Tags

, ,

I’ve come across two cases in my relatively brief foray into post-PhD science where students at either the MSc or PhD level were faced with a requirement from their academic department to have n papers accepted/published, and n papers submitted for publication in order to be awarded a degree.  Here, I will try to explain why I think this does a disservice to both students, and science.

 

Time (and money)

The most obvious, yet least-planned-for aspect of this policy is the additional time required.  Scientific publication is, in many respects, a stochastic process which by its very definition is difficulty to use in planning.  When universities or departments require accepted (or even worse, published) manuscripts for graduation, the student’s fate is outside the control of the student, the supervisor, the supervisory committee, the thesis examiners, the department, the faculty, and the university.  It’s not uncommon for papers to be rejected, or to require major revisions necessitating an additional series of reviews, and reviews are most often the bottleneck in the whole process. It’s not uncommon for papers to sit on desks, for editors to have a hard time finding reviewers, and for those reviewers to take a long time to complete their assessments.  And if the decision is reject (or another round of review), the time functionally doubles (or very nearly so).

 

This addition of several months to students’ programs of study is rarely accounted for, meaning graduation dates and thesis submission dates get pushed back, and students fail to obtain their degrees in a timely manner.

 

This leads to the inevitable question – who will pay for the additional time?  The argument that the supervisor and student should know and plan to have a paper submitted by time x operates on the assumption that a favourable result will be obtained between time x and time y, when the student plans to graduate.  In reality, though, even with the best planning and undivided attention to deadlines of a supervisor, this isn’t possible. Coauthors’ comments, final supervisor’s approval, and stochasticity (coauthor A is on annual leave, coauthor B is in the field/at a conference, coauthor C is busy with a full teaching schedule this term) push things even further outside the control of those with the greatest vested interest.

 

Students don’t shouldn’t work if they’re not being paid, so someone needs to pay them. The supervisor? The department? The university? Someone’s got to step up and cover salary, but the reality is that supervisors rarely have such amounts of disposable funding, and departments/universities are quick to pass the buck back to the supervisor.

 

Science

If we accept the above (and I do), then we have a situation where science is being produced under hard constraints of time.  Decisions on where to publish manuscripts become even more important (which has the shortest turn-around time? where is it likely to get the easiest time in review?).  This often results in the proliferation of science published in “local” journals whose main purpose, it seems, is to offer the quick publication required by universities. We’ve all heard of these obscure journals (the <demonym> Journal of <discipline>), and occasionally had cause to search some of them out.

My argument here isn’t that these are terrible journals, but that even if they meet some magical criteria (e.g., listed in the Science Citation Index, have an Impact Factor, etc.), they’re not easy to get at, and they don’t do students any favours.  Like it or not, it still matters where we publish, and publications in these journals won’t make students as competitive in an academic job market (more on this below).

It also fosters the proliferation of predatory journals – those who offer publication with a (falsified) Impact Factor, sometimes with no review at all, but who are happy to take your $500 or £750, or €1000.  Jeffrey Beall has a very useful list of journals and publishers to avoid. But to a student or supervisor facing a looming deadline, this is an attractive (though morally poor) option.

 

Priorities

Not all PhD students (and certainly not all MSc students) want/go into a research career, so for them, publishing is less of a priority.  Some will go into policy, or advocacy, or education, or management, or administration, or plumbing, or learning the personal computer.  A PhD (and to a much lesser extent, MSc) does not obligate one to a career in research (and for most, that’s the reality)

 

And that’s OK. But it does set up competing interests between the student and the supervisor, which is rarely a good thing. It also continues the emphasis that the tenure track is the One True Way™, something we’ve been trying to dispel.

 

Final thoughts

I’m not suggesting for a minute that publishing science is a bad thing, or that we shouldn’t publish science – of course we should.  But the mechanism by which we achieve that goal shouldn’t be through student degree requirements. It should be through better support and improved funding so that students *can* get their science published, or at least into a state where someone else can take care of things after they’ve left.

I’ve done a fair bit of manuscript necromancy, including two former students’ theses (both MSc).  I’m batting 80% at getting things published, and the last paper will never come out because of poor field methods. It’s tough, it’s hard, but we got the science out there in appropriate journals and with little additional cost.  Both students have successful full-time jobs outside research, and are happy with their choices.

If we want student research to be published, here are some tips/gaps:

  • provide better writing support. Make use of your university’s writing centre if it has one.
  • explain scientific publishing, including how long it can take, to students on a regular basis
  • make sure coauthors are aware of deadlines and enforce them/support the student in enforcing them
  • return manuscripts in a reasonable time. 6 months is not a reasonable time (though it’s far from out-of-the-ordinary in the experiences of some colleagues of mine)
  • discuss career plans with students often, and prioritize actions that will maximize their success in whatever career path they choose.
  • share your publishing successes, and especially failures, with students. The bigger the dataset of “how publications work” the better informed they’ll be.
  • recognize that some students will not publish papers, and some will not publish all of their chapters. Make sure drafts, data, and code are available, have sufficient metadata for reanalysis, and think about other possibilities for publishing (e.g., perhaps it’s a quick analysis & few days of writing for a postdoc, or a colleague’s student, or a collaborator, or …)
Advertisements