Recently, I had the privilege of serving with David Pfennig (Chair) and Rebecca Safran on the ASN Jasper Loftus-Hills Young Investigator Award (YIA) committee. The award goes to investigators less than 3 years post-Ph.D. for promising, outstanding research in any field covered by the ASN. The award winners have just been announced. Serving on the committee was a very rewarding experience. It also provided an interesting little window into changing research and authorship practices in evolution, ecology, and behavior. Including how things aren’t changing, even though everyone thinks they are…
First of all, congratulations to the winners: Lucy Aplin, Susan Bailey, Matthew Pennell, and Nathaniel Sharp. We had 25 applicants, all of them truly excellent, so we had some difficult decisions to make. In the end, the four winners rose to the top. It’s great that the ASN recognizes not just one but four outstanding young researchers, and rewards them with a high-profile opportunity to present their work in the YIA symposium at the next ASN meeting in Austin, TX. (UPDATE: See also this wonderful comment from the ASN’s Trish Morse on the history and purpose of the Jasper Loftus-Hill Young Investigator Award.)
It was gratifying to see an applicant pool that was nearly gender balanced. This isn’t always a given for awards. Of course, it’s just one year and just one award, but it’s an encouraging anecdote.
Reading through the applications was an interesting window on how leading-edge fundamental research is done these days. Turns out some things have changed—but some things haven’t. What follows are entirely my own impressions and views; I’m not speaking for David, Rebecca, the ASN, or anyone else.
First, I was impressed, and honestly a little humbled, by just how much and how substantively these outstanding young researchers are publishing. The applicants averaged almost 13 peer-reviewed research papers, including 7 first-authored papers, and most applicants published the majority of those first-authored papers in leading journals like American Naturalist, Evolution, Nature, Animal Behaviour, etc. Indeed, I was so impressed and humbled by this that I went back to look at my own cv, because I don’t remember being this productive back when I was a grad student or postdoc! And indeed, by 2003 (3 years post-PhD), I “only” had 7 peer-reviewed research papers, well below the average for this year’s YIA applicant pool.* Which for a little while had me thinking, “Man, top young people really are publishing a lot more these days than they used to!”
But I was wrong to think that. While this year’s YIA applicants are publishing a lot, they are not publishing any more than YIA winners always have. I spot-checked the cv’s of a number of past winners, and there is no upward trend in publication rate. Winners from the early oughts, 1990s, and yes even 1980s typically had 10+ papers, mostly in leading journals, and 50%+ first-authored.
What has changed somewhat is the prevalence of co-authored papers. It used to be that YIA winners ordinarily would have at least one or two sole-authored papers, and sometimes more than that (1987 YIA winner Steven Frank had 10 papers through the end of that year, all of which were sole-authored). I was the same way—2003 me had 2 sole-authored papers among his 7. But fast forward to this year, and unless I am misremembering, only one or two of the YIA applicants had any sole-authored papers, and none had a sole-authored paper in a leading journal. Few even had any dual-authored papers (e.g., applicant + applicant’s supervisor, which also used to be fairly common). I’m unsure how much of this is changing authorship practices vs. changing scientific practices such as increasing collaboration.
I don’t think my sort of cv, with many sole-authored and dual-authored papers, is necessarily any better or worse than a cv without any. It’s just different; different people have always worked in different ways. But I do wonder a little if my sort of cv is becoming harder to build—if “shopkeeper science” is slowly becoming a thing of the past. And if so, why that is (see also).
p.s. Looking at the cv’s of outstanding researchers can be discouraging. You wonder how you could ever possibly measure up. Here’s my advice: don’t be discouraged. Nobody expects you to be the next Dolph Schluter or Sally Otto (to pick two former YIA winners), and you don’t have to be the next Dolph Schluter or Sally Otto to have a career in science, not even at a research university. See here, here and here (and many other places) for advice on pursuing a career in academic science, including advice on how to determine whether you’re competitive for the sort of job you’d like to hold.
*Aside: Just because I’m giving publication counts and referring to the journals in which papers were published does not mean that we chose award winners by just counting papers or looking at journal impact factors! As I’ve discussed in the context of faculty job applications, there are many lines of evidence that get looked at by any search or evaluation committee.