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Works Well With Others


In two years or so, Narayanan Perumal will go up for tenure. An assistant professor at the University of Indiana/Purdue University School of Informatics, Perumal researches gene regulation and immune system development and collaborates with researchers at the medical school. Though the informatics school values working with others — really, it's the only way to be a successful bioinformaticist — Perumal still has some concerns about how the tenure review committee will assess his work.

"Informatics is a bridge between computer science and biology or computer science and healthcare," says Perumal, who has spoken to his associate dean to figure out how to make sure his contributions to the projects are recognized. "Our tenure committee has been telling us to clearly [say] what exactly is my part and what exactly was done from my collaborators' side, so they know how much credit to give me," he says.

When junior faculty members go up for tenure around their sixth year at a university, they are judged on their scholarship, the grant money they brought in, and community service and teaching. For scientists in large-scale biology who spend a lot of time collaborating or working in a consortium on a big project, it becomes difficult for review committees to parse out their individual scholarship and fundraising abilities. As one person in a large group, a particular researcher's name may not appear in that coveted first or last author position on the paper and may not be listed as a PI or co-PI on the grant. The culture of much of academia, and tenure review committees in particular, is tied to looking at a faculty member's independent work; so if researchers rarely or never work alone, they may miss out on getting tenure.

There's the rub. Groups and consortiums get the big questions in biology answered, but tenure committees don't evaluate groups — they evaluate individuals.

"In genomics … you do have to get out there and collaborate with people. It's really the only way to get it done. The datasets needed and the skill sets needed are too broad now. One person can't sit down and do it all themselves," says John McPherson, a platform leader at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research. Pointing to the Human Genome Project, he adds, "Consortiums work. Consortiums get things done."

The funding is there, too, for team science. In the US, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are giving money to collaborative groups. NIH's Roadmap Initiative includes support for collaborative team research projects and, according to a National Academies Press report on interdisciplinary research, there has been a steady upward trend in the number of PIs on grants awarded by NSF. "They are pouring millions and millions of dollars into interdisciplinary science," says Cathy Trower, a research associate who studies young faculty and tenure issues at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education.

The funding agencies have changed to accommodate teams of scientists working on one problem, but the tenure system has yet to catch up, clinging to a review system that may be outdated.

"We're training students that team science is the way to do it. It seems archaic to then attempt to judge them by a system that doesn't acknowledge that," says Hunt Willard, director of Duke University's Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy.
In fact, some junior faculty members are dissuaded from collaborating right from the get-go. "We tell young scholars, 'Wait until you have tenure to solve very cool problems,'" Trower says.

Gerry Rubin, the director of Janelia Farm, says this is a systemic problem. "They are told that at the best research universities explicitly by deans, by department chairs, by senior colleagues. But then [universities] want to have collaboration. They are not being internally self-consistent, in my view," he says.

By the time junior faculty receive tenure, they may no longer be interested in teamwork. "My concern is what happens [after] six years or seven years or eight years in some cases on a tenure track, which becomes a tenure rut. It gets beaten out of them and they become entrenched. … By the time they get [tenure], they go, 'Hmm, I don't remember what got me so excited,'" Trower says.

How many authors?

Collaboration is relatively new to the biomedical sciences, and the culture of academia hasn't changed to keep up. Other academic areas, such as physics, have long been involved in large collaborative efforts, and junior faculty in those disciplines still receive tenure, says Mary Lidstrom, vice provost of research at the University of Washington. She says the difference is that in those disciplines, the academic culture places value on teamwork.

Unlike physics departments, many biology and related departments have yet to internalize their value of collaboration, sticking with tenure review metrics and criteria that focus on independent scholarship. At many places, if a junior faculty member is not the first or senior author on a paper, it counts less or not at all toward his or her publication record. Here, the problem isn't with tenure, says Lidstrom, but with the values of the promotion and tenure committee.

