I have to preface the main message with a little philosophical discussion of that loaded word – ‘success’. What do we mean by scientific ‘success’? There are several bucket loads of studies that have attempted to get at this question, and several more that have lamented the current system that emphasises publication, publication, publication. Some have even argued that the obsession of ever-more-frequent publication has harmed scientific advancement because of our preoccupation with superficial metrics at the expense of in-depth scientific enquiry.
Well, one can argue these points of view, and empirically support the position that publication frequency is a poor metric. I tend to agree. At the same time, I am not aware of a single scientist known for her or his important scientific contributions that doesn’t have a prolific publication output. No, publishing shitloads of papers won’t win you the Nobel Prize, but if you don’t publish, you won’t win either.
So, publication frequency is certainly correlated with success, even if it’s not the perfect indicator. But my post today isn’t really about that issue. If you accept that writing papers is part of a scientist’s job, then read on. If you don’t, well …
So today I report the result of our study published online in BioScience, Predicting publication success for biologists. We asked the question: what makes someone publish more than someone else?
There are a few possibilities here, with some well-known mechanisms, and others that are only suspected. Using the CVs of 1400 biologists in various disciplines (excluding medical) from four different continents, we measured the number of publications they had written by the time they had completed their PhD and ten years later. We also collected information on the scientists’ gender, whether English was their first language, and the international ranking of the university where they obtained their PhD.
Combining the data into a series of linear models, we asked the following questions:
- Given that our sample included people that stayed in science for at least ten years (i.e., we didn’t include people that gave up their scientific careers in the interim), do males publish more than females?
- If you went to a highly ranked university for your PhD (e.g., Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, etc.), were you likely to publish more than someone who had received theirs from a lower-ranked institution?
- Most scientific results are published in English these days, so if English is your first language, do you have an advantage and therefore publish more than someone for whom English is a second (or third, fourth, etc.) language?
- If you start publishing early in your career, does that set the pace for the rest of it?
The results? Drumroll, please.
Most will be happy to read that the most important determinant of your ‘long’-term (10-year) publication success is how many papers you’ve written by the time you’ve completed your PhD. This effect increases markedly if we take the number of papers you’ve published three years after PhD completion as a predictor. To make the point again that publication output is a reasonable metric of ‘success’, we also found that it was highly correlated with the ten-year h-index of the scientists for which we had data.
But there were other effects, albeit of lesser importance. Yes, even after removing the well-known ‘attrition’ effect of female scientists (i.e., leaving their careers earlier than males), men tended to publish a little more than women. There are many potential reasons for this, including still largely male-dominated academic and publishing systems, misogyny and the extra constraints of child rearing. We still have a long way to go here.
English as a first language also gave scientists a publication advantage as hypothesised, although the effect was weak.
Possibly one of the most interesting results was that PhD-university ranking had absolutely no discernible effect on publication output, regardless of which ranking metric one uses.
There a few take-home messages in all of this. First, if you are a PhD student and/or early-career researcher, make sure you put the effort into getting those first papers out. Second, if you’re considering people to hire for a new position and you’re taking a gamble on their potential to publish, you should perhaps place a strong importance on their publication output to date (all other considerations being equal).
However, employers should NOT choose men over women, nor should they blindly hire people with English as a first language. Case in point is that most of my lab’s best and brightest are early-career women from non-English-speaking countries. The gender and language effects were weak at best, and nearly disappeared once we considered the data three-years after PhD completion.
Finally, if an employer is considering choosing one of two recently completed PhD students for a postdoctoral position, and the one from the higher-ranking university has fewer publications than the other from the lower-ranked institution, my advice would be to choose the latter (all other things considered being equal, of course). Maybe students (and their parents) should also put less emphasis on university ranking and more on the people with whom they will be working when considering where to do their postgraduate studies.