#Impactfactorwarz (updated)

This morning I was multitasking during a seminar and came across some tweets from my esteemed colleague Dr. Isis with the hashtag #Impactfactorwarz, and I started reading the associated conversation that revolved around use of impact factor in important decisions like promotion. The conversation could apply equally, however, to academic hiring, and other important career makers or breakers like grant review.

Let’s just focus for a minute on the following bit of Isis fact:

It means when my promotion committee looks at IF>5 papers, that’s where I have to publish.

Indeed, but this is a dirty little fact that we all know is true. Go ahead- wave your hands and protest that it is all about the scienz- but know that you are living in an alternate reality lying to yourself when you do that. Search committees, promotion & tenure committees, and review panels DO care about impact factor, and whether or not you publish in the ‘single word journals’ as another esteemed colleague of mine (Dr. Casadevall, I do adore you) is fond of calling them. But here is the deal- these committees and review panels are made up of individual scientists, living, breathing, flawed, busy, lazy, worried, idealistic, distracted, competitive scientists. So while we can point fingers and vilify this committee and that committee- remember also that it is us as working academic scientists that are perpetuating this culture. Uh huh, that’s right- its YOUR fault. That’s the second dirty little fact we don’t want to admit to ourselves.

And these #Impactfactorwarz are killing science. OH- I hear you cry, that’s bold DrdrA. Really, why? Let’s just agree that you don’t are so much less likely pass the search committee, the P&T committee or receive a score on your grant without the ‘single word journal’ pub. You don’t get an interview in this tight academic market without such a pub. No interview = No job. Our work takes longer and longer to get into press as you attempt to jump the moving target that is the high bar at the ‘single word journal’.  This lost time is just unnecessary, it slows the pace of progress, and costs junior people precious time producing the reims of data in the revision requested by the reviewers… for that sparkly glamormagz pub that you are going to get a rejection notice from anyway. And we have become afraid to show our data to each other.

You know what else- that ‘single word journal’ publication has become so overwhelmingly important- that people cheat their way into it. Yes, CHEAT. I know that sounds kind of dirty and we cringe a little inside when we read those words. But remember that scientists are not, as a rule, operating on some higher moral plane than the rest of society- even though we like to imagine that to be true. We know from some fine recent work- that misconduct is to blame for the majority of paper retractions, and that the number of retractions due to fraud has risen dramatically in recent years. We also know, from the same work, that the higher the impact factor the greater the incidence of a retraction due to fraud.… and if you don’t believe me, have a look at the data in Figure 3.

Now comes the hard part though. Let’s recognize that we, as working academic scientists, have created and perpetuate this system Every.Single.Day. We’ve leaned on impact factor as a proxy for quality and for influence in a given field, and we use that  honestly just out of laziness for the most part. Ask yourself, each of you- what can we do to change this system before it chokes us off- and before we end up with only a few funded scientists who have cheated their way to the grant money.

Updated: Drugmonkey just put up a post on the same topic

Could describing personal circumstances hurt your grants chances?

I stumbled upon David’s post at Terra Sigiliata entitled “NIH biosketch change as  “kick- me” sign?” this morning.  In this very nice post, David points out a poll of researchers over at Genomeweb.com on the new NIH policy to allow an explanation of personal circumstances that may have affected progress (read publication gaps) on the biosketches that we send in as part of out grant applications. I didn’t see the poll myself when it was up- but I am pretty sure that you all can figure out how I would have voted. Nevertheless, here is what was asked:

Do you think you will make use of the new option in NIH grant applications to include possible disruptions and delays to your research?

And after being posted for a week- Genomeweb received 105 responses that broke down in the following way:

17%  Yes, I’ve been waiting for NIH to do this.
17%  Yes, it sounds like a good idea.
16%  Maybe, if it becomes applicable to me.
2%    No, I don’t foresee any delays.
46%  No way, why would you want to potentially hurt your grant’s chances?

And here I have to pause to say WTF. I’m hoping that the two percent that answered ‘No, I don’t foresee any delays’ are young idealistic grad students that haven’t experienced much of life. Cause you know, no one can really ‘foresee’ getting hit by a car, having life threatening pneumonia, how having a baby is going to affect your life, or whether or not one of your parents is going to be diagnosed with glioma. ALL of those circumstances will undoubtedly and understandably affect your productivity, and let me tell you kids- shit just happens. Sometimes a really bad shit happens.