"Universities are extremely conservative and are self-defeating," says Rubin, whose own institution doesn't offer tenure. Universities want to promote collaborative science, he adds, but when those scientists are reviewed for tenure, universities say they cannot tell which researcher did what and who should be promoted. Rubin says he can envision review committees questioning whether to give James Watson tenure since he worked with Francis Crick on the double helix. "Maybe the double helix was just really Francis Crick's idea?" he says he would expect a tenure committee to ask.

Changing a university's tenure policy won't necessarily translate to a change in how people on the review committee think. "We tend to focus on structure because we tend to think that maybe changing structure, having policies that support the structure or support different types of work, will help. I say they help, but they don't fix it. They don't fix the culture," Trower says.

To the faculty undergoing review, the issue boils down to credit, says Perumal. If you are one of many authors on paper, you might not get recognition for the role you played in that project from your home academic department. This is especially worrying to junior faculty who are trying to amass publications and grants for their tenure dossiers, because they have learned that their names must appear first or last on the list of authors or as the PI on the grants. Otherwise, the review committee will likely dismiss that paper or grant out of hand since no one can tell who contributed what to the research.

"There are two positions that matter, no matter the size of the author list, and that's the first author and the last author," says Elaine Mardis, co-director of the Genome Sequencing Center at Washington University. Those large author lists, she says, are one of the difficulties with doing big science.

There are now numbers to back up those concerns. Jonathan Wren, an assistant member at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, and his collaborators surveyed promotion and tenure committee members at medical schools in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Canada about how they perceived an author's contribution to a paper based on where the name appeared on the author list. On papers with three or five authors, the respondents gave the first author the most credit for performing the work and the last author credit for conceiving of and supervising the project. Half of the people who responded also thought that the more authors on the paper, the harder it is to tell if "a candidate merits promotion."

"It's a cautionary tale to people who think of co-authorship as being an equal contribution because, by our survey, it is widely recognized by people on promotion and tenure committees that positions are not equal," Wren says.

The same problem seems to apply to grants. Junior faculty members must show review committees that they can support themselves through the grants they receive. "In my case, I was awarded tenure not because I collaborate with people, but because I brought in one NIH R01. That was at the time the biggest R01 that the school had. They had to be nice to me," says George Plopper, an associate professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Other researchers, like Indiana's Perumal, will share their grants with collaborators, again bringing up the question of credit.

Mardis points to getting recognition for writing sections of grants as the biggest concern she had about getting tenure. She was often a co-PI or responsible for a concept or vision of the technology portion of a grant, but she was not the main PI. Even though she played a key role, there was little recognition. "To me that was the most daunting challenge," she says. (Mardis did indeed receive tenure when the time came.)

Tenure reform

There are no shortages of ideas about how the tenure review system could be altered. First of all, the review metrics could be changed to support collaboration or innovation, perhaps by a simple addition to the review criteria. How review occurs — currently, with stacks of papers — could be replaced by, or at least include, an interview with the candidate to allow that person to present his case and answer the committee's questions. Another possibility: review committees could give more importance to letters of support from the candidate's collaborators. More drastically, the whole system could be replaced with a rolling tenure or contract system.

The tenure review process, contends Antoine Danchin, the director of the genomes and genetics department at the Pasteur Institute, is not set up to reward creativity or innovation, particularly if reviewers look mainly at past journal articles. "Creativity is very important. This can be measured, but not … by the bibliometrics approach," says Danchin.
Ontario's McPherson agrees. "I think it's more of an attitude adjustment. People have to do a little bit more work on the committees to read the letters and look at the papers and the contribution to tease it out more. You can't just count up the number of papers as first and last author; you actually have to think about what the papers are. Some people aren't willing to do that," he says.

Danchin suggests that site visits by outside experts could replace much of the paper-based review. At Janelia Farm, the review process — which is not for tenure but to secure a new contract — will be based in part on site visits. Experts will come in, meet the scientist under review, and discuss the science and thought processes behind the experiments to understand what that researcher did and why.

Another avenue for change could be the metrics the review committee uses to judge tenure candidates. Rubin predicts that after adding a collaboration criterion to the review process, "team science would blossom tremendously."

