Sunday 5 March 2017

Advice for early career researchers re job applications: 1. Work 'in preparation'

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I posted a couple of tweets yesterday giving my personal view of things to avoid when writing a job application. These generated a livelier debate than I had anticipated, and made me think further about the issues I'd raised. I've previously blogged about getting a job as a research assistant in psychology; this piece is directed more at early career researchers aiming for a postdoc or first lectureship. I'll do a separate post about issues raised by my second tweet – inclusion of more personal information in your application. Here I'll focus on this one: 
  • Protip for job applicants: 3+ 1st author 'in prep' papers suggests you can't finish things AND that you'll be distracted if appointed

I've been shortlisting for years, and there has been a noticeable trend for publication lists to expand to include papers that are 'in preparation' as well as those that are 'submitted' or 'under review'. One obvious problem with these is that it's unclear what they refer to: they could be nearly-completed manuscripts or a set of bullet points. 
My tweet was making the further point that you need to think of the impression you create in the reader if you have five or six papers 'in preparation', especially if you are first author. My guess is that most applicants think that this will indicate their activity and productivity, but that isn't so. I'd wonder whether this is someone who starts things and then can't finish them. I'd also worry that if I took the applicant on, the 'in preparation' papers would come with them and distract them from the job I had employed them to do. I've blogged before about the curse of the 'academic backlog': While I am sympathetic about supporting early researchers in getting their previous work written up, I'd be wary of taking on someone who had already accumulated a large backlog right at the start of their career.

Many people who commented on this tweet supported my views:
  • @MdStockbridge We've been advised never to list in prep articles unless explicitly asked in the context of post doc applications?. We were told it makes one looks desperate to "fill the space."
  •  @hardsci I usually ignore "in prep" sections, but to me more than 1-2 items look like obvious vita-padding
  • @larsjuhljensen "In prep" does not count when I read a CV. The slight plus of having done something is offset by inability to prioritize content.
  • @Russwarne You can say anything is "in preparation." My Nobel acceptance speech is "in preparation." I ignore it.
  • DuncanAstle I regularly see CVs with ~5 in prep papers... to be honest I don't factor them into my appraisal.?
  • @UnhealthyEcon I'm wary if i see in-prep papers at all. Under review papers would be different.
  • @davidpoeppel Hey peeps in my labs: finish your papers! Run -don't walk -back to your desks! xoxo David. (And imho, never list any in prep stuff on CV...)
  • @janhove 'Submitted' is all right, I think, if turn arounds in your field are glacial. But 'in prep' is highly non-committal.

Others, though, felt this was unfair, because it meant that applicants couldn't refer to work that may be held up by forces beyond their control: 
  • @david_colquhoun that one seems quite unfair -timing is often beyond ones's control
  • @markwarschauer I disagree completely. The more active job applicants are in research & publishing the better.
  • @godze786  if it's a junior applicant it may also mean other authors are holding up. Less power when junior
  • @tremodian All good except most often fully drafted papers are stuck in senior author hell and repeated prods to release them often do nothing.
 But then, this very useful suggestion came up:  
  • @DrBrocktagon But do get it out as preprint and put *that* on CV
  • @maxcoltheart Yes. Never include "in prep" papers on cv/jobapp. Or "submitted" papers? Don't count since they may never appear? Maybe OK if ARKIVed
The point here is that if you deposit your manuscript as a preprint, then it is available for people to read. It is not, of course peer-reviewed, but for a postdoc position, I'd be less interested in counting peer-reviewed papers than in having the opportunity to evaluate the written work of the applicant. Preprints allow one to do that. And it can be effective:
  • @BoyleLab we just did a search and one of our candidates did this. It helped them get an interview because it was a great paper
But, of course, there's a sting in the tail: once something is a preprint it will be read by others, including your shortlisting committee, so it had better be as good as you can get it. So the question came up, at what point would you deposit something as a preprint? I put out this question, and Twitter came back with lots of advice:
  • @michaelhoffman Preprint ≠ "in prep". But a smart applicant should preprint any of their "submitted" manuscripts.?
  • @DoctorZen The term "pre-print" itself suggests an answer. Pre-prints started life as accepted manuscripts. They should not be rough drafts.
  • @serjepedia these become part of your work record. Shoddiness could be damaging.
  • @m_wall I wouldn't put anything up that hadn't been edited/commented by all authors, so basically ready to submit.
  • @restokin If people are reading it to decide if they should give you a job, it would have to be pretty solid. 
All in all, I thought this was a productive discussion. It was clear that many senior academics disregard lists of research outputs that are not in the public domain. Attempts to pad out the CV are counterproductive and create a negative impression. But if work is written up to a point where it can be (or has been) submitted, there's a clear advantage to the researcher in posting it as a preprint, which makes it accessible. It doesn't guarantee that a selection committee will look at it, but it at least gives them that opportunity.


