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The Untold Story: what doesn’t make it into the journal

In the world of academia, a scientist’s worth is often judged by the number of peer-reviewed articles they’ve authored and how frequently they are cited. This metric, in theory, should provide an efficient way for scientists to quickly assess each other’s success and allow hiring committees to sift through the mountains of job applications. Unfortunately, in practice this metric doesn’t capture the work that scientists are doing outside of their publications.

Instead, this metric promotes an unhealthy culture and structure in academia. Data is faked, researchers are scooped, competition takes the place of collaboration, poor research designs are implemented, and important “non-significant” results don’t see the light of day to inform the science community. What started as a good, intuitive idea has morphed into an ugly, misguided one.

Many of us graduate students who want to potentially pursue a career in academia see this problem, but also recognize that as early career researchers we are in a position of vulnerability. We recognize that in order to persist in the academic space and have a voice to enact change we will be judged by our publication count. So, we churn out as many publications as we can. Outreach and extension, arguably crucial components of disseminating our research to the world outside the “ivory tower,” fall by the wayside.

To add to this misfortune created by this metric, the story behind each of these accepted publications remains untold. We store our experiences in a mental filing cabinet to be forgotten. This is problematic because like the absence of negative results in the peer-reviewed literature creating  a “positive bias,” and skewing what we know about the world, the absence of our untold stories creates a different positive bias of the graduate school and scientific research experience, leading others to repeat our mistakes and experience the same hardships.

Fortunately, these untold stories are now being given a space on platforms that have previously been absent. Twitter is one such space where scientists have turned to create a community that now allows us to connect, collaborate, and reveal our vulnerabilities and stories with each other. Podcasts provide another space and one in particular, Science Blender, follows Cornell University graduate students and looks into how each scientist’s research and life blend together (hence the name).

In telling these stories, we humanize the concept of what it means to be a scientist and create a community that supports instead of isolates. We expand the idea of what a scientist looks like and what a scientist does. Our own struggles and journey start important conversations that will hopefully create a better toolkit for those that come after us.

When we entered graduate school, many of us attended an orientation that introduced us to the research of our department and the logistics of the university. What we didn’t attend was an orientation that prepared us for imposter syndrome, mental health issues, managing a healthy work-life balance, how to structure an abundance of unstructured time, power-dynamics in mentor relationships, creating a proactive and not reactive trajectory, and learning that you won’t feel passion and drive every day and that’s okay. 

Why weren’t we prepared for many of the hurdles and darker times of graduate school? It may be because many of the senior scientists in our departments haven’t been trained or made aware that this should be on the priority list when bringing new graduate students into the fold. This doesn’t make sense, because the story of a young and promising scientist experiencing burn out appears to be all too common. If we want to foster the creation of successful scientists we need to instill in graduate students the skills needed to pursue not only a fulfilling career, but a fulfilling life.

If any of this resonates with you or your experiences, I highly encourage you to connect with your community at your university. Connect with your colleagues on Twitter, email, or in person and let’s continue to push the needle so that scientists are valued as the people behind the publications. 


Featured Image:“Graduate Student Study” by OIST (Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology) is licensed under CC BY 2.0 



“Measuring Your Impact: Impact Factor, Citation Analysis, and other Metrics: Citation Analysis”, UIC University Library, 2018

Grimes DR, Bauch CT, Ioannidis JPA. 2018 Modelling science trustworthiness under publish or perish pressure.R. Soc. open sci.5: 171511.

Mlinaric, Horvat, and Smolcic. 2017, Dealing with the positive publication bias: Why you should really publish your negative results. Biochem Med (Zagreb) 2017;27(3):030201

Côté and Darling, 2018. Scientists on Twitter: Preaching to the choir or singing from the rooftops? Facets,

Science Blender: A podcast that blends a person with their science. Cornell Engineering.

Holly, E. 2018, Burnout in academia. Psychopharmacology and substance abuse.

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