30 May 2010

The unread masses of scientific literature

Canadian Girl Postdoc resumes her look at slow science. She asks:

Although I’ve heard the common refrain from faculty that some members of a search committee do look for quality, I wonder how many of them have actually read any of the papers from the job candidates. And if that assessment of quality is based on the journal’s impact factor or the faculty member's own assessment of the candidate's science?

Speaking just for me as a search committee member, I haven’t read papers by job applicants. First, it takes more time than I’m willing to give, and we tend not to have the problem of triple digit numbers of job applications.

Second, we are routinely hiring outside of areas that I am qualified to judge the technical proficiencies of the science. Heck, in many cases, we’re get applications from people whose science I almost literally do not understand at all.

I judge the research of job applicants largely by the number of publications, the titles of their articles, and their research statement, and yes, there’s a tiny little bit of journal “quality.” Taken together, those provide an overview of the kind of research someone is doing, and the questions they are asking.

Journal “quality” based on a very general perception. I don’t look up impact factors. More often, there’s someone on the search committee who knows about the journals people have published in, and weighs in with, “That’s a good, solid, international journal,” or, “Not so good.” Journal titles can reveal a lot about their scope, so you probably don’t want to publish in the Chinese Journal of Irreproducible Crap.

What about the whispers that a job applicant must have a “SNC” (Science, Nature, Cell) paper to be competitive? Obviously, a Science or Nature paper is a nearly universally known entity, so it helps, but it has never been a determining factor in our searches, or even a large factor. A consistent record in strong disciplinary journals has worked for us.

But you know what’s worse than me not reading the papers of our tenure track job candidates?

I rarely even read the papers of my own friends.

I know about the science of people in my department, or the ones I hang out with at conferences from talking to them in the hallways, not from reading their papers front to back.

I don’t read them for a lot of the same reasons I don’t read papers from job candidates: takes a lot of time, their research is far afield from mine, and I have other ways of learning what they’re doing.

I suppose the thing that makes it okay is that I know that they don’t read mine, either.

1 comment:

Girlpostdoc said...

I can totally appreciate that no one has time to read the work of every candidate. Here's an admission: I've only ever read 1 of HippieHusband's papers and that was because he wanted my input. I think its because there is too much out there to read. If all we're ever doing is putting out fires, then there is no time to do slow science.