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FENS-Kavli Network of Excellence Scholars Discuss the “Publish or Perish” Dilemma for Early Career Academics – A Guest Post by Tara Spires-Jones

8th June 2015
By Guest Author

tara_photoDr Tara Spires-Jones is a Reader and Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Edinburgh working on Alzheimer disease research. She’s a member of the editorial board of several scientific journals including The Journal of Neuroscience and is a member of the FENS-Kavli Network of Excellence.

Getting a faculty position at a university is the pot of gold at the end of the scientific training rainbow (and almost as mythical as the gold). After years of education and postdoctoral training in how to conduct scientific research, this first faculty job is a thrilling progression in a scientific career, but it comes with a unique set of pressures and struggles. The Federation of European Neurosciences and the Kavli foundation have founded a new group called the FENS-Kavli Network of Excellence to provide peer support for early career neuroscientists and to provide a voice for people at this career stage in shaping the future of neuroscience. I am one of the first cohort of scholars, I’m a mid-career neuroscientist recently returned to Europe from a two year postdoc then seven years of junior faculty positions at Massachusetts General Hospital in the US. Starting up a completely new lab has been an adventure. Being selected for this new Network is an honor and a fantastic opportunity to get back into the European neuroscience community and hopefully give something back.

A most excellent network

The 20 new scholars are in the process of deciding the direction and activities of the Network. At our first meeting at the Royal Society’s Chicheley Hall near Milton Keynes, England, we had two days of energetic discussions about the challenges faced by early career neuroscientists, neuroscience research in general and how best we could help. The lists of topics covered were broad but one theme was universal: the difficulties with scientific publishing and how scientists (especially early stage young investigators) are assessed based on their publications.

In particular, career progression (promotions, grants, international recognition etc.) depends heavily on high-impact publications. The high-impact journals often triage manuscript submissions in a process that is quite mysterious to scientists in order to choose what will be of broadest interest. If editors are looking primarily for breadth of interest, rather than the scientific merit, then can impact factor be considered a measure of research quality at all? I understand that we as scientists are creating this pressure by assigning a higher value to “high-impact” publications in our hiring, grants, and promotions panels, but this system is very frustrating at our career stage.

The challenge is that research quality itself is a tricky concept to pin down. Until there are different measures to assess excellence (as discussed in a recent blog by Amy Brand) I guess we will have to plod along with impact factor playing a major role in career progression. In terms of promotion, I have seen evidence that scientists are recognized and awarded for public outreach work and teaching in addition to the traditional papers, as these activities directly benefit the institution. But in terms of grant panels, which have to decide whether applicants will succeed with their proposed work, a strong academic publication record is as essential as a good research proposal. And by strong, I mean a record of publishing in high-impact journals in the field.

Another publishing-related discussion we had at the FENS-Kavli meeting is an easier nut to crack. Across the board, submissions systems and formatting rules for most journals are infuriatingly cumbersome and unnecessarily complex. Most systems involve serious amounts of time wasted on formatting citations, entering information surplus for review, such as each co-author’s institution, mailing address, email address, phone number (you half expect to be asked your favorite color) over multiple, painfully unresponsive web pages, only to often have to repeat the experience at another journal a few weeks later. It would make more sense to allow the upload of a single PDF manuscript file including figures for the first submission at each and every journal. If a manuscript is accepted, even provisionally, it is worth the time to enter all of the details. eLife does this, and it is incredibly refreshing. The quick rejection that I received from them this week was not even as soul crushing as usual because I had not invested hours formatting and submitting the article.

We don’t yet have many answers for how to improve neuroscience publishing in the newborn FENS-Kavli Network of Excellence. Over the coming months, we will engage with both early to mid-career researchers and the publishing community to discuss solutions together. So here we are, consider yourself engaged.


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