Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Learning how to hire #3: checking references is a networking tool

Back into the hunt for a postdoctoral fellow and I am back calling people all over the world to check
references. As stressful as it is to take half an hour off your busy schedule to talk to the prospective fellow's former supervisor, it is the best use of your time. I have already mentioned the importance of checking references (here and here), but I am always amazed at what I learn about the fellows, the institution they come from and their referees. The best part is how truly helpful and honest almost everyone is. I don't know whether it is because I am new at this and I clearly explain to them that I am looking for my first postdoc, but everyone has taken their time to understand what I want and to figure out whether the applicant is the right person. Sometimes he/she is not a good fit and they tell me very clearly, sometimes there are issues that are raised and discussed very honestly and sometimes they are really excited to talk about their best student. Everyone in a way identifies with me, because they have been there, looking for that first diamond in the rough, and they are ready to give advice.

This sense of community garnered from reference checking has somewhat surprised me. Maybe I should have expected it because judicious recommendations of students and postdocs are such a cornerstone of academic research, but the honesty and the time people have taken to talk things through has been amazing. What also surprised me are the professional relationships that have emerged. At some point I decided to give a little introduction of the lab and of the project when I first talk to someone, which also puts our work in prospective and sometimes I just end up talking science with this person I have never met. One of these referees I have then met in person at a conference to chat about possible collaborations, another invited me to give a talk, someone offered to post my ad in their department and keep an eye out for suitable candidates, someone will help me with the further career development of our now common mentee. All this was a great unexpected bonus, so that now I am really looking forward to checking references because I never know whom I could meet. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

How social media will change the way we publish science

Happy 2014 everyone!! A new year is starting, so I thought I would talk about trends and about how the world in changing....just my world really...In the past few years, I have had many conversations with friends, colleagues and mentors about the sorry state of scientific publishing. The dozens and dozens of new journals, the flood of articles in PubMed that support and invalidate every single hypothesis you can come up with, the ridiculous amount of time spent to replicate (or more often fail to replicate) published results about my favorite protein.

Everyone complains, editorials are written, the Economist tells us we are all liars (here), yet we have to publish to survive, i.e. get grants, get promoted, get invited to speak, and in general let the world know we are alive. More and more we are wondering where would it be more advantageous to go, debate minimum publishable units (MPUs) vs paradigm shifting tomes, hope that our newest submission will be mistakenly routed to our sweet old aunt at the early stages of dementia "Wonderful, dear! Your story was just wonderful!" Then we read trendy articles in fancy magazines and run into other people's offices crying "Did you see this? WHO? WHO REVIEWED THIS?!"

But things are a-changin' and it's kind of cool. Despite old stalwarts of tradition like Elsevier who do their absolute best to avoid sharing articles (here), first came the Public Library of Science (PLoS), then Frontiers In and e-Life. Then Randy Shenkman (also eLife's editor-in-chief) gets the Nobel Prize and launches a boycott of the "big three", Nature, Science and Cell (here...just read the article for the comments of the editors, they're priceless!). People are angry, they want better science, in a more public, reliable, shared environment...kind of like on Facebook, where you can like an excellent post, discuss an iffy one and boo a bad one. In comes the NIH with PubMed Commons, a new initiative where everyone who is an author indexed in PubMed can get an account and comment on any paper. Will it work? Will people do it? Your full name will be visible to all, so would you be the first one to poo poo a paper from someone really powerful? Would it be easier if someone famous does the critiquing first? It could potentially be very very cool as you could look up an abstract and find a series of comments discussing the believability of the results or the solidity of the hypotheses, but everyone will have to do it turning PubMed into Facebook for scientists. I wonder if by clicking on your name the other people could see whether you published on the same subject of the article you comment on...

I also wonder whether as everything else in our lives, we are going to start choosing our publishers based on conviction and corporate image, in addition to impact. And if we do, would our tenure committee understand? In the meantime, I have turned down an offer to review a paper for Elsevier and instead accepted one for Frontiers, where my name will be listed at the end if the paper is accepted. I always do my best as a reviewer, but this was a daunting prospect and it made me very invested in the quality of the manuscript. I still believe in the power of peer review and it is possible that in a world where everything is visible to everyone on social medias, people will become fine with sticking their necks out and vouching for their own reviews. The only problem will be to make sure that information is not filtered out only based on popularity, since some gems may be lost, but why not give this a try?