ETH apologises for postdoc job advert demanding ‘Nature paper’

Swiss university has signed San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, which says academics should not be judged on the journals they publish in

June 24, 2019
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A university that pledged not to judge academics on the journals that they publish in has apologised for posting a job advert calling for a postdoc who had published in a title such as Nature or Science.

ETH Zurich is a signatory to the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, known as Dora, which says that journal impact factors should not be used as a proxy for the quality of scholarship.

But its Institute for Chemical and Bioengineering posted an advert for a postdoctoral position in sustainable process systems engineering that said researchers must have published in a journal with an impact factor above 10.

“A specific requirement for this position is to have published as main author or co-author (at least one journal article) in a high-impact journal (impact factor above 10, eg, Nature, Science, Nature Communications, Nature Energy, Nature Sustainability, Nature Climate Change, PNAS, Energy & Environmental Science, etc). Applications not fulfilling the latter requirement will get a rejection,” the advert said.

Only a limited number of titles have such a high impact factor and they typically have a very high rejection rate. More significantly, critics of journal impact factors point out that where a paper is published is not necessarily an accurate reflection of its quality, and that selection of papers in highly selective periodicals is shaped by editorial biases and networks.

The postdoc position was for an initial period of one year, and a maximum of three. The advert also stated that the successful candidate “will communicate the results through regular publications in high-impact journals”.

The advert was for a role in the group of Gonzalo Guillén-Gosálbez, who issued an apology on Twitter after widespread criticism. “I apologise to ETH and the whole research community and will change requirements,” he said, adding that he had “reflected deeply” on comments from peers.

Stephen Curry, chair of Dora and assistant provost for equality, diversity and inclusion at Imperial College London, said that he was “disturbed” to see an advert from a “signatory organisation that was obviously contrary to the letter and spirit of Dora”.

Professor Curry, who has written to the president of ETH Zurich, said that the university had already taken action and was “very committed to implementing Dora”.

“We recognise that in any large organisation it is always a challenge to ensure that everyone is aware of the obligations that come with signing Dora,” he added.

Lynn Kamerlin, professor of structural biology at Uppsala University, said that if she had used the same recruitment criteria as the ETH advert, she would have missed out on many “outstanding candidates who performed extremely well in my group”.

In her adverts, she asks for “publications of a high scientific standard, assessed according to the Dora principles”.

However, with every job application being “an investment of a candidate’s time and hopes”, Professor Kamerlin said the “tough question is, if this is the filter that would be used, is it not more honest to actually put it in the advertisement to stop people from wasting their time?”

An ETH spokeswoman said that the “sensitivity to primarily consider qualitative criteria in recruiting is enormously high” at the university, and that it “fully supports” Dora.

ETH “dissociates itself from the requirements expressed by the professor in question and has since sought dialogue with him”, the spokeswoman added.

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