Yours Transferredly: Published but Unpaid


The inevitable has happened. After a run of bad luck over the last few months, my career fortunes are looking brighter. Recently, I'd gotten bad news on both papers and a grant and--worst of all--I got news of the "temporary" cessation of funding when my postdoc contract ended.

No, I do not yet have another postdoc position. You will have to read this column for a few more months, I suspect, before my fate in this respect is revealed, to me and to you. No, the good news is that a key paper, on which I'm first author, has been accepted for publication by a good middle-ranking journal. The contrast between this experience and the epic medieval saga that I had to endure the last time I submitted (and revised, and resubmitted, and revised, and resubmitted) a paper could not have been starker.

After learning the hard way with the other paper, I went over the top this time in my efforts to produce a piece of work that was totally and unequivocally watertight. Every control experiment was done, every loophole was closed, and every possible argument or criticism was addressed in detail.

When my former boss called to deliver these tidings, I knew instantly that it must be good news. From the reviews, he read words like "elegant" and "original." The article was accepted on first submission, with only cosmetic changes, which makes this my most successful publishing effort to date. I always knew that this piece of research had the potential to result in an original article of high quality, so this result was very gratifying, even if it does seem ironic that I received this good news while unemployed. What does that say about our system of supporting early-career scientists?

Although this splendid news has certainly provided a much-needed fillip to my flagging morale, I cannot afford to rest now. I still have the long-running "saga" paper to get accepted somewhere. Frankly, I do not much care where it is finally accepted, as long as a decent journal takes it. I am writing the umpteenth revised manuscript this very week.

After that, there is my most recently submitted paper, rejected once but far from slated by its first pair of reviewers. This one needs to be reformatted and sent off to a different journal. Having to resubmit rejected papers is part and parcel of the researcher's life, certainly in my field. From conversations I have had with top established researchers in the field, this is even the case for some of them. And so, for the moment, my efforts to further my career are pushed through this channel: getting papers published. No new research maybe, little or no networking, but a stack of completed work to get into print.

This period out of the lab is in many ways the perfect time to come to grips with my publishing ambitions. But as I have said before, I am busier today than when I was working full-time in the lab. Knuckling down to a hard day's graft in front of the computer is not as easy as it sounds, for two reasons. First, there is the practical issue of home distractions. Trying to focus on the best way to phrase an ambiguous point in an abstract is not easy when you're working next door to a toddler in an irritable mood caused, no doubt, by the summer heat. Then, there are the older children who need to be dropped off or picked up from school, a bathroom that should have been tiled 3 months ago, and a plethora of small tasks that need to be seen to.

Then there is the issue of sharpness. You know the feeling that most of us get when we come back to work after a particularly long and relaxing holiday: "How did I ever manage to do this job?" Well, that feeling becomes more acute with each week I pass away from full-time research. The metal of my blade may still be sound, but it has lost a little of its sharpness. I am finding that I need longer to power up mentally before I can really think in depth. I guess that large areas of my brain have been lounging around for the last 2 months and are suffering from atrophy. This new flurry of paper revision and submission is just what I need to help me regain my mental edge and get back in shape.

Theoretically, there is a simple production line in science: Ideas get turned into results, which get packaged in a publication. But the finished product can sometimes seem a long way down the line, even after all the experimental work is completed. Endurance is what counts. The more of my work that is now transformed into papers, the stronger my hand of cards for the poker game that is my imminent job hunt, and for my longer-term future. My parallel strategy, of being a named researcher on several grant proposals, means that if any of the grants are funded I'll be back in research in short order. So now is the time to make the most of getting published, even while unpaid.