I'm double face-palming whilst shaking my head as I write]

    what in the hell would they "prefer" this for?r

    I honestly doubt they "prefer" it, rather they use it as a filtering tool because they can. Plus it makes poncey, outrageously expensive liberal arts schools look better on paper. Simple. Really.

  • Alex says:

    Elite private colleges are selling the whole "You will get up-close-and-personal attention from the very best in the field" angle. The advertising may or may not be honest, but that's what they claim. And Glamourous credentials make that claim easier to sell.

    I met a guy who was denied tenure at a top SLAC after getting a Glamour pub. I don't know him well, so I don't know if their take was "Eh, just one Glamour pub? Well, we expect better!" or if there was something else. Hell, maybe the tenure committee or the letter writers actually looked at the paper and decided that it was more hype than quality. (I'm not saying it was, because I'm not in his sub-field, I'm just saying it's possible.)

    Two people in my department (public "comprehensive" institution, no grad program in the department) published in Glamour journals in the past year. I don't know how long that sort of output will be sustained. Still, the campus PR outlets were all over it. I mean, it's flashy stuff, right?

  • Eskimo says:

    I work at a campus PR outlet. Just because we're "all over" something doesn't mean anyone else cares, including deans, tenure committees, students or parents.

  • Anon says:

    Eskimo - if no one cares, why are you "all over" it?

  • Eskimo says:

    To justify my existence and keep my job. And so that we can keep trying to have someone care.

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