Recently, I had the pleasure of moderating an early career researcher panel at the STM Frankfurt Conference. The day before the panel, The Scholarly Kitchen published my guest post on my goals for putting the panel together and what I learned while preparing for it. In this post, I want to take a look at some of the more memorable moments and what we, as publishers might learn from the next generation of researchers.

The purpose of the panel was to start a conversation between young researchers and publishers. The reasons that I think that this would be in publishers’ best interests are simple; the number of postdocs is rising rapidly (a phenomenon that I’ve since learned is dramatically referred to as the ‘postdocalypse’ in social media) and in certain academic fields, postdocs already make up the majority of academic researchers. As providers of publishing products and services to academics, it’s important to make sure that we keep in touch with the shifting demographics of our end users, to be better able to provide them with the value that they need.

The panel was extremely enjoyable both to organize and to moderate, and I learned quite a few things in the process. Here’s a summary of what each of the speakers said.

Dr Jonathan Foster of the university of Cambridge was the first of the researchers to speak. By way of introduction, he gave a brief overview of the everyday challenges and stresses that postdocs face. Importantly, he noted that postdocs are generally employed on short-term contracts, which are frequently not renewed when funding can’t be found. Speaking about the goals that he has for his current career stage, Jonathan explained that postdocs must build prestige through published articles, fellowships, and other measures of impact quickly, if they wish to advance to a permanent position, while always being mindful of where the money will come from for their salary in 12 or even 6 months’ time.

Jonathan very insightfully answered the question as to why publishers should care about postdocs. Since postdocs represent the majority researchers in his field of Chemistry, they are also the majority of authors, readers and probably peer reviewers. In many cases, those activities are being carried out under the umbrella of a faculty member’s lab, sometimes without the postdoc receiving credit. Nevertheless, it’s the postdocs that are doing much of the actual work. ‘My boss’ primary job’, as Jonathan puts it ‘is to bring in the grants that pay for the research. My Job is to do the research and write the papers, under his guidance’.

Beyond the basic principle that publishers need to understand the needs and pain points of their users if they are going to tailor products and services to meet their needs, Jonathan made some specific suggestions as to how publishers and postdocs can work together more effectively. When applying for funding, researchers can only use fully published articles as evidence of productivity. Submitted articles never count and ones ‘in press’ often don’t either. Since funding cycles are often only 12 months in length, postdocs need shorter publication turnaround times so that they can prove that they have made good use of the previous fellowship or grant that they were given. This might come in the form of a more streamlined peer-review process, or new publication types that cater to the need for more rapid communication.

Looking at that issue from a different perspective, Jonathan noted that he’s never received any training in how to review a manuscript (as we found out during the panel discussion, none of our panel ever had). Perhaps, he suggested, publishers might facilitate academic review training, to make the process more efficient and more reliable, to the benefit of both parties.

The second panelist was Dr Anna Villar-Pique, a researcher in neurodegenerative disorders at the University of Gottingen. Anna, who is originally from Spain, explained how the economic conditions in certain parts of Europe represent almost insurmountable obstacles for many researchers. Drawing on her own experience, she cited fierce competition for fellowships, salary instability and the need to relocate internationally to find work.

To Anna, the scientific community can sometimes look suspiciously like an old-boy’s network. She described how as the funding situation becomes ever more tight, there is a moral hazard that anonymous peer-reviewers with established research programs might seek to protect themselves from new ideas through unfair criticism of manuscripts and grants. Shockingly, every member of the panel, myself included, could attest to seeing real examples of articles being rejected purely on the grounds that a reviewer ‘didn’t agree with them’, with no scientific refutation offered.

Anna stopped short of asserting that peer-review as a system is losing its integrity, or outright calling for a fundamental shake-up because, as Jonathan later put it during the panel discussion ‘Peer-review may be the worst approach apart from all the others’. Anybody familiar with the history of science will know that there’s always been a little gamesmanship when it comes to gaining recognition and reputation, and it would be naïve to expect any system to be perfect, but Anna suggested that now would be a good time to look at whether the current standard of single-blind peer-review, which she thinks unfairly affords anonymity to only one party, could be improved. The alternatives; double-blind, which Anna favors, and open review; are the subject of long running debates among academics and publishers alike, with no sign of consensus yet.

