October 2010

Time to Degree - Are Changes in Publishing to Blame?


Today, most doctoral students in biomedical sciences will not pursue a career as a research university faculty member. Instead, they are moving on to wonderful roles in biotech, teaching, science museums, consulting, law, advocacy, writing, policy and so on. Yet, our graduate-training programs seem to be stuck in a time warp, setting universal expectations commensurate with eventual faculty positions at top Ivy League institutions. Are the current definitions of what constitutes a doctoral thesis appropriate for the discipline? Is it harder to comply with those definitions than it used be?

Obviously, we want our students to conceive bold and significant hypotheses and use their graduate careers to take risks and push the field forward. But I have seen too many students reach their fifth year of training, worried about their futures because they have not yet had a chance to publish a first-author paper. Graduation seems unimaginable and exactly what constitutes a thesis seems less clear by the day.

Why don’t more of our students publish sooner? Part of the problem is that reviewers and journals are demanding more. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the sequence of an important gene was sufficient for publication in the flashiest of journals. I envied those manuscript reviews— what could the referees criticize when a sequence was a sequence? Now, journals quibble over whether to publish entire genomes. A referee can always ask for more experiments, another mutant, another control, and, because most journals want to maintain the highest standards, the editors agree. Such an approach may make for great papers, but it actually can be harmful to younger workers in our field because it sets the bar for publication further from their grasp.

Two-author papers are much less common than ever before. Don’t get me wrong: Collaborations enable us to accomplish so much more and to apply multidisciplinary approaches to questions under study. But when there are multiple authors, there only is one “first” author, and it is still the first-author papers that are weighted highly in fellowship and job application evaluations. It takes multiple, shared first-author papers to count as much as one with a single first author. And students want to publish their own “big” story because they believe it to be important for their future successes.

All authors remember their first papers, seeing their name in print, with the figures and text formatted professionally. A result isn’t real until it is published; publishable findings can be communicated at meetings and provide the heart of a postdoc interview. More important than all of this is the fact that the process of publication helps young scientists understand the meaning of a “publishable unit,” the importance of duplicates and replicates, experimental details, the significance of the project and how it relates to previous work in the area.

What if all first- and second-year graduate students were encouraged to publish a “least-publishable unit” paper? This type of paper can almost be outlined before the experiments are initiated— a process that could be part of a first-year graduate course. Faculty advisers would work with students to design a project that was guaranteed to yield useful information; the work could be published in an appropriate venue.1

Then, students would gain a sense of what a paper represents and would try to generate figure-quality results with every subsequent experiment, including positive and negative controls. They would gain self-confidence and, upon publication, would feel like they were true members of the biomedical research “guild.” This new status would carry them more sturdily through a second, more challenging project. (Kudos to all programs that do this already.)

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology publishes three excellent journals: the Journal of Biological ChemistryMolecular and Cellular Proteomics and the Journal of Lipid Research. These journals exist to serve our members (and nonmembers) by providing a quality venue for presentation of their research. Discounted page charges are available as a benefit of membership in ASBMB. According to its new mission statement, “The Journal of Biological Chemistry publishes papers based on original research that are judged to make a novel and important contribution to understanding the molecular and cellular basis of biological processes.” Although this would not likely include a manuscript in the “least-publishable unit category,” the breadth of topics included in this description are likely to encompass the interests of all ASBMB members. As scientists, we hold the power to determine which journals have the opportunity to publish the best science— because we decide where to submit our best work. The ASBMB journals exist for our benefit, and we enhance our community when we publish papers in them.

"The sooner our students can experience the thrill of publication, the sooner they will be hooked."

What can all journals do on behalf of our students? During manuscript evaluation, editors and reviewers should try to use care to not ask for more than is needed to substantiate the authors’ conclusions. When drafting a review, referees should remember that a paper’s first author is likely to be a graduate student; they should temper their language and always include some positive comments in their reviews. We all find it easier to accept a review that acknowledges a paper’s strengths. Doctoral mentors also should teach their students how to review manuscripts— how to be constructive and how to evaluate overall significance. Reviewing papers teaches students a great deal about how to best write them. And, no matter how difficult some reviewer comments may be to digest, I have never seen a manuscript that was not improved upon revision.

Yes, there always is an element of luck in research. Some proteins form tight complexes and some enzymes seem to pop out of E. coli in milligram quantities. That is why we carry out experiments— the outcome is not guaranteed. But the pleasure of making a discovery— and working it out— is at the heart of why all of us chose science. It would be a travesty if tougher biomedical science publishing standards drive away talented individuals because of long doctoral tracks and years of feeling inadequate and/or discouraged. The sooner our students can experience the thrill of publication, the sooner they will be hooked.

P.S. We welcome all suggestions regarding how to improve your online journal experience!


1. Appropriate venues include PLoS ONE, a journal that presents primary scientific research not published elsewhere, performed to a high technical standard, described in sufficient detail and with conclusions supported by the data. BioMed Central also includes this category of paper.

ASBMB President Suzanne Pfeffer (pfeffer@stanford.edu) is a biochemistry professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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