female student publishingYoung scientists often get conflicting advice on how they should publish. Every generation of young scientists has to address similar questions: Should I publish several smaller papers or should I focus on one big paper with a high impact factor? What is the effect of my publication strategy on my career and the possibility to raise grant money? How important is my publication list for a non-academic career?

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In order to develop the optimal publication strategy for you, it is absolutely crucial to know which career you want

Do you want to become a professor or an administrative staff member in a university? Or do you envision a career in the industry or the public sector? Most PhD students and many postdocs have no clear idea about their future career. About 90-95% of all PhD holders find a job outside academia, but the majority of postdocs (up to 75%) wish to pursue an academic career (although the statistics clearly indicate that more than 90% will find a job elsewhere).

Read more here: How to find your dream job in science

If you want to become a professor, your publication list is the most important asset

In order to pursue a career as a professor you must aim for an ‘excellent’ publication list. The definition of ‘excellence’ differs in every domain. In some faculties, writing one big book is more important than publishing many papers. In other domains conference proceedings are the main and most important output while in life sciences, publications with high impact factors and many citations are valued most. However, many universities also request other qualifications such as excellence in teaching, international mobility and success with getting grants.

Read more here: Should I become a professor?

Do you want more information on how to become a professor? Check out the online course “How to become a professor in science“.

If you want a job in industry, your publication list is useful to show your commitment and expertise

If you want to find a job in the pharmaceutical industry, your publication list may be useful. However, this list is often of secondary importance and the technical and transferable skills you have learned are much more valued. Companies normally look for ambitious and highly qualified young scientists who have experiences in certain techniques and who may be potential group leaders. Your publications show that you are ambitious and are able to finish projects successfully. If you want a corporate career or wish to become an entrepreneur, you must subsequently acquire essential skills to become a leader. Read more here: 15 essential skills to lead your research group. Read the following article how to get relevant information which skills are needed in the sector you wish to work in: How to find your dream job in science.

If you want a job outside research, your publication list may even be counterproductive

For many jobs, an impressive publication list may even be a disadvantage because it may create the impression that you already “lived too long in the academic ivory tower”. It may also mean that you desperately tried to pursue an academic career without success and now you have to find something else which is second choice. In other words, you may have to justify why you are giving up a fantastic academic career. Be prepared to have a good answer when you are faced with this question.

Read more here: Do I need Nature or Science papers for a successful career in science?

What are low and high impact factors?

It is a notoriously difficult discussion what low and high impact factors are. In some domains, the best journals have an impact factor below 4 while in others the best journals can be above 20 (e. g. Nature Immunology). As a rule of thumb, I would suggest the following arbitrary classification, which I have seen being used in several commissions for biomedical sciences in Europe: < 1: too low, 1-3: low, 3-5: intermediate, 5-10: high, > 10: excellent.

My supervisor and I have differing publication strategies

If your supervisor wants a different publication strategy than you, then there are sometimes possibilities to negotiate. Depending on the personality type of your supervisor, he/she may be open to a different approach if you deliver good results. You need to know what he/she expects from you as ‘good results’. Often an open discussion can clarify this easily.

My supervisor forces me to publish small papers

small fishesSometimes young scientists are delusional about the possibility to publish very high and their supervisor does not want to waste money and time on a ‘lost case’. When the supervisor wants to stop or finish the project normally it is a good advice to accept this decision and to focus on the next project. In my experience the supervisor always wins because he/she provides the grant money and the infrastructure and can limit the access. Some supervisors simply do not want to increase the impact factor of their publications because they lack ambition or are convinced that they do not have the capacity to get higher, or that they publish in a niche with traditionally low impact factors. Thus, a young scientist may end up running against psychological walls. Some young scientists are extremely ambitious and bring a project to a new level even above the average publication level of the group. However, I would consider this an exception. Most supervisors are grateful for such a success and will interpret it as a result of their excellent leadership. J

Not all stories have the potential to get published high. In particular, negative data are difficult to publish and normally get low impact factors. Personally, I have published a number of papers with negative results because I find it useful for the scientific community to be aware of such negative results and the students have an extra publication on their list. The disadvantage of this decision is that negative results often require many controls to address reviewer comments to exclude technical mistakes. As a result, these small publications need quite a lot of effort, time and money to get accepted. As an alternative, these data remain unpublished (including the pain to have lost a lot of time and effort) and the young scientists focus their time and energy on other more promising datasets.

My supervisor forces me to publish big papers

Big fishPublishing big papers with high impact factors has a number of advantages and disadvantages for young scientists. The advantages are clear, a high impact publication as first or last author (even as equally contributing second or last-before-last author) can be a great boost for your career in science. Unfortunately, a big paper is often prepared during many years including the work of several young scientists who cannot all become first author. Publications with three or more equally contributing first authors and two or three equally contributing senior authors are frequently seen.