Dr Farron McIntee , a researcher working on brain metabolism and behavior at Washington University in St. Louis, spoke last during the session and perhaps surprised the audience the most when she revealed that many postdocs, herself included, are not considered employees of their universities. A cost saving policy on the part of institutions, postdocs in this situation receive no employment rights, social security contributions, sick pay or maternity leave. As self-employed contractors, they have to file taxes at a higher rate than employees. Farron pointed out that as the number of PhD level researchers continues to rise, and research funding budgets remain flat, the number of academic researchers working under these conditions will only increase.

As the reaction on Twitter was reaching it’s peak, Farron went on to talk about postdoc associations and the work that they are doing to support young people working in science. The National Postdoc Association (NPA) in the US, the Marie Curie Fellowship Association (MCFA) and Eurodoc in the EU, alongside a network of regional and institutional organizations, provide networking opportunities and career advice particularly for those wishing to utilize their skills outside of academia. Farron suggested that publishers might provide value to early career stage researchers by similarly supporting career planning and development activities and helping to foster both networking and mentorship.

I expected there to be lots of questions and comments so left ample time for Q+A and set up a specific Twitter hashtag for questions (#stmpostdocs). I was not disappointed. The number of tweets about the session easily broke into triple digits, with countless more retweets and when I opened the discussion up to the floor, I was pleased to see a number of hands raise. In the interest of brevity, I’ll report on just a couple that generated what I felt were the most insightful answers.

Howard Ratner, who as many readers will know is the current president of SSP and the executive director of CHOR, Inc., was the first to ask a question over Twitter. Howard asked whether any of the panelists use Twitter to communicate their work.

I felt that the question really spoke to the themes and ideas that Simon Chadwick (@prof_chadwick) had touched upon during his appearance on an earlier panel, in which he stated that for him, social media enabled him to have the kind of rapid impact that his discipline of sports science really needs. I cast Howard’s question in a slightly broader light and asked if any of the researchers engaged in any form of social media in order to build their own reputations. The surprising answer was a straightforward ‘no’. None of the panelists used social media, at least not professionally.

In exploring the reasons why, it became clear that rather than having made a positive decision not to tweet or blog, none of the panelists had considered any of the potential benefits of a social media presence. This answer emphasized a common theme that ran through the discussion section of the panel; postdocs are highly focused on staying funded and meeting the criteria for career advancement. Their primary, if not only, source of guidance on how to do that is their supervisor. In other words, if their supervisors don’t know how to use the social web to build reputation, find collaborators and get funding, postdocs have little chance to learn those skills. Notably, Farron did say that after hearing the discussions during the day, she was planning to start tweeting professionally.

Robert Harington of the American Mathematical Society asked another question which resulted in some startling insight. On the subject of the role of societies, Robert asked if any of the panelists were members of research societies and what benefits postdocs might look for from those organizations.

In what seemed to be something of a contradiction, two of the panelists were in fact members of societies but neither could really put a finger on the value that societies offer young researchers. The reality was that they had joined on the advice of their supervisors.

We decided to delve a little deeper into how societies could provide greater demonstrable value to postdocs and perhaps stem the tide of falling membership among young researchers. Jonathan noted that his supervisor had encouraged him to join the Royal Society and an EPSRC network called Beyond the Molecule because they offer travel grant opportunities and that as such, they were a good investment, however, he felt that might be unusual among societies. Farron pointed out that while society memberships may be falling, membership of postdoc associations are climbing. As she mentioned during her talk, societies might want to take a look at the sorts of services that postdoc associations provide, such as career guidance and mentorship programs, or perhaps even partner with them.

I was very pleased with how the session at Frankfurt went. We created a lively debate in the conference hall and on Twitter, as well as providing the raw ingredients for two posts in The Scholarly Kitchen and an interview with Jonathan in Research Information. We shone a long overdue spotlight on the everyday and career challenges that postdocs face. Low pay, uncertainty, and their struggles in getting recognized for the work that they do are aggravated by an overdependence on a single source of advice and support as well as a lack of services aimed at their specific needs.

