President’s Letter: Time to PhD—Time to Publish

Julian SchroederIn this letter I would like to address two interlinked problems and offer possible solutions to both of them: (1) the relatively long duration of PhD graduate studies in many countries and (2) the increasing time it can take from research advance to publication. In the latter case, I will also address innovations that are being implemented toward reducing the time to publication by The Plant Cell’s new editor-in-chief, Sabeeha Merchant, and her editorial team. Additionally, recent procedures in Plant Physiology are geared to shortening time to publication as well.

The plant sciences—and indeed all scientific disciplines—rely on new directions of research and new perspectives. Because young scientists often generate these new ideas, it is essential to provide opportunities for them to grow and succeed in their disciplines.

Unfortunately, on the downside, in the United States and many other countries, it can often take over six years to complete the work necessary to generate a PhD thesis in the life sciences. This very long training period and the limited number of academic job openings can discourage talented young scientists from pursuing PhDs and their careers in the plant sciences.

On the upside, recent analyses have highlighted the need for trained PhD plant scientists (http://bit.ly/ZsHLrj), and a report from the STEM Connector Food and Ag Council (http://bit.ly/1EMiGEo) projects substantial job growth in plant- and agriculture-related industries, with a combination of net new positions and looming retirements generating over 160,000 vacancies in the United States alone over the next 10 years. There are many careers that trained plant scientists can embark on in addition to academia, including industry, biotechnology, the business side within companies, education, plant-linked information technology, instrumentation, big data–related jobs, environmental work, patent law, and communications to name just a few. So how can we ensure that we are training young talent in ways that enable them to meet the challenges and needs of the future?

The plant sciences community has come together and proposed its first decadal vision, with among other goals, to significantly shorten the time from the beginning of undergraduate studies to completion of the PhD degree to about seven years (i.e., three to four years PhD duration) and has proposed approaches for broadening the professional preparation of graduate students. An abbreviated background on the decadal vision: Plant sciences communities (http://bit.ly/1IGhyrq) in the United States have worked to develop the decadal vision for innovation in plant science for 2015 to 2025 (http://bit.ly/1Fj1IC3). Several societies, including ASPB with leadership provided by Sally Mackenzie and David Stern, are working to promote this vision. This forward-looking document is providing plant scientists with a platform to speak with a common voice and communicate common goals with elected representatives (see page 23 of the September/October 2013 issue of the ASPB News [http://bit.ly/1cEItaR]).

It is to a large degree up to us to shorten the time to PhD to a more reasonable time of, for example, four years. You might ask “Is this at all possible?” In England, the recommended time to PhD has been three years for a long time, with four years usually being the absolute maximum. The Bologna agreement in Europe recommended the duration of a PhD to be from about three to four years, and some countries are seeing a trend in reducing PhD durations closer to four years or less. Thus, it is clearly possible; however, there is a big fly in the ointment—but one that we as a community can also fix. This brings me to the second subject of this letter:

Time to Publication…

Reducing the time to PhD sounds great to many young scientists. And if you have made a discovery or important advance in your PhD research, you would of course like to publish it, preferably as a first-authored paper.  However, the trend in the life sciences over the past dozen years has been that publications, and in particular supplemental data, have ballooned to indigestible lengths. How can a graduate student who has made a discovery or a relevant advance possibly complete all of those experiments? The same question applies to postdoctoral associates who also need to report their advances. Undeniably, publication is an important “currency” by which young scientists are evaluated for their next career steps.

If we step back from the early career investigators for a minute, the delayed publication of solid research advances is also detrimental to the scientific community. These days it is not unusual for publication to take one to over two years longer than it did 15 years ago. This lag also delays the ability of the community to use this information in their research and to test the validity and boundaries of new models. As graduate research is, by and large, funded by governments, this delay also postpones the return on public investment toward advancing knowledge and scientific discourse. You might argue that mentors may actually benefit from publication delays, because the research advances in their labs can continue without competition for, say, another year or two before this advance becomes publicly available. I have yet to hear this opinion from mentors, who also bemoan the lengthy times to publication themselves, just like students and postdocs.

