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Pressure to publish stifles young talent


Almost three years have passed since the last government Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) conducted on UK universities. The next exercise will take place in 2001 and many universities are planning for the future with some anxiety. The consequences for departments that fail to retain ratings of 4 or 5 on the 5-point scale are dire. A lower score would mean loss of funding that might lead to redundancies. Meanwhile departments with ratings of 2 or 3 are already fighting for survival. All universities are trying to reach set RAE targets. Some plans are realistic, others may not be. Either way the pressure is rising.

One obvious strategy is to remove staff less active in research, encourage early retirements and replace with new, probably younger, academic staff. However, recruitment has to be carried out with increasing haste. The job requirements for this new generation of academic staff seem overwhelming and many post-doctoral researchers may feel inadequately prepared.

The RAE committees in the laboratory science areas require four excellent peer-reviewed publications. These will be the basic requirement for posts in the universities. Is that really beyond the capability of most young researchers?

Figure 1

Building to a peak: would these high achievers have made it through the present system?

To test this hypothesis, I retrieved from the BIDS database the publication record of ten scientists in my own field of molecular microbiology, who have been based throughout their entire careers in the UK. They are now in very senior positions in universities or research institutes; their careers span a total of 262 years. They have all achieved worldwide status and respect. The question I posed was: “How would they have matched the criteria for RAE in the early stages of their careers?”

The graph above shows mean publication rate (with standard error indicated by bars) per year after completing their PhDs. The data were collected from the BIDS database as publications back to 1981. I had to rely upon citations for my information before this time. Despite this handicap, it was clear that all the scientists produced a number of cited publications, often citing their own research in publications after 1981.

The pattern of publication output over their careers is revealing. Generally they produced few papers over the first ten years, although the quality of the work was clearly outstanding. During that time, each one went for an average of 3.8 years without apparently publishing (or producing a cited paper) at all. In one case there was a five-year gap! The conclusion I reached from this simple exercise is that application of the current RAE exercise might have precluded all of them from appointments to academic posts.

These scientists went on to do great things. They have initiated novel, sometimes risky research and built up new avenues of endeavour along with highly respected research groups. Indeed, their later publications reflect the increasing number of collaborations that they have generated.

The careful nurturing of young talent has had its rewards for UK science. The atmosphere that surrounds the RAE may be stifling the talented, either by reducing the urge to take imaginative risks in new areas or by simply driving them out of science. Those who take up the challenge may find the pressure to perform very hard to bear. The management of research in universities may become tyrannies that allow little time for thinking, teaching, home life or young families. One thing is certain: without committed and imaginative young scientists who enjoy the challenge of discovery, the future of UK science will not be fruitful.

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Larkin, M. Pressure to publish stifles young talent. Nature 397, 467 (1999).

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