Over the course of our discussions, we came up with a number of suggestions for ways in which publishers could not only provide value to postdocs, but also benefit from what is an under-recognized talent pool.

  • Improved peer-reviewer training could be added to the training and support services that are already being conducted by some publishers
  • Postdocs need better and also faster ways to communicate and take credit for their work
  • A fresh look at how the social web can help researchers communicate their work. Publishers could play a mutually beneficial role in enabling researchers to make better use of new forms of scientific communication
  • Career development, networking and mentorship programs that societies might provide either independently or in collaboration with postdoc associations

In recent years, the demographics of our users have shifted in ways that have been difficult to keep up with and as a result, we’ve lost some touch with whom we serve. The first step in better serving any market is to get a clear sense of its needs, ambitions and pain-points. By learning from the early career stage researchers, it will be possible to develop products and services that meet their needs and allow us to continue to stay relevant. My sincere hope is that we’re at the very beginning of a new conversation between publishers and postdocs.

Phill Jones

Phill Jones

Phill Jones is a co-founder of MoreBrains Consulting Cooperative. MoreBrains works in open science, research infrastructure and publishing. As part of the MoreBrains team, Phill supports a diverse range of clients from funders to communities of practice, on a broad range of strategic and operational challenges. He's worked in a variety of senior and governance roles in editorial, outreach, scientometrics, product and technology at such places as JoVE, Digital Science, and Emerald. In a former life, he was a cross-disciplinary research scientist at the UK Atomic Energy Authority and Harvard Medical School.


15 Thoughts on "Guest Post: Phill Jones on Learning from the Next Generation of Researchers, A Report on the Early Career Researcher Panel at the STM Frankfurt Conference"

Membership in the relevant societies used to be a standard section of the scientific CV. It is very interesting if this is no longer the case.

Although there are no doubt far fewer postdocs in the humanities and social sciences (not least because there are far fewer grants available to fund their research), is there any reason to think that their situations are any different from those in the sciences as far as working conditions, employment status, etc., are concerned?

That’s an interesting question, Sandy and I have to confess that I don’t really know the answer. My understanding is that part of the conditions that have led to this situation is a disconnect between the number of PhD’s. Here’s an article in the economist about it.

According to that article, the problem exists in the humanities as well but perhaps it has a slightly difference flavor than it has in the sciences. I suspect that postdocs in the humanities struggle even more with underemployment, in fact according to the economist article above, it’s normal to pay tuition fees for your PhD in the humanities, so most will be starting out with incredible debts. What I think distinguishes the life sciences particularly is the number of people affected. I think that the US produce about 10,000 PhD’s in biology per year, with about 30,000 faculty posts in total.

One would think that biology is a much broader field than just teaching. Environmental and agriculture come to mind.

At the University of British Columbia, all our postdocs get full health benefits and maternity leave (that’s 6 months at UBC’s expense and 6 more at the government’s.

That’s great to hear, Rosie.

Institutions vary in how well they treat postdocs and some do a much better job than others. Thanks to increased awareness of the issue and the work of various postdoc associations, many institutions are in the process of reforming their policies.

One would think that institutions that treat postdocs well would have a competitive advantage in recruiting the best up and coming researchers to come work at their institutions.

That’s an excellent point. It’s intuitive that institutions that want to increase their attractiveness to applicants might offer more benefits and better wages, just as employers outside of academia do. On the other hand, some institutions compete on other factors such as the prestige of their institution.

There is (or perhaps was) a sort of unspoken contract that young researchers accept poor conditions and low pay in exchange for a good job and academic freedom further down the line. It’s the same deal that junior doctors, law clerks, and apprentices all make in one way or another. The problem has become that the career advancement funnel has become so steep that unspoken contract is breaking down. Perhaps what’s happening is that academia is going through a transition from seeing postdoc fellowships as training positions to seeing them as real jobs that should be considered on their own merits, rather than as a stepping stone to what lies beyond.

Shockingly, every member of the panel, myself included, could attest to seeing real examples of articles being rejected purely on the grounds that a reviewer ‘didn’t agree with them’, with no scientific refutation offered.

