The publication paradox: why it isn’t always as simple as “just write it”

Something came to the surface today when I read a tweet insinuating that if I want to be an author on a paper, then I simply need to get off my arse and write one. If only it was that easy for everyone! I wanted to provide this perspective, not to complain but to provide an insight into why many EMCRs might be struggling with this – especially those who don’t work in academia. It’s really important that as a community we don’t stifle conversations about why we might be finding it difficult. We all experience things differently and everyone can benefit from a little understanding and support to get through the tough periods.

I’ve worked at CSIRO since January 2009. I spent six years in Brisbane and Sydney studying microbes in the rumen of livestock. During my time in Sydney I worked as the sole scientist on an industry funded project where I used metagenomic techniques to study methanogens, with the aim of identifying novel targets to reduce methane emissions from cattle. I acted as the principal investigator, laboratory technician, finance officer and report writer. I was responsible for everything from delivery of milestones to monitoring the budget. This proved to be incredibly stressful, especially towards the end of the project when I realised that the component of my work that was supposed to be the most interesting from a publication standpoint had not worked out in the way I had hoped. The industry partner was pleased with the outcomes and I received high praise for a job well done, which should have been enough. But the fact that I haven’t yet been able to convert my three years of effort into that coveted journal article continues to weigh heavily on my mind. I worry that by measuring performance based only on publications that we are skewing our perception of what’s really important – the ability to do good science and make an impact. The evidence that I can do this currently lies in my comprehensive project report. It’s publicaly available, peer-reviewed and has a DOI. Unfortunately this just isn’t good enough to demonstrate my capabilities and be competitive for career development awards – even those only available to CSIRO staff.

As my rumen methanogen project came to a close I was lucky enough to spend 5 months in the US as a Fulbright Scholar. I spent my time at the US Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute analysing genomes from type strains of Methanobrevibacter, the most common genus of rumen methanogens. When I accepted the scholarship, the project was meant to act as a stopgap until I got my next round of funding. Shortly afterwards Australia had a change in government and the focus shifted away from funding climate change research. It became clear that this was not an area I was going to be able to continue in, so I made the decision to relocate to Adelaide when I got back and started working in the field of human gut microbiology. I knew straight away that it was going to be difficult to write up my Fulbright research. The output isn’t relevant to my current research focus and provides little benefit to my new business unit. This is the reality of what it is like to work outside of academia – it is not always possible to make decisions that are in the best interests of your own career and to find time to focus on writing papers. I knew there was a group with interests in collaborating so I reached out and gave them the genome data and my preliminary analysis. While I’m still waiting to see if we can write a paper together, the information has been useful for one of their projects. It makes me feel better knowing that my effort may be translated into something more because I was able to see the bigger picture. For me, that’s what science should be about.

I’ve realised that I need to do something more to plug the publication hole. I knew that some of the data I’d generated would be very useful to a PhD student who had recently moved from CSIRO to UQ with my previous boss. She’s been able to incorporate it into a more impactful analysis and is in the process of writing the manuscript. I see this as a win for both of us, but it does mean I take a middle seat on the author list. It’s not reflective of the effort it took me to generate the data, but I’m happy that I’ve been able to contribute to something more substantial. I’ve also teamed up with one of my colleagues in Brisbane to rework the rest of the data from my rumen methanogen project. We had an abstract selected for a journal special issue and he has negotiated an extension so I can prioritise my current project work. He understands the difficulties I’m facing and I’m glad to have his support. It’s been very challenging for me to change research focus and concentrate on learning a new field while trying to find time to get those darn papers out! As someone with anxiety I need to be careful not to focus all of my energy on work and I try not to do too much outside of hours to give myself time to relax. I know from experience that the consequences of not doing this can be brutal. This is probably the main reason why the “just write it” comment has irked me so much. We shouldn’t have to be fighting with ourselves all the time, overworking and not exercising self-care in order to stay in the game. We also shouldn’t feel like we can’t be honest about the realities of what we’re facing.

So before judging someone else and the situation they find themselves in, take some time to consider that their reality may be very different to your own. It’s OK to admit when we’re struggling and it shouldn’t been seen as a sign of weakness. I’m not ashamed of where I’m at because things aren’t always easy for me. Some people really don’t understand this.



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