Since it seems it's "You need an SNC paper to get a job" season again, there are a couple of things about the faculty hiring system that seem often to get glossed over, and I'm curious what people think about them.
I want to start by stipulating that, in the US there is no hard rule about what you "need" to get published, but there is, for sure, a strong correlation between publication record and faculty search success. What I'm interested in is why this correlation exists.
When discussing this fact, nearly everyone seems to jump from correlation to causation - assuming that people hired to faculty positions with SNC paper got their jobs *because* of those SNC papers. But what's the evidence that this is true?
Sure, there are lots of people who were told they didn't get an interview/job because they didn't have an SNC paper, but one thing I've learned in grant/paper reviewing is that the reasons people give for rejections are almost always post-hoc rationalizations, not real reasons.
I'd like to moot a different hypothesis: that a large part of the correlation between journal titles and academic success arises from the fact that high prestige journals & high prestige academic departments share a common set of criteria for "exciting" and "important" science.
There is, after all, already a pretty extensive overlap between members of these departments and authors in these journals, and these journals in turn consult routinely with these scientists to determine which papers belong in their pages.
Let's imagine we could do an experiment with we somehow got the "top" academic departments in the US to evaluate and select for hiring faculty candidates based entirely on preprints and talks, and, in parallel submitted all those preprints to Science, Nature and Cell.
Don't you think there would be a high correlation between who was selected for those jobs and whether or not their paper got in to SNC? Of course there would be. So why do we immediately assume the SNC paper is causal for getting the job?
I'm not saying there isn't *any* marginal benefit to ones job prospects for getting a paper into SNC. There could be and probably is. But it's almost certainly a lot weaker than is implied by the enrichment of SNC papers in CVs of successful job applicants.
So this leads to the next question. Why does everyone keep repeating that mantra that SNC papers are so important?
We all know that there are many things that influence career success above and beyond some abstract notion of the quality of a young scientists work and ideas. Where and with whom they did their postdoc, what they work on, how much money they were given to spend, ...
... where they went to grad school. What research opportunities they had as an undergrad. All of which are deeply entwined with class, gender, race and other aspects of an individual's identity and history.
It's been shown repeatedly, for example, that "top" institutions hiring almost exclusively postdocs from other "top" institutions. So why don't people offer pronouncements that "To get a job you have to postdoc at Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Stanford, UCSF or Berkeley"?
Or that "You need to postdoc with a well-known PI?", or "You need to work on something to do with human stem cells?" - all of which are also strongly enriched among the most successful job applicants.
I think at least part of the answer has to do with timing of the decisions. When you are approaching the stage of your career when you apply for faculty jobs, all these other things are already baked in.
You went to undergrad and grad school where you did. Your research and life experiences are set in stone. You work where and with who you work, on what it is you work on. And most importantly your results are what they are. But where they get published is still in play.
So, while getting a paper into SNC might be have a small impact on your career success in the grand scheme of things, whatever marginal advantage it can give you is 100% of the remaining marginal advantage available to you.
This, I think, leads to a natural tendency to overestimate the importance of what in reality is a fairly small piece of the total puzzle - all the more so because if feels somehow as if it's in you control - maybe this one last piece of data will get it across the line.
Along with the psychic torture that goes along with the perception is that there is a huge functional difference between just barely getting into SNC compared to just barely missing out, and it ends up that people mentally imbue journals with far more power than they really have.
So, tl/dr - our brains play tricks on us to make journal titles seem much more meaningful than they really are.

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More from @mbeisen

16 Jan
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Editor: I am your editor.
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