And for that 46% of you that answered ‘No way, why should you want to potentially hurt your grant’s chances?’ I say double WTF. I guess I am at a loss to understand why ANY of the circumstances I listed above would ‘potentially hurt your grant’s chances’ if explained.  I have a difficult envisioning conversations on study section like… I think we should give so-and-so investigator a 5 because he wasn’t very productive when he had to take care of his mom for three months after her near fatal car accident. Perhaps you all think of this section as ready made for providing a section that will catch any excuse for low productivity? A section for the whining whiners to go on about how their tech is lazy and couldn’t just get ‘er done?

I, however, do not. I think of this section as a fail-safe from stupid ass comments on reviews… i.e. so and so had low productivity during X period….. when the reviewers didn’t read the biosketch carefully enough to pick up perfectly obvious cues like the applicant was in the MD portion of their MD/PhD during the period in question and WASN’T PUBLISHING because they were in professional school. I see this section as a way to explain critical issues like… had a new baby was away for 3 months- that are not otherwise spelled out anywhere in a grant application. Can having a new baby affect your productivity? I want to believe that I don’t have to explain the logistics of this anymore. Having a baby can affect your ability to get in a shower once per day, we are not even going to talk about what it can do to your ability to complete tasks that involve actual brain power. And anyone who has had a baby knows that when the maternity leave is over your brain isn’t automatically switched back on to its full pre-baby full night of sleep every single night productivity.

Maybe you all should read, this- and yes, click on that link for the study cited in the article entitled ‘Keeping Women in the Science Pipeline’ out of the UC system. Read this study and you will see that women with children have a 35% lower probability of entering a tenure track career than men with children, and a 28% lower probability of achieving tenure. Read between the lines there- put that together with the facts that women do the vast majority of child care, the vast majority of night time care etc- and that lock step rigid systems with rigid “time based criteria” and “productivity assessments” do not lend themselves to inclusion of a life in your basic science career.

Oh sigh. I guess I am hoping that when a grant comes up at study section and reviewer #1 is ready to trash the productivity of the applicant, that reviewers #2, 3, and 4, armed with the reason for the productivity gap now explained in the biosketch, will be prepared to make reviewer #1 and the rest of the panel think twice about penalizing someone for circumstances beyond their control and occurrences that are part of real life.

Postdoc Oversupply…

On a tweet from @David_Dobbs I found this article in the World View column of the journal Nature by Jennifer Rohn entitled ‘Give Postdocs a Career Not Empty Promises”  (Published online 2 March 2011 | Nature 471, 7 (2011) | doi:10.1038/471007a).

One of Jennifer’s points is that we have an over-abundance of post docs, too little funding for them (only going to get worse, BTW), and a vanishingly small number of faculty positions for them:

“In coffee rooms across the world, postdocs commiserate with each other amid rising anxiety about biology’s dirty little secret: dwindling opportunity. Fellowships are few, every advertised academic post draws a flood of candidates, and grants fund only a tiny fraction of applicants.”

Quite. I’m with you 100% Jennifer. Thanks for bringing up this topic and I read your solution with interest:

“This is a familiar lament, but I also propose a solution: we should professionalize the postdoc role and turn it into a career rather than a scientific stepping stone.”

“Every academic lab could employ a few of these staff along with a reduced number of trainees. Although the permanent staff would cost more, there would be fewer needed: a researcher with 10–20 years experience is probably at least twice as efficient as a green trainee.”

I’ve seen labs that have professional post-docs or senior scientists that act as lieutenants in the group – they do their own project, manage training of a grad student, and run certain aspects of the lab- and are completely scientifically and intellectually engaged with the PI. We already have a professional career track for such individuals, usually bestowed upon them when they are deemed ready for grant-writing,  and it is has the title “Assistant Professor for Research” and sometimes “Assistant Professor, non-tenure track”, and sometimes ‘Instructor’.

And long-term these ‘Assistant Professor (R)’ positions are costly and unstable. The current NIH guideline for postdoc salaries for postdocs with 7 or more years experience is an annual salary of $52K. Add benefits to that and you are talking in the neighborhood of 70K/year in total compensation for a very experienced postdoc. And this number will only rise as years of experience rise. Start approaching 80-90K per year in total compensation and this is a big, big chunk of a single NIH grant. if the modular budgetary limitation of $250K/year applies. Furthermore, these positions are unstable when tied to the PIs research support- in that they last only 4-5 years- the length of a typical NIH grant. This grant uncertainty would make it very hard to keep that highly trained person that holds an important part of the lab’s scientific memory around for longer than that. This ‘instability’ issue  has been discussed previously by Drugmonkey, who suggests that there may already be existing funding mechanism models (using the K05 as a model) that could be used to fund the salaries of such career research scientists. Maybe.

