Advice for senior scientists and the importance of first-author publications

The internet is awash with bloggers and dedicated sites giving advice to early-career scientists and graduate research students (what I’ll collectively refer to as ECRs).  Much of it is very good (see for example The Thesis Whisperer, any number of posts over at Dynamic Ecology and Small Pond Science, and the University of Northampton’s own Research Support Hub), though sometimes it’s contradictory and comes down to matters of taste and opinion (see for example the differing comments on a post of mine about giving effective conference presentations).

There are also any number of books, including Peter Medawar’s Advice to a Young Scientist and James Watson’s Avoid Boring People (hopefully to be followed up with a sequel entitled Avoid Alienating People With Crass Statements)*.

But there is very little guidance and advice out there for more senior scientists who are mid- to late-career.  I did a quick search and found only one article that mentioned this topic, specifically about mid-career mentoring, and that was from 2012.

Why is this?  Is it because (as I suspect) more senior scientists are assumed to have their careers sorted out, they “know the ropes”, they are networked and publish, and have only a bright sunny future in academia to look forward to?  Clearly this is nonsense; as that article I linked to stated:

Do complicated career issues evaporate after tenure** and/or do we all magically know how to deal with everything that academe throws at us? No, and no

So I’d be interested in hearing any bits of advice or guidance, or links to useful resources, and would encourage new posts by other bloggers, related specifically to more senior scientists in academia.  To get the ball rolling, my contribution would be: make sure you keep publishing as a first-author (and preferably single-author) throughout your career.

In academia it’s easy to get lost as to what it actually is to be a scientist (idea generator/data collector/analyser/writer) in amongst all of the other requirements and pressures of the job at a senior level (grant writing/committee memberships/teaching/administration and paperwork/manuscript and grant reviewing/editorial duties/ECR supervision and line management/external meetings and advisory groups/etc.)

As a senior scientist it’s possible to publish good papers frequently as last author (indicating seniority as head of the research group and/or ECR supervisor), and as mid author in amongst tens or hundreds of other scientists with whom you are collaborating on some level.  In these papers other people are conducting the bulk of the “science”, and that’s fine, I publish in both of these ways myself.  But the question then arises, that if this is all that a senior scientist is currently doing, have they lost something of themselves as scientists?  Have they become something more akin to a science-manager than a “real” scientist (whatever that actually means)?

Personally, I try to publish at least one first-author output (not necessarily a peer-reviewed paper, could be a commentary or a popular article) each year, and have succeeded in most years.  I believe (though I may be fooling myself) that it keeps me in touch with what it is to be a scientist and why I became one in the first place.  For reasons I can’t fully articulate it feels important to me to be involved in research and writing in which I do the bulk of the data collection, analysis, and/or writing myself, and to see an output through the editorial process from manuscript preparation to submission, dealing with reviewers’ comments, and to final publication.

Is this a reasonable goal/expectation for a senior scientist?  It’s important for me but I can well understand that other scientists will have other priorities, different things that they focus on.

Coincidentally, as I was finishing off writing this post, Dr Kath Baldock drew my attention to this short piece by Kaushal et al. entitled Avoiding an Ecological Midlife Crisis that’s just been published in the January issue of the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America.  Although specifically focused on professional ecologists, their advice to “nurture the original connection to nature” will surely resonate with scientists from all fields if we substitute “nature” for other, discipline-specific words and phrases.


*This is all very positive and as it should be: ECRs need advice and guidance as to how to navigate their profession, and that needs to come from multiple sources because sometimes (often?) their own institution doesn’t give adequate guidance.  However I do have some misgivings about more senior scientists advising their more junior colleagues based on their own experiences: the world of academia is a fasting-moving place and what applied to a previous generation may not necessarily apply to the current one.

**It’s an American article: British universities don’t even know how to spell “tenure”.

9 thoughts on “Advice for senior scientists and the importance of first-author publications

  1. ScientistSeesSquirrel

    Like many of the best ideas, this sounds totally obvious only after it’s been pointed out! I can’t think of much in the way of senior-scientist advice out their either.

    I’m not taking your advice, it would seem, even though I think it’s probably good advice. I’ve published just five 1st- or solo-authored papers in the last 13 years (I’m excluding a few on which I was 1st author because I completed work started by a grad student; these aren’t the kind of “ownership’ science you’re talking about). Only two of these were single-authored, and one of the two was a paper on humour and beauty in scientific writing (see ), so I wouldn’t even count that one.

    I’ve found it’s really hard to conduct your “own” independent science because, with a full lab, I spend tons of time working with my grad students on their work. I have 6 grad students and a postdoc at the moment (which is a lot for me, but not by any means an outlier in the discipline), and that means a steady flow of proposals, grants, chapters, and manuscripts to be read/commented/edited. And on any given day, my grad students’ work is higher priority than my own, because their careers hinge more on each paper.

    I did write a solo-authored book (my writing book, coming out in April); but it took me several years to do so, for the same reasons!

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks Steve. I was very careful to say “publications” and “outputs” because I don’t think it necessarily has to be first author peer-reviewed research papers: as scientists we can and should do a lot of different types of writing.

      Having said that, 5 in 13 years, plus the book, is pretty good going.

      Look forward to seeing the book!

      1. ScientistSeesSquirrel

        Well, if you count blog posts and grant proposals and the book and stuff, I guess I’m doing OK! But I still got a huge thrill out of publishing my 2012 solo paper – the only truly solo science I’ve done in decades. Some day I’ll do another one!

  2. ibartomeus

    As someone doing the transition I feel the panic of “not having the time” to keep up with everything. So far I decided to block one day a week to work on my own analysis/papers and I also decided to do at least some fieldwork with my students/technicians. I agree that most complains towards senior scientists is that they lose the perspective specially in regard to analysis and field work when they stop doing it by themselves.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks Nacho – I agree, in most cases it’s the investment of time required for learning new analytical approaches and to carry out the field work that’s the limiting factor.

  3. Clem

    I like your reasoning for staying involved in the whole of the research enterprise. I’m not an academic, so tenure is not an issue for me either. But the world changes. The way we did field research when I was a student has morphed significantly and I would be quite the dinosaur if I were trying to manage field research today by merely pointing students toward the door and wishing them the best. So I agree there is an incredible value to going there, seeing with your own eyes, writing the first draft vs. editing something another has done.

    And I especially like the bit about shepherding an effort through the review process. There are so many different publication options now – open access, online submission, altametrics, blogging, social media, and on and on. How can one be a viable coach if they’re not still playing the game?

    If one’s own career might be likened to running on autopilot I think you’ve begun to cheat yourself and those around you. If a senior scientist struggles to find motivation because something like tenure is no longer being held over her head then she might consider the longer term fate of the students and colleagues she works with. I might liken it to the population genetics trope of fitness. The most successful scientists will have coached the most successful students and colleagues. And being actively involved in playing the game as the world goes through it’s myriad changes is for me a great way to remain a fit coach.

  4. Pingback: Advice for senior scientists and the importance of first-author publications | Research Support Hub

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