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Middle author, but not first author projects. How would you approach this?
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13 months ago

Hello,

It would be very helpful for me if I could receive some feedback about the issue summarised in the title. After several years as a postdoc (mostly) in mathematical biology, I joined, as a staff scientist / postdoc, a wet lab in which I am the single bioinformatician (I read somewhere this role called: pet bioinformatician :) ). I am currently involved in the analysis of transcriptomic datasets, generated by my colleagues, which will lead to middle author publications; however, it doesn’t seem that time allocated for a first author project is in the list of priorities :) I was wondering if this is a common problem and how people approach it. Do you need to negotiate a percentage of time to dedicate to a first author project? What would you consider an appropriate balance between computational support to other people's projects and (first author) research?

Thank you all,

Pet Bioinformatician :)

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This is a common drawback of being bioinformatician, there is a nice comment in Nature which addresses this problem. I have the same problem. I am working for 5 years now as 'staff scientist', I support all the bioinformatics in our research department, but I am being paid as starting post-doc because the function 'staff scientist' doesn't exist at my institute. I have had many arguments with my boss about that it is not fair how I get evaluated (as post-doc, so no first or last author papers, and no grants means no career development). I am at the point to search for a job outside of bioinformatics.

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Everyone doing data analysis for a lab in a postdoc job position should immediately consider exploring alternative employment. It is illegal from the employers perspective to label jobs as "postdoc" (the rationale they give you for classifying you as "postdoc" is bullshit). Even though it is illegal, the practice is rampant because of the exploitation that it allows.

A postdoc takes a serious pay cut, reduced retirement benefits, diminished career advancement prospects etc. all for the promise that in return they will be trained to become an independent and well-rounded scientist. Working on someone else's data is not an independent work. I do understand that everyone's circumstances are different, do it for a year or two if you must, but keep actively exploring alternatives.

We live in an era where computational data analysis is among the most sought after career choices. As a bioinformatician, you already analyze the most complex datasets known to mankind. Vote with your feet. Go out there and start applying to jobs in bioinformatics, there are plenty of options and explore other related fields as well. Eventually, all roads end up in life sciences :-)

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It is illegal from the employers perspective to label jobs as "postdoc"

Unethical yes, illegal no

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it is illegal in the sense that it runs afoul with the terms and conditions that most funding agencies require to classify and pay someone as a postdoc.

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It would be helpful if you could add information on whether your legal advice holds for the US only, or if it is valid worldwide.

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Thanks, Istvan Albert. I'll definitely consider other alternatives.

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Very interesting link b.nota, thanks. I am sorry to know that you might leave this research area.

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I've converted this to a "forum" post.

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Unsure if you can generate a publon out of putting your lab's work in context with the existing plethora of SRA datas via evaluating multiple external data sets and such, but it may be a strategy to do papers that aren't directly correlated to I-harvested-the-cells-I-first-author?

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Thanks, it might help to increase my boss interest.

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Thanks so much to all of you! Your comments were incredibly helpful!! :)

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11 months ago
Freiburg, Germany

This is quite common, particularly if you have "staff scientist" in your job description. If you have an actual post-doc position then you absolutely need to negotiate time for your own project, as otherwise you're not actually a post-doc but a staff scientist (if that's your job title then you have little to complain about here). Some of our post-docs have negotiated that on certain days they will do service for their groups but on all other days they have no obligations to the rest of the lab. This should ideally be defined before joining a lab and PIs should be quite explicit about whether positions are post-doc, service, or a mixture.

As an aside, while I understand the desire by PIs to have their post-docs do service for the lab, this shouldn't be more than maybe 20% of their time. If they're spending more time doing service then they're (A) not post-docs and (B) should get paid significantly more.

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Thank you very much Devon for the very helpful reply. My current position is as a staff scientist, but it will be converted into a postdoc because of a change of affiliation of my line manager. From your comment, I might need to clarify if there will be a change in duties as well.

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Yes, definitely check this. Also clarify if this affects the duration of your contract, since post-docs are typically relatively short-term and have their durations limited by funding sources in some countries.

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but it will be converted into a postdoc because of a change of affiliation of my line manager.

That would be unfortunate. It would not look good on your resume either. Are you constrained (non-scientific reasons perhaps) as far as looking for alternate employment? It may be time to find something else.