As for institutions chipping in with salary lines and such- while this is a lovely idea- it just doesn’t seem practical right now. Getting institutions to pay the salaries of their tenure track and tenured faculty these days is a challenge. The medical school standard in the US (and I fear that this is for generous institutions) is that they currently pay only 50% of a tenure track faculty member’s salary anyway. This is 1/2 a position. In the current economic downturn lecturers, instructors, and non- tenure track faculty are being laid off.

Anyway- I think Jennifer is on the right track that we have a postdoc oversupply- but I think we need to get down to the root causes. We are making too many post docs because we train too many graduate students. Right now every department I know of is running around madly recruiting young, fresh faced, un-aware of the rat race of science graduate student candidates. I see the numbers- 15 recruits here, 20 recruits there, 35 recruits somewhere else.   I see all of this in the face (as Jennifer points out) of a dearth of tenure track faculty positions, reduced state funding in many places for education, and rock bottom NIH pay lines. So far I haven’t heard too much rational discussion about why we train the numbers of graduate students that we do- and any thoughts on where we expect these bright kids to go when they leave our programs. Do we have  to train 50 students for each one who eventually makes it into a TT position, or could we be amazingly selective, train fewer and get a higher percentage into great post docs and eventually have those two gain tenure track positions? (I’m waiting for the sports analogy).


NIH to allow explanation of lags in productivity… Finally!!

I’d like to post the text of a letter that I wrote and sent in early 2008, to Dr. Vivian Pinn, Director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at NIH. The back story is that I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Pinn at an event on my campus – during a small group session I mentioned the stoppage of tenure clocks is useless for women in science, without an equivalent stoppage of the NIH clock or some way to explain gaps in productivity to reviewers. I was delighted to see that this suggestion, which I am certain has also been made by many, many others, has finally been acted upon. Three cheers NIH, you have my eternal gratitude.

Dear Dr. Pinn-

I don’t mean to crowd up your email inbox, but you asked me to send you an email regarding the suggestion that I made during the faculty discussion following your talk at my institution several weeks ago (January 2008).  I’m sorry it has taken me some time to finally get to this.

If you recall, our discussion concerned promoting the participation of women in academic scientific careers. My point was simply that the criteria that we are judged upon as scientists are funding and research productivity, and these two are interdependent.  Lags in productivity of papers, negatively affect the ability to obtain federal funding (and vice versa)- and these lags are more likely to happen for women for many reasons- including childbearing and child care (even with the most enlightened spouse), entry of women into research careers via non-traditional routes or ‘research faculty’ appointments (non-tenure track appointments where one has to provide one’s own salary-hard to produce papers when continuously writing grants) – just to name a couple.

When grants are considered during the peer review process at NIH, lags in productivity are counted against the applicant and are many times directly unfavorably commented upon by reviewers.  Currently, the only formal information that reviewers have about an applicant is the Curriculum Vitae and a list of publications- it’s a simple calculation – divide the number of publications by the number of perceived years in the workforce. This kind of calculation will never take into account lags in productivity that disproportionately affects women scientists. Stopping the tenure clock and other measures that might be taken at an institutional level will not change this.

Several granting agencies (such as the American Heart Association) allow an applicant to explain unusual circumstances that have occurred during their careers in a special section on the application.  Such a section could be added into the NIH grant application for explicit explanation of unusual circumstances or lags in productivity that would otherwise be counted against an applicant, and might make the funding playing field more fair for women scientists.

I have myself, on various applications, inserted an ‘introduction to the principal investigator’ section into my USDA proposals, with the express purpose of explaining publication gaps after I became frustrated at having low productivity pointed out on my NIH proposals (I was finishing veterinary school, gave birth to two daughters, and my postdoc advisor moved to another institution during my postdoc leaving me to support myself). When I have done this, I have not had a single comment about my ‘low productivity’ on the review sheets for my grants, but have been acknowledged a ‘junior’ investigator, and have had favorable comments on my willingness to collaborate with established investigators (and been scored well).

I am sorry for the lengthy email, but as a young woman scientist who struggles every day with the balance between a job that I love, and a family that I need  – I have a vested interest in finding ways to make this system work better for all women in my position. That drain in talent that is occurring when women scientists leave the pipeline after their postdoctoral years, or in their early academic career- is many times because we have been taught that family life and a successful career as a scientist are incompatible (and involve such family sacrifices such as putting off having a family until AFTER tenure decisions). Our senior mentors, both male and female, teach us this and we have precious few more enlightened role models.