  1. I stand by my tweet (@tremodian). Depositing into an appropriate pre-print archive is a very good practice but I cannot imagine any author allowing this unless they have had time to review and comment on etc the manuscript. And so one must again wait for senior authors.

    1. I'm just sorry to hear that your senior authors are such an issue. I do try to turn around drafts by my students and postdocs in a timely fashion as I know that it is important for their careers - quite apart from actually wanting to read what they've written as it is usually interesting!

  2. FWIW, I'm a near-60 academic on several editorial boards as well as with service on university tenure-and-appointment committees for two top-10 major universities. IMO, no one is fooled into thinking in-prep listings are pubs or even probable pubs. But I've never thought any less of a c.v. for listing them; I read them to get a better sense of aspirations and intellectual agenda.

  3. In my opinion, one should never list in-preparation articles on one's CV or homepage. I've been on hiring committees, and I become wary of a candidate that does that. It signals possible CV padding, and it signals that the person may not be organized enough to get their work out there as preprints or whatever.

    The German Science Foundation (DFG) explicitly forbids this in funding proposals or CVs; if you don't have a written text you can send to the DFG with you CV, you cannot list it. Actually, the DFG doesn't even allow you to list in-press articles as part of your published work, even if they have a doi.

    As we say in German: Vertrauen ist gut, Kontrolle ist besser.

    1. I should add that in my younger, pre-tenure days, I have listed in preparation articles on my cv. I regret doing that now.

    2. I confess that I'm guilty of this. My thinking was that it would be useful for people to know what I'm working on. Given how long it takes to get something published in our field, the published records only reflects what I was doing up until two years ago or so. However, listing in-prep manuscripts is not necessary because conference contributions should give a more up-to-date picture of someone's research activity.

      One problem with listing in-prep manuscripts that hasn't been mentioned yet: In job interviews, you don't want lose time discussing the state of your in-prep manuscript. Happened to me and this time could have been spent much more productively on other topics.

  4. I followed the debate on twitter and found it interesting. Personally, I think some of the negativity from senior PIs about having 'in prep' papers listed is not appropriate.

    It make sense to ignore the info if you don't find it informative, but to judge someone negatively because they have included it seems odd, given the high variability in opinions on this matter from senior PIs. Perhaps if people don't like them, they should just explicitly say on the job advert "don't include 'in prep'". That way the applicant doesn't have to second guess the PIs idiosyncratic tastes when it comes to the structure of CVs.

    1. Thanks Aidan. I wrote this post precisely because it was clear that many job applicants think that a long list of 'in preparation' papers looks impressive, and I thought it would be helpful to explain why that's not the case - especially as nearly all the reactions from other senior people range from 'I ignore it' to 'it creates negative impression'.
      My advice would be, if you have something that you are working on that you are proud of but which has not got to the point where you can preprint it, then describe it in your cover letter.
      Also, note that I would not think negatively of someone with 1-2 'in preparation' things: that seems a reasonable amount of stuff to be working on - it's when there is a long list of first-authored ones that it looks a bit like a desperate attempt to impress with stuff that may never see the light of day, plus a failure to prioritise: 'CV padding' as one commenter called it.
      Some funders/organisations do give explicit guidance of the kind you ask for but many don't, and then it may be useful to be aware of possible negative reactions.

  5. My own viewpoint: of course published papers carry most weight, but committees are rightly swayed by solid, near-complete work. A preprint is strong evidence of that.

  6. Being a research student I can say that its really difficult to satisfy committees to publish your research work in a reputed journal. Apart from my issue I really liked the blog.

  7. The University Grants Commission of India (UGC India) is the primary regulatory body created by the Indian Government in accordance with the UGC Act of 1956 under the Ministry of Human Resource Development. It has been made responsible for the coordination of Indian Universities, determination of the standards for Indian universities and maintenance of standards of higher education in India.

    UGC Approved Journals list by UGC care

    Journals are the medium through which budding candidates publish their articles about their research. These sources are made available because of the UGC.

    If the aspirants choose any private journal except for UGC Approved Journals list by UGC care for their research other than that, it is not considered as valid. As of now, the UGC Approved Journals list has now been replaced by UGC – CARE.