That's what Lidstrom's University of Washington engineering center did. "The dean's office worked with our appointments and promotions committee to specifically add a criterion that valued this collaborative work," Lidstrom says. Assistant professors came through, she says, collaborated and did individual work, and came away with tenure. Lidstrom points out, though, that no one had only collaborative work, so the system has yet to be put to the real test.

Even if no changes are made to overhaul the process, junior faculty can still use letters of support to help review committees understand that a middle author's contribution can be critical to the success of an experiment or grant. "Some people who don't work in that environment feel that there's no way to determine your contribution. I think letters of support are important," McPherson says. He adds that if they come from more senior members of the consortium — people like Eric Lander or Bob Waterston — those letters should be weighted very heavily.

Mardis gives an example of what such a letter could say. "You might have someone like Francis Collins, or someone who's chief in charge of the genome centers, providing you a letter of support saying, 'I realize that Elaine was one of 58 authors on the human genome paper, but her seminal work in high-throughput production of sequencing made it possible for us to generate the multitude of data.'"

That's just the policy that Duke University's Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy has in place for its junior faculty. In setting up the institute about five years ago, Hunt Willard negotiated with the dean and provost of Duke to ensure that teamwork and collaboration are expressly valued during the review process. On these tenure committees, people from other interdisciplinary centers serve to provide a positive view of collaborative efforts to the committee, and the person up for tenure provides letters of support from people like Willard explaining how essential their role was in the collaborative projects. "In genomics, we have a fairly young crowd of people and they grew up working together. To them, that's the style of doing science," Willard says.

However, no one has tried out the Duke system yet — the first crop of junior faculty at the institute will come up for tenure in a year or two. "In principle, it will count here, but we have to see how that goes," Willard says. "I've got my reputation on the line."

A worthwhile system?

As people go into contortions trying to make the review system work for these scientists, it begs the question: is tenure worth fixing?

The arguments in favor of tenure are well known but worth considering. The professional security afforded by tenure protects faculty members from lean funding budgets and allows them to take intellectual risks. "I think [tenure] does give you a sense of security, to stick your neck out and not just write grants that you think will get funded," McPherson says. "If you've got your back covered a little bit, and you don't get that grant, at least you've still got a job."

Rensselaer's Plopper also says that professors are not as mobile as other professionals, and the stability that tenure provides helps make up for that lack of mobility. "I feel that [if] people spend enough energy and they make enough sacrifices in their careers to pursue an academic career, that there should be something that gives it a corresponding amount of both financial as well as professional security," says Plopper.

At the same time, tenure is a vote of confidence in a faculty member's work and capabilities. "You ask yourself all the time, how am I doing relative to my peers?" Plopper says.

WashU's Mardis adds, "To me, it was a very important milestone and it's certainly gratifying to have that acknowledgment from the faculty."

Tenure does, naturally, have its downside, namely the "deadwood" effect — those tenured professors who hang around but contribute little to the university. To avoid that, a common suggestion is to institute a rolling tenure or contract system in which researchers would have to maintain certain standards to keep their position. "I think that in order to be employed by any institution, doing anything, you have to be productive," Plopper adds.

"I'm a bigger fan of the rolling window where it protects you from lean times or allows you to stick your neck out but also it doesn't lock them into supporting you forever," says McPherson.

In essence, that's what the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Farm has in place. When Gerry Rubin set up Janelia Farm, he made a conscious decision to abolish tenure. He argues that there is an inverse correlation between tenure and the productivity of an institution. Sure, tenure's great at an individual level, he says, but not at the institutional level. Rubin points to Bell Laboratories, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology as evidence. These institution either had no or limited tenure during their heydays — when they did their most innovative, cutting-edge research.

When Janelia Farm hires a researcher, whether it's someone fresh out of a postdoc or someone coming out of an endowed chair, it is for a six-year contract. At the end of six years, the scientist undergoes a review — but not, Rubin stresses, just based on publications. If someone does not do well on that review, Janelia Farm provides two years of phase-out funding while the person finds a new position. If it does go well, then the researcher can stay with a five-year renewal, after which there will be another review. The first review at Janelia Farm will take place in about four years.