I apologize again for the lengthy email.


The scientist also known as DrdrA

To Gerty Z on Sunday Afternoon Panic Attacks…

I know I have been neglecting this blog, and I assure you this is not a desired or a permanent state. I am not sure when I’ll get back to regular posting- as I have a January travel hell coming up, but I really want to emerge from my self imposed blog hiatus and give a shout out to Gerty Z, on the occasion of her Sunday afternoon panic attack.

I too recall when I was a beginning Assistant Professor, trying on my new lab for the first time, feeling like I could accomplish everything and nothing all at the same time. The science, as the thing I knew best, seemed like the least of my concerns since I had to deal with all kinds of subjects I had little experience in like hiring people, mentoring rotating people, managing budgets, attend a bunch of meetings (that seemed pointless at the time), and- importantly- submitting 1001 grants on 1001 different deadlines each with their own 1001 pieces of supporting paperwork. I don’t think I mentioned the bane of my existence … compliance paperwork for about the most complicated set of experiments one could imagine- 3 different animal models, non-survival surgeries, and biohazardous agents. And, I was lonely in my new position- not having a fellow jr. faculty buddy to compare notes, successes and mistakes with. Tenure seemed so far off, and I kidded myself that I just wanted a honest shot at it under my own power and it didn’t really matter to me whether I got tenure or not. What I’m trying to say (and perhaps should have used less words for) Gerty Z- is I know where you are coming from.

Take heart though- I’ve made it to the other side of tenure now, and if I can make it- so can you. First- the pep talk. You must trust in yourself, your abilities, and your education, recognize that few mistakes are fatal and try to avoid those that are. Do your science and build a network of colleagues and collaborators as though your life depends on it. Worry less about absolute number of papers you need to get tenure, and more about having every piece of preliminary data you need, publishing it all, hitting every grant deadline, and taking those reviewers just as seriously as you can. Don’t compare yourself to others, just DO the science that got you on the tenure track. And… ENJOY IT… after all… you do this because you love the questions and seeing the results, don’t you?

As for your specific questions….I’ll revert to my preferred mode… the list:

2. In a desperate fit of procrastination, I have been reading drdrA’s most excellent advice about the tenure track and Odyssey’s repost about how many papers you need to get tenure. These seem like great nuggets of useful advice. But I just feel more like I have no idea what is going on. Why are tenure requirements so fucking vague????

Wow. Good one. Stop looking at the tree and look at the forest. Less important that you need 7.4 published papers in journals with impact factors of 9 or higher to get tenure (ok, I totally made those #s up), more important to recognize that if you don’t have a GRANT you are highly unlikely to get tenure at a research heavy institution. More important to recognize that without publishing your data you are unlikely to get a grant… reviewers will say you are unproductive. Tenure requirements are vague, I think (and I’m sure physioprof will correct me if I’m wrong) in part because they depend on your departmental standards, your institutions standards, and what the field considers important contributions. These will vary from field to field, candidate to candidate.

3. How do I know if I am talking to my Chair enough? or too much?

You will know that you are talking to her too much when she tells you to go away. IMHO- better to err on the side of too much talking to chairpeople and senior colleagues- science talk, grant talk, paper talk, or career talk not idle chatter. You are bound to make some mistakes in all that chat- but remember, not everything is a test, and if people remember even 10% of what you say to them I would be shocked. What they will remember is that feeling of being in the loop, that they know that you are trying (submitting grants and papers!), and they will feel brilliant when they can solve a problem or an issue for you.

4. I’m still trying to figure out how you actually meet people in this place. How does a nOOb Asst. Prof get “advocates” that are senior faculty in other departments? Am I supposed to just start stopping by and sticking my head into people’s offices? I assume that other people are busy, and I don’t even know what I would say. I don’t want to piss anyone off or make them think I am stupid! How do I meet other Jr. faculty? There are none in my dept. I assume there must be others in different departments, but how would I know?

Wow, that’s a lot of questions. I’ve had new jr. faculty send me emails saying basically, I’m new, I see our projects are closely related, I wondered about bla bla bla (interesting research angle), and would you have time to meet. You can find other junior faculty by asking around, and by looking at departments related to yours and seeing who has recently been added as asst. prof on their web pages. As for getting ‘advocates’ that are more senior faculty in other departments… I’m not sure why at this early stage you should be thinking about this. You’ve got time. Set up your primary relationships in your own department, seek out other scientists with the expertise that you need on projects that are of mutual interest to you, mentoring relationships and senior faculty advocacy of you will flow from this.