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...to follow from this train of thought, are you sure that you want to go back to being a postdoc? The need for bioinformaticians in private industry is always increasing. Salaries are higher, too, and there is less requirement to publish. Perhaps you have other constraints that are keeping you anchored to your current location.

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The question is whether this is purely a title change for internal reasons or whether it's actually a change in the nature of the position.

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Thank you very much to all of you. I have some constraints on the location and I would like to publish some papers I am working on (although not as first author). There will be certainly a change in the duration of the contract (from open ended to fixed term). I don’t know yet what the salary will be. I will definitely consider looking for another position as well.

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My current position is as a staff scientist, but it will be converted into a postdoc There will be certainly a change in the duration of the contract (from open ended to fixed term)

This is a significant change of contract. You may not have to accept it. Depending on your country, there may be laws that protect your job against this kind of abuse. If available, you should talk to a union representative. I would also suggest finding another job. Leaving your current position shouldn't prevent you from being on papers you've contributed to (at least if your collaborators behave ethically).

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This. It's a huge change in contractual terms. Had it been suggested to me I would have flat out refused it. If insisted upon I would start applying to other positions.

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15 months ago
A. Domingues ♦ 2.1k
Mainz, Germany

Fellow "pet bioinformatician" here. I am also an a Postdoc but that is just the title of the position. In practice, and it was the agreement from the beginning, I am more of a staff bioinformatician which handles all of the (NGS/genomics) data analysis needs of the lab. I could have started my own independent project on the side, but something that was interesting enough never occurred to me, and the projects of my colleagues fulfilled my research interests / curiosity.

Regarding the authorship. I have now a couple of shared 1st author publications with possibly a couple more coming up (and some middle author publications as well). Whilst none of these are "my" projects, it is very clear from the beginning of each project which ones will be heavily relying on my analysis / input and therefore in which I will be (shared) first author. In some I also share the experimental design with my wet lab colleges (my background is also wet lab which helps a lot).

This arrangement works for me because (i) I already had the plan of going career route of staff bioinformatician in which first authorship is not that important; and (ii) my group leader and colleagues are very straightforward and authorship of papers were never an issue. If you want to go the "professor" route, than talk asap with your group leader and start thinking about a project yourself. Or just start working on something that is "yours" and show your supervisor some promising results. In this path you will have to demonstrate leadership and own your projects - don't expect that someone will come up with ideas for your to work on.

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Thank you very much, A. Domingues. My background is in mathematics and, compared to my colleagues, I have a limited understanding of the biology. I was considering a staff scientist career, but I wouldn’t like to do it with postdoctoral contracts. I think that setting up an independent computational project and negotiate some time to dedicate to it would be probably more feasible and cause less tension or competition with my colleagues.

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I think A. Domingues makes a fantastic point about shared first authorships. Obviously it depends on the amount of computational work for a project, but it's something worth discussing. My PhD lab frequently published papers with co-first authors, often one wet lab and one dry lab scientist, so that is definitely a potential path forward if you are concerned about your publication record, and you feel that you are doing ~50% of the work on a project.

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Hi, shawn.w.foley. I am afraid this wouldn’t work with my boss. He doesn’t want to collaborate with PIs with a computational background to avoid this type of negotiations. That’s why he hired a bioinformatician in the first place. Thanks :)

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You definitely know your boss best, but I would say there's a difference between co-corresponding authors (a reason your boss would want to avoid collaborations) in which the senior author would get less credit, versus co-first authors from the same lab, in which the senior author would still be the sole corresponding author. The fact that you work in that lab may make him/her more amenable to co-first authorships (even if they are opposed to co-corresponding authorships).

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I didn't consider this point; it might be another possibility, thanks.

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This will only work if your contribution is truly essential for the study. Think of it this way. Would someone else have been able to do the analysis or was it a concept/analysis/hypothesis that you came up that is making the story complete. If it is former then you are rightfully included on the paper but can't expect to be co-first author.

BTW: Are you in academia or industry? Is your lab moving from one institution to another (with a different set of rules)?

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Thanks for the clarification. I am working for a genomic institute funded by a biomedical research charity. My line manager had a double affiliation, one at this institute and one at a university. My new job will be at a university where, as far as I know, staff scientist positions are not available.