So what went wrong on the way to publication? What has led to these delays? One factor might be our tendency to inadvertently embrace lengthy supplementary data files. Does publication of behemoth papers really lead to more solid advances in the literature? Is it worth delaying community access to new advances by a year or two? I have not heard any true benefits being proclaimed by the community. From my own experience as a young scientist, I was taught that if you make a scientific advance and are fortunate to publish it, it is upon you (or perhaps the lab that you will be leaving with your degree in hand) to pursue “follow-up” studies. Thus, what is today’s supplementary data, in the past often appeared in follow-up publications rather than in supplements. Undoubtedly, supplements carry an important value in the age of “big data,” but their definition may have slowly expanded to include a parking place for reviewers’ most favored experiments.

Ironically, anecdotal evidence suggests that young scientists are not immune to requesting many new experiments when reviewing manuscripts. It can be a young scientist who brings up a shopping list of new experiments when reviewing or co-reviewing a submitted manuscript with their mentor. In such cases it is up to the mentor to ask the key question of their co-reviewer: “If a reviewer requested this many interesting but perhaps not immediately required experiments for your manuscript, would you want to have to work through a long list of often difficult experiments before you can publish your finding or complete your degree? Or would you rather be given the opportunity to pursue a follow-up study focusing on your interests?”

Some journals (meaning us—the reviewers and editors) have inadvertently pushed for longer and longer publications, with the rationale that long papers would represent “complete” studies. But is there really such a thing as a “complete study,” and are longer papers more reliable than an initial publication and follow-up research within roughly the same time frame? There is also the issue that journal editors may seek the higher impact factor as their holy grail, and this may inadvertently lead to longer publications. It is arguable whether longer papers aid in this goal. There might also be a conflict of interest for mentors who may not want to “let go” of their students and postdocs once they have been trained. But helping trained scientists advance their career goals is the nature of a faculty mentor’s job.

I don’t want to belabor a problem without also offering a solution. So what’s the solution? Some journals, including eLife and The Plant Cell, are now instituting quite simple solutions. In these journals reviewers and handling editors are being asked to determine: (1) Is the manuscript suitable for the given journal? (2) If the answer to (1) is yes, then what are the essential data that may be needed to allow the authors to publish their advance soon? Needless to say, this approach may lead to a rapid decline of some highly worthy manuscripts. However, at least the duration of the response facilitates a shorter and less arduous path to publication, leading authors to move on to submitting elsewhere after considering the reviewer comments. In addition to this simple solution, The Plant Cell is instituting additional new review measures that will help young investigators more rapidly move from submission to publication, enabling visibility of their new laboratories within the scientific community (for those interested in more details, please see: http://bit.ly/1bVgpj1). The Plant Cell and Plant Physiology, along with Nature, Science, and PNAS, now also permit making manuscripts publicly available any time prior to publication on preprint servers such as the bioRxiv at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, thus enabling early access by the community, a practice spearheaded by the physics and mathematics communities. And Mike Blatt and the editorial board of Plant Physiology have instituted Research Reports—short papers intended to accelerate the time from experimental concept to final publication.

In closing, if we as plant biologists can institute simple innovations as described above, then we could lead the way for other life scientists toward bringing the time to PhD, the time to completing successful postdoctoral research, and the time to publication back to more reasonable norms. We owe it to our discipline to support young scientists, not least because they are the ones who will ensure a strong future for plant biology.

1 thought on “President’s Letter: Time to PhD—Time to Publish”

  1. I’ve heard the Length of PhD debate argued both ways in the past. I’m in the UK on a four year PhD course, and I have to say I prefer the shorter time scale. The US model can benefit students however, and it’s not just about the time to publication. If all other things are equal, a student on a six or seven year PhD simply has more time to do publishable work than one on taking just three or four years, which may be of benefit when applying for their first post-Doc. Then again, the UK candidate may already have already completed their first post-Doc by the time their US counterpart has graduated!

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