5. I have a rotation student starting in a month!?!?! What the fuck am I supposed to do about that? I barely remember my rotations. Postdoc PI had a way of just throwing people into the lab without a project or even pairing them up with anyone-this never seemed to work all that well. But I have no idea what students expect for a rotation. I really don’t want to start off on a bad foot with the students.

This is an easy one. You need to set up a short, contained project utilizing very few specialized techniques, and preferably some that can be repeated. Unless you have a great tech or postdoc, you will need to hold the rotation student’s hand at first. You should think more about what YOUR expectations for the rotation students are- and less about what their expectations might be of the rotation. Talk to a colleague in your department that has high success recruiting grad students, who gets the smart ones, and whose students walk out having done great projects… if you need advice on how to set up a rotation and how to recruit the best students.

I’m going to skip over 6, 7… and cut straight to:

8. How do I “pick mentors”? I think that I am supposed to have an official mentoring committee, but I have no idea how to get folks to be on it. This is more terrifying than picking a grad committee by like a million-fold. At least then I had someone (my PI) that helped me choose people who would be looking out for me. What if I step in a steaming pile of department politics inadvertently?

There are two issues here- the ‘official’ mentoring committees and those people who are your real scientific and career mentors. These can be the same individuals but often they are not. You must have individuals in your department and in your previous life as a postdoc and grad student that you know well, and whose opinion you trust. I have news for you – those people are ALREADY your mentors. Network like a madman at meetings … find people in your field with like interests, or experiences…  As for the official mentoring committee, no need to set that up this instant. If you have a sense that one or two of the faculty members in your department are in your corner, and are willing to give you solid, straight shooting advice EVEN when that advice might be something you don’t want to hear… then at least you have a start on this.

9. I don’t know how to collaborate. I really like talking about science with people, and collaborating sounds like lots of fun. But I have never been involved in collaborations. Almost all of my pubs are 2-person affairs. Neither my grad school or postdoc PIs were very collaborative. Should I be collaborating with people? I assume so – but how does that work?

This is also a tough question. I never participated in any collaborations as a student, and only one as a postdoc. Now I’m hideously and insanely collaborative. Do all of these collaborations work? Nope. Did I expect them all to work? Nope. Have I gained some really awesome colleagues and mentors this way- and have some really excellent projects been spawned because of this? YES, without a doubt. My advice to you is start slowly, with a colleague that you have a good relationship with and trust, and with someone who has a skill set that is unique to yours. My most fantastic collaborations are with individuals interested in significantly similar questions… but who have an expertise that is completely different from mine. Expect that some (or even many) collaborations are going to fail, and fail miserably. Expect that a few will be better than you could possibly imagine.

10. There are no other jr. faculty in my dept. The last person (and the ONLY person in the last 7 years) that went up for tenure was a fucking rock-star. There is no way in hell that I will not look shitty by comparison.

There is a tendency to compare yourself to the last guy/girl. But resist. You have a unique set of projects- and you know that the milestones are doing great science, putting out some well-thought out solid papers, and bringing $$ into your lab. Outside of that resist the temptation to compare yourself to the last guy.

The Tenure Track, part 1

I’ve written a lot about applying for a faculty job, how to give talks, and the importance of being a good writer. But I haven’t written very much about the things I’ve been doing in the last 4-5 years. All of the professional activities that I’ve been doing can be summed up in a simple word: Tenure.

I started my faculty position with the enthusiasm and excitement of someone who loves what they do and wants to see their science take off. Tenure was really an abstraction that seemed a long way off. In my uphill struggle for funding, my over-riding  immediate fear was not that I woudn’t get tenure, but that everyone that worked in my laboratory would soon be without a job.  Anyway, while I think that this is a reasonable approach your new status as a PI, knowing what is coming down the pike and setting yourself up with the maximum chance of getting tenure is something worth talking about. Don’t obsess about it, but educate yourself.

If you didn’t get a copy of the requirements and expectations for promotion and tenure in your department before you were hired, shame on you. But, since I know that none of you made this mistake and you possess a copy of such a document, don’t just tuck that thing away in a drawer somewhere and forget about it for the next 4-5 years. Read it now! Familiarize yourself with not only the requirements Continue reading