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Publish or Perish — and what it means for undergrads

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While completing his master's degree in biology at St. Mary’s University, Joel Slade accidentally contaminated a bottle of chloroform used to extract DNA. He realized immediately, because it looked identical to the bottle designated for waste. He taped it shut and labelled it as contaminated. But when the researcher sharing the same lab space found out, he banned Slade from the lab for two weeks.

The experience deeply affected Slade, making him feel like a failure. It almost convinced him to quit.

"There's some people who take their job so seriously, and they should take it seriously in science to a degree, but not if it's hindering the student's educational experience," says Slade. He added sometimes it can get to the point where graduate students are seen as "paper-producers" to further the principal investigator's (PI) own career rather than students who are simply there to learn. 

Now three and half years into his doctorate degree at Western, Slade sees the same kind of fear of failure in undergraduate students who work in labs — if they can get a lab position at all.

Researchers who run their own lab (referred to as PIs) are generally wary of giving responsibility to undergrads in the lab because they’re perceived to be less experienced than grad students or postdocs. 

Edward Ho, a third-year medical sciences student at Western, says that volunteers or work-study students who aren’t working in a lab as part of a course can end up doing menial jobs such as washing dishes or filling pipette tip boxes.

Academic research isn’t always friendly to undergrads: they can end up subject to the same pressures as their PIs, can be brushed aside from meaningful work or shut out completely. This isn’t the fault of the students or even the PIs.

There are larger forces at play in academia that create a system where labs can become focused on producing published research — sometimes at the expense of offering students chances to learn and make mistakes.

Publish, publish, publish

Although not all researchers are like the one who banned Slade from his lab, the pressure to not mess up still exists. One mistake could mean jeopardizing a researcher’s data and their chance of getting their work published.

There can be a lot at stake for researchers in terms of producing publishable data, and that pressure can trickle down to undergrads.

“If you’re an investigator and you’re doing your own research, you need to get published to get more grants, get more money and be able to keep doing the work that you do,” says Ho. “I do feel like publications are very important. There’s a lot of debate as to whether or not that’s a good idea, and whether or not putting so much emphasis on publishing is good for science.” 

Publications are an implicit but controversial measure of success in academic research. Parameters such as the number of publications a researcher has produced, the number of times a specific paper has been cited and its journal's impact factor can all be considered when assessing a researcher both formally and casually.   

David Smith, an assistant professor with Western's department of biology, says that publishing history can be considered when evaluating job candidates for faculty positions, evaluating students for scholarships or doctorate programs and evaluating postdocs for jobs.

"Usually CVs are diverse, but really it does come down to a paper-counting contest. It's not only the numbers, but it's the prestige of the journal,” he says.

Grant money is a good servant but a bad master

Granting agencies, such as the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), can also consider publication history when reviewing researchers’ applications for grant money. Although obtaining grants as a master's student is based mostly on grades, Slade says that it’s based on publications for PhD students.

“If you’ve done a master's and you have no publications yet, you might as well kiss the NSERC goodbye,” he says. 

Pauline Barmby, the associate dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies, says that the importance of the number of past publications varies with grant and field, but it’s the researcher’s timeline of publishing that matters more. If a researcher hasn’t published anything in five years after receiving a grant, their granting agency will want to know why. They may also consider why one researcher has substantially more publications than another researcher, but she says that if it came down to choosing between two candidates, a single publication more wouldn’t make a difference.

Grant money is often essential to a PI’s research. Barmby explains that the university doesn’t give PIs all the money they need to buy lab equipment or hire postdocs when the PI is first hired as a researcher.

“You are kind of running your own small business as part of the university. And that can be stressful on the part of a faculty member because you have people depending on you,” she says. “If you have a postdoc or research assistant working for you and your grant funding runs out, those people are looking for another job."

Smith says that there are simply more researchers than there is money available. Although it varies across disciplines, the process for getting grants can be incredibly competitive. Granting agencies are usually extensions of the government, so grant money comes from taxpayer money making it very limited. PIs applying for these grants are therefore often asked to justify their research in the interest of taxpayers or the government.

With a limited amount of money, hiring undergrads isn’t always realistic for PIs. Ho says that lab volunteers are an appealing option for PIs financially, but they may not be committed to the lab the same way paid or thesis students are. Volunteers can essentially leave whenever they want, and that can mean wasted time spent training them in the lab.

Looking to the future

But for all of the systems flaws, there are reasons publications are prized in academia. No matter the metric, there are always drawbacks. 

“It’s true that whatever metric you come up with, people are going to try to take advantage of it,” says Barmby. “But what’s the alternative? Is the alternative to go back to the system where so-and-so gets a job because they were such-and-such’s student, and that person says they’re nice?”

She admits that the system isn’t perfect, but she sees many positive things about incentivizing publications. It’s a way of sharing knowledge, an important aspect of research.

In terms of undergraduate lab experience, Slade hopes that lab courses will incorporate more room for fun and exploration. Without the fear of failing, he believes students will walk away with the experience and confidence they need to feel competent volunteering in actual research labs. 

Ho thinks that undergrads should be trusted more and possibly given a mini research project of their own. Having meaningful responsibilities enriches their own research as well as the PI’s; even if they end up leaving the lab, they'll have gained a valuable experience and contributed to the lab's body of research.

“While they are just undergrads," says Ho. "They’re not dumb. And if you give them the opportunity, they’ll learn and they’ll develop even more.”

Whether publishing as a measure of success will change by the time today’s undergrads become PIs themselves remains to be seen. It’s difficult to change something that’s been in place for decades, especially when this parameter of success has become almost second nature to researchers. The importance of publishing may still persist in the next 10 years, but there's hope that academia will move away from giving researchers the ultimatum — publish or perish.

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