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Research intelligence: does excellence beyond publications really matter?

Written by: Jack Grove
Published on: 26 Nov 2020

Two judges inspecting eggs at a country show competition.

Source: Alamy

Having a Nature or Science publication to one’s name is often viewed as a sure-fire route to a prestigious research position. But are the rules of the hiring game changing?

After years of scholars complaining about a research culture in which prestigious publications trumped all other factors, scientific and political leaders have now waded into the debate. England’s science minister, Amanda Solloway, last month criticised the “pressure to publish in particular venues”, reflecting efforts by the Wellcome Trust and national research bodies to broaden the definition of excellence.

But how does this agenda play out when hiring decisions are made? How do scientists balance the heft of publications against less easily definable qualities of communication, collegiality and organisation when interviewing?

“Recruiting staff and students is an imperfect art − it is impossible to completely know someone from a static document and a 30-minute conversation,” explained John Tregoning, reader in respiratory infections at Imperial College London.

Journal papers are, he said, “one of several markers of technical competence” and also provide a “clue about scientific genealogy”.

“If I see someone has come from a lab I respect, it suggests that they have had a good training, [though] I try my hardest not to be influenced by where the work is published,” he added.

“I have never asked an individual to join the lab based upon publications alone,” said Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at the University of Oxford.

Publications remain important, however, because they “indicate that an individual can undertake research [and] can write in a manner that will pass the first stage of editorial consideration, and that the findings pass the scrutiny of peer review”, said Professor Foster. “This is, without doubt, a vital part of being a scientist.”

A range of diverse qualities was also important, he added. “I look for flexibility of thought, an openness to explore, good problem-solving and communication skills, an ego that is under control and even a sense of humour to deal with the inevitable disappointments and failures,” said Professor Foster. “Evidence of public engagement activities listed in a CV would be a positive for me in terms of my selection criteria” as it indicated a “genuine desire to communicate scientific ideas”.

“The bottom line is that you have to meet the candidate, and you can’t afford to make a mistake,” he said, recommending an extensive interview process, including a research presentation to a broad group, which “establishes if the candidate can think logically, communicate complex issues effectively and respond to questions with clarity”.

It should also include a one-to-one discussion covering science in general, but also the research question they might address, including potential problems, he added. “I invariably ask what makes them laugh. This question has completely baffled some – which I took as a bad sign.”

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For Dame Athene Donald, master of Churchill College, Cambridge, evidence that applicants have “actually thought about the job they’re applying for” is important, and hiring decisions were “not so much about publications but about attitudes and motivation”.

“If they can demonstrate they’ve mentored others, this would definitely factor into my decision,” she continued. “Someone who is narrowly excellent may well not be able to grow into new areas or develop wider skills, including interfacing with the rest of the team.”

Jessica Seeliger, associate professor at Stony Brook University’s department of pharmacological sciences, agreed that the perception of someone’s likely “collegiality” was often a crucial factor in hiring decisions.

However, those soft skills must be apparent in an interview rather than described as an achievement on a CV, she said. “If I’m honest, I don’t really care about a long list of science communication experiences – I want to see that come out at interview,” said Dr Seeliger.

While admitting that collegiality can be difficult to define, Dr Seeliger added that it was still important to hiring decisions: “I will have to sit through meetings with these people, but also talk to them about science.”

Kathy Barker, clinical assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Public Health, conceded that while the “conversation is happening here about judging applicants by more than publications, it is still business as usual in most places”.

“There is a conservative insecurity about not taking the applicant with the most prestigious publications, because publications are still the way success is quantified,” said Dr Barker.

However, applicants might consider carefully which universities, departments and principal investigators were more open to assessing diverse qualities when hiring, she explained. “One of the challenges is to identify the places that will appreciate you − places or people who are trying to establish a more collaborative, non-racist and non-sexist atmosphere, and who care for faculty and student well-being and success.”

“If someone can hire someone with just the right publications record, many will go that safe way,” she added. However, many more places now wanted “evidence of teaching or collaboration capacity, as well as evidence of the likelihood of [producing] good science”.

“They know that younger people, in particular, want a workplace that values more than publications. Some believe that change is needed, but there are so many applicants [that those with] excellent publications and grants will always be highly desired.”