Isn’t it the job of a good handling editor to overrule such content-free reviewing?

You would hope so, wouldn’t you?

I’m afraid that in my personal experience it does hapen, though. There’s also the more insidious version of longer reviews that urge rejection for unfair reasons.

No system is going to be perfect, let’s face it, but I’ve seen so many instances of suspicious reviews calling for rejection of articles that I can’t help but think that more research and testing should be done on how we control quality, just to see if we’re doing the best we can.

This, by the way, is the reason I favour fully open reviewing — not just non-anonymous, but with the reviews themselves published as with this paper. That way, bad reviewers get the blame they deserve; and just as important, good reviewers get the credit they deserve.

The alternatives; double-blind, which Anna favors, and open review; are the subject of long running debates among academics and publishers alike, with no sign of consensus yet.

This may be an area where there are real differences between disciplines in what can work — even in closely related disciplines. In my field of sauropod palaeontology, there is no way double-blind could work, because for a majority of papers, an informed reviewer would instantly know who’d written the manuscript even if it had been anonymised. Whereas one can easily imagine other areas of bioscience where the pool of researchers is much larger and where anonymity can be meaningful.

That may be one reason why I favour non-anonymous peer-review over double-blind; but either of these symmetric-anonymity approaches is certainly better than the prevalent approach where the reviewer alone is shielded from any consequences of bad behaviour.

This is one of my concerns about double-blinding. I changed fields a couple of times when I was a scientist (atomic physics, biomedical optics, and neuroscience), and I have to admit that in all of those, I would sometimes be able to tell who was reviewing my manuscripts from their comments and often from which articles they wanted adding to the citation list. I’m sure that more experienced researchers than I ever was, who know the people in their fields well, might often be able to tell who the reviewer is. The smaller the field, obviously, the easier this might be to do.

When it comes to blinding the author, my concern is that many research projects form series of papers over several years. If an author wanted to maintain their anonymity, a series of articles would be impossible, unless they were all submitted at the same time. In some fields, big physics, for example, anonymizing authors would be completely impossible. In experimental magnetically confined fusion research, individual tokamaks have names, as do the diagnostics that are bolted onto them. Devices and diagnostics are named in articles, making it obvious which group and often which scientist wrote the manuscript. Even in the biomedical imaging lab that I worked in, individual labs could be distinguished by their experimental and surgical protocols, along with the declarations of which national regulatory agency approved the work. Often they would cite the paper in which they documented their protocol. In many fields, if authors became anonymous, the way that they would do science would be changed.

“Jonathan noted that he’s never received any training in how to review a manuscript (as we found out during the panel discussion, none of our panel ever had).”
In the “hard” sciences, much of graduate and post-doctoral education takes the form of “apprenticeship” rather than formal “training” with a rubric of requirements (pun intended…explained below). I was “taught” peer-review through Journal-club style seminar courses, along with actual lab journal club(s), then being invited to peer-review a paper within the lab, within the department or working group (a cluster of researchers across a few departments all studying actin biochemistry and cell biology), finally, under the guidance of my PI, participating in her invited peer-review of a submitted paper.
All that said – I think there is still a great need for a more rigorously structured peer-review to ensure that key aspects of the paper are always addressed clearly. Some journals have adopted this model – with highly specific scoring formats for the review provided. In Editors’ meetings, I have heard of journals that undertake the formal training of their junior reviewers. This was in a clinical discipline – where new residents were the pool of new reviewers rather than post-docs – so there may be some difference due to the education itself.
I hesitate to suggest that journals and publishers take on MORE in this process – but since peer-review expectations will be specific to the journal, and under the guidance of the editorial board to meet the goals they share with the publisher, it does seem to fall to them to ensure the quality and training of their reviewers. There would also be the problem of reviewers who contribute to a variety of journals and would have to undergo training for each one.
And here’s where I return to the pun – Rubriq considered this years ago, and now several publishers have developed or partnered with or acquired analogous “cascading” or “standard” or “portable” review systems (
Aside from decreasing the problem of repetitive review (and the competing recommendations that often result), increasing the clarity around peer review responsibilities can only benefit the community.

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