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a university where, as far as I know, staff scientist positions are not available

While it might be true that the position "staff scientists" with that exact name does not exist, it is very unlikely that the institute would not have other, equivalent position such as "computational scientist", "computer scientist", "research scientist", "bioinformatician" etc.

Ask the administration directly or look up current and past job descriptions at your institute.

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I'll check with the careers service what similar positions might be and how the balance between computational support and (first author) research would be affected.

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If you are working for someone who doesn't appreciate computational contributions, my suggestion would be to find a new boss.

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I second this. Our lab values computational work so that works for me, but I am sure not all groups do. This needs to be seriously discussed. There are more jobs out there.

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yep, I can definitively recommend you the move to industry. Note that I won't say all is better, there's the same and different struggles. Department heads have their own agenda and you have to be able to position your work and yourself internally, too. One major difference is a common interest (profane profitability) and leaders usually know that the team is stronger than individuals. The drawback is data analysis is typically tailored towards identification of markers associated with increased production or reduced risk.

With a mathematical background, you might have more options than you think.

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Thanks, I have never worked in industry, but I am definitely considering to look for a job in a company.

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I was considering a staff scientist career, but I wouldn’t like to do it with postdoctoral contracts.

And rightly so. Since your background is mathematics, you might need to be on a postdoctoral contract for a period of time to show that you can hack it in a biology setting (communication can be an issue), but at some point you should try and move to a proper staff position. That said, first authorship papers, whilst nice to have, are not essential for this type of position, at least not in my experience. Maybe someone with experience as a hiring manager can clarify.

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Thanks, I'll ask for information about this.

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Your comment is helpful. I think I'm still at the denial stage where I think have a chance in academia, but have yet to put together a post-doc project that is fully outside the shadow of the lab I'm in...

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12 months ago
Buffo ♦ 1.6k

I think it would depend on your analysis/contribution, I mean, if a colleague asks me for differential expression analysis it would be summarized as a simple table of log2fold and p-adjusted values or a volcano plot, however, if I demonstrate he can get more information from his samples such as; search for new isoforms, variant calling, gene ontology, mirnas (precursors), pirnas (precursors) etc. etc. probably he can recognize that I am contributing to their projects more than a simple technician-analyst. Our work is to demonstrate we can get a lot of valuable information from NGS.

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Deeper analysis can definitely generate more useful insights; but is it enough for co-first or independent first author stuff in a wet lab? I would hope so, but unsure what the consensus is across STEM (or if there is one)

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Thank you very much, Buffo. I’ll try and follow this path as well.

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13 months ago
Philadelphia, PA

I would suggest writing a sole author paper or review on your own time.

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Is it politically correct to write a sole author paper while in someone else's lab?

In this particular case, the author is relatively new to bioinformatics. It sounds like he does not have any publications (even middle author). How do you get a review in that position?

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It's perfectly acceptable for people to write papers on their own time and submit them as sole works - that's what they are. Submitting a review is easy, you write it and click the submit button.

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Be very careful going this route. Working on things related to your field, even if "on your own time" is often not advisable politically, even if technically allowed.

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At this point what would they do to retailiate? Not give any first authorships? Sometimes when no one gives it to you, you’ve got to take it.

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Bosses can make your life hell in plenty of other ways...

I know a person who did this without including or notifying the head of their lab and got dressed down pretty good for it, since the review covered things he learned/worked on while in lab. There's a whole separate discussion to be had about when senior authorship is actually warranted, but still, it's generally a good idea to be open about it when possible.

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Don't you have to be invited for a review? Or are we talking about different reviews?

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I got this unsolicited review accepted at BMC Genomics relatively recently, and it is now picking up citations: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30086710

It was pieced together from notes that I had written since my PhD (finished 2012). I invited collaborators with whom I had worked and most agreed to take part and contribute small sections.

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Not necessarily. Some journals may entertain unsolicited review proposals ( example).

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It helps to mention someone you know on the editorial board but it's not necessary for a middle-tier journal.

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Thanks, Jeremy. That’s always an option :)

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13 months ago
Dawe • 270
Milan

Read the Vancouver protocol for authorship in biomedical science and check if your institute has a Research Integrity Office and signed the DORA agreement. That said, speak your mind to the PI; roughly speaking the order depends on the number of figures in the main paper.

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Thanks for this suggestion, I'll check with the careers service.

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