In my experience, the value is very critically discussed and often questioned when somebody is the fifth of six equally contributing authors – even on a Science or Nature paper.

Some supervisors aim for very high impact journals and their ambition leads to success. Sometimes principal investigators are delusional about the possibility to publish very high. In both cases, the publication of the paper is delayed due to additional experiments needed, repeated rejections and/or multiple revisions due to excessive reviewer’s requests. As a result, you may be moved to the second or third position because somebody else has worked on this more or after you have already left the lab.

I lost my first author position

In the worst case, you end up as a co-author although you have contributed substantially and may even have been the first author on earlier versions of the paper. In my experience, it is very difficult to argue with the principal investigator which contributor deserves which authorship position because the value of the contribution will be determined by the principal investigator and existing institutional rules are too vague to be of any help. This can be very unfair. If the PI is fair, you may get some form of compensation, but to my knowledge there are no clear rules regarding this so far.
If you know about convincing rules anywhere please leave a comment below to make us aware!

 Should I aim for multiple co-authorships?

Based on my experience in many commissions which judge grant proposals, I am convinced that a LONG publication list is better than a SHORT publication list. If there are years between publications, this publication strategy will be judged negatively even if there is a Nature paper in the publication list. A typical comment may be: “Well, he has published a Nature paper in 2006 but nothing in the following years; there is considerable doubt about the scientific productivity and independence of this person”. It is very important to know that your scientific independence will be severely questioned when you have predominantly or even exclusively co-authorships. This is particularly true, when a person is expert in a ‘supporting technique’ such as histology, electron microscopy, imaging or behavioral testing.

As a rule of thumb, I would suggest that the number of co-authorships should not be higher than the number of first/last authorships.
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Should I aim for co-authorships on high impact papers?

The same is true for co-authorships on high impact papers. When a person has a considerable number of co-authorships on Nature papers but none or only a few first/last author papers the scientific independence will be severely questioned. Similarly, high impact co-authorships do not help a lot when the average impact factor of the first/last author papers is low.

In conclusion, I would suggest not to waste your time with very high co-authorships when the impact factor of your first/last authorship publications stays low. Focus on first/last authorships. For PhD students, first authorships are the most relevant because at this career stage, last authorships are rather difficult to get. Postdocs *MUST* also aim for senior authorships to show scientific independence when applying for grants and future positions.

Should I aim for a very long list of low impact papers?

In some disciplines, especially the clinical research departments you will see huge publication lists with hundreds of publications with very low impact factors for example in surgery, internal medicine or dermatology. These lists may include clinical cases of one page, short reviews and position papers. The conclusion is easy – only if you want to work in these domains it makes sense to follow this strategy. There is one important caveat – when you apply for grant proposals and the reviewers are NOT clinicians, they will judge this negatively while a commission composed primarily of clinicians will value it much higher. If in doubt go for the high impact papers (see below).

Develop a publication strategy depending on your career goals!

Considering the previous thoughts, it is obvious that every young scientists has to find a very personal publication strategy which may substantially differ from the strategies of other young scientists in the same research group or institution. PhD students often do not have many possibilities to choose from and the supervisor dictates the strategy. Postdocs may have more freedom. When asking your supervisors and colleagues for advice, keep in mind that they may not have reflected on their publication strategy and may just follow the strategy they have learned from their own supervisor, or which is requested by their institution. Interestingly, in most institutions, you find a number of persons who follow completely different publication strategies. Analyze carefully what the results are of each type of strategy.

I do not know which career I want!

I systematically ask groups of young research in life sciences whether they know what their future career will be. “Do you want to work in academia (five hands) — or in industry (three hands)—-  or somewhere else (one hand) ?” The majority of hands go up when I ask “Who does not know yet?” (350 hands). Thus, most young scientists live with a dilemma – they want to keep all doors open and do not want to make the wrong decision. As a result they have no publication strategy and will probably simply follow the strategy of their supervisor.

When in doubt – publish high!

If you do not know which career to focus on, it is difficult to work hard and efficient. If you do not have a good alternative in mind (Peace Corps, science administration, EU commission, journalism etc.), aim for high publications. Do not waste your time with low impact factors, often you have to invest the *same* amount of effort to publish a low impact paper without any appreciation afterwards. Aim for higher impact papers – at least slightly above the average level of your group, than you will feel much more appreciated later. You may even receive a scientific prize which always helps in your career because prizes are a ‘sign of excellence’. It also helps you to decide whether an academic career and being a professor is the right choice for you. Sooner or later you will have to make this decision anyway. 🙂

Do you want more information on how to become a professor? Check out the online course “How to become a professor in science“.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to prof. John Creemers, KUL and Dearbhaile Dooley, UHasselt, who critically read this article.

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