Not having tenure hasn't been a problem in terms of recruiting for Janelia Farm, Rubin says. "There's a good correlation between the people who are willing to do the research we want to do and people who have the attitude, 'I know I'm good. Just give me the resources I need, I think I can prove myself. … Tenure's not relevant. I'll always be able to find another job,'" he says.

Having tenure at cross purposes with collaborative science could turn scientists away from academia, Rubin adds. "[The problem with the academic] system is it tends to drive people who like more a teamwork approach and a collaborative approach from academics into industry or other modes of doing it. Because it's a turnoff for them."

He says the choice for institutions is a simple one. "You decide you don't want team science, or you change the review system."


The Rise of the Multi-Author Paper

In the 1950s, when Francis Crick and James Watson published their Nature paper on the structure of DNA, the average number of authors on biomedical papers was low — it held at 2.3 authors per paper between 1934 and 1963. Since then, there has been a rise in how many authors are on a paper. Today, papers in Nature or Science can have upwards of 100 authors. The Human Genome Project Consortium, perhaps the most famous example of megascale science, had 1,100 members.

"The number of authors per paper has been rising pretty much steadily since 1970 and it's not a phenomenon that's going away," says Jonathan Wren, an assistant member at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. Two main factors drive that rise, he says: pressure to publish and the increasingly specialized skills needed to complete big projects quickly. With more authors appearing on journal articles, some journals are providing ways for joint first or senior authors to be recognized for the work they did.

Along with his collaborators, Wren studied how an increase in number of authors has affected how people perceive each author's contribution to the project. "The fact that the first and last authors get most of the credit … that wasn't surprising," Wren says. "These two anchor positions seem to get the lion's share of glory, and the people in the middle are really perceived to contribute very little — comparatively little to everybody else."

Journals have been adopting ways for authors to indicate who should get how much credit. In 1999, Nature added a feature to its articles allowing authors to list their contribution to the project in the acknowledgments section. Science soon followed suit. The journals also allow people to share the different spots on a paper's author list. Both Nature and Science put an asterisk next to the authors' names and the footnote reads: "These authors contributed equally to this work."

"Science and Nature have done this for a very long time, but more and more journals are moving to this," says Mary Lidstrom, vice provost for research at the University of Washington. The Public Library of Science journals also include author contributions in their articles, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences requires authors to list their contributions.


What's a Junior Faculty Member to Do?

If you're aiming to become a professor but your interests in biology mean that you'll be spending a lot of time collaborating, there are a few things to keep in mind as you fight your way up the academic ladder to land tenure.

First, says Gerry Rubin, director of Janelia Farm, when you're looking for a job, ask if the institution supports collaborative research. Some places are more encouraging of this than others, though he suspects that may change for the better over time.

Cathy Trower, who studies tenure at Harvard University, urges job candidates to get everything in writing, especially if you are looking at a joint appointment between two departments. "Ensure through a memorandum of understanding [your] responsibilities and expectations for both departments are spelled out as clearly as possible so that [you] understand who [your] boss is in both departments," she says. She adds that besides the memo, you should sit down with both department heads to go over all the expectations and chart out a path to tenure — before you agree to sign anything.

Once you join a department, find a good mentor, says the University of Washington's Mary Lidstrom. Mentors can help, especially if you run into difficulties with collaborators who are more senior than you. "If you get into a bad situation, you need help to get out of it," she says. "Getting advice from more senior people is the way to go."

As for your work, pursue what interests you, though you may want to have a balance of collaborative and independent work. "Everyone should be driven by their intellectual questions that excite them, regardless of what it means in terms of team research," Lidstrom says. "It's often a very good thing to have a mix with collaborative research and a more focused [project]."

Finally, work hard, says Elaine Mardis at Washington University's genome center. "Don't be afraid if you think you have a good idea. Get out there and promote them and find ways to turn your ideas into reality," she says. "Work hard and don't be afraid to speak up."

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