What is more important in academia (bioinformatics, computational biology) for a person when he/she has already completed their PhD:

  1. Number of first authorship articles he/she has
  2. Number of published articles (he/she may or may not be the first author)

I wanted to know what do post-doc positions value more, the quality (only first author journals/conferences) or quantity(more number of journals/conferences, with/without first authorship)

  • 10
    This could depend on the field. What field are you asking about? – David Z Aug 9 at 11:44
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    First authorship is not the same as quality. – JeffE Aug 9 at 13:01
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    Massively field-dependent. Physics authors are ordered alphabetically. – chrylis Aug 9 at 16:51
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    @chrylis "Physics authors are ordered alphabetically." -- Not true in this generality. – Norbert Aug 9 at 17:05
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    GEdgar: Depends - sometimes the second author of a fifty author paper is one of the key implementers, and the second author of a two author paper is a supervisor who didn't have time to read the paper :) Also, sometimes the fifty author paper has fifty authors because it's a major study, in which case being the second author out of fifty counts for something. Basically, you need to know what the person actually did on the paper - you can't tell much just from the author list. – Stuart Golodetz Aug 10 at 9:37
up vote 59 down vote accepted

As an experienced researcher, I think that this choice is a false dichotomy.

What I look for in a researcher's record is their ability to do meaningful and impactful work, and the strongest researchers in most fields I know of typically have a record that shows a mixture of first-author and Nth-author papers:

  • If you're capable of innovating and of doing the core work of a project, that should produce some first-author papers.
  • If your work is impactful and useful to others, that will result in collaborations, many of which will not have you as first author.

Complementarily, I would consider it a red flag to see either very few first-author papers (often indicating poor core research capabilities) or nearly all first-author papers (often indicating poor ability to work with others).

The further along a researcher is in their career, the more that I would typically expect the balance to shift from first-author papers to non-first-author papers, both as there is more time to build collaborations and as they start to supervise more junior researchers (student or otherwise).

To answer your specific question about a postdoctoral application, then, I would typically expect to see at least a few strong first-author papers and also some non-first-author collaborations. At that stage of career, however, the number of significant papers is typically small enough that strong candidates can have all sorts of different mixtures. In the end, at least for a researcher like myself, my judgement regarding a postdoc is less about the number of publications than what's in the publications and what you did for them.

Note: the general expectations expressed here may not apply to certain fields with very different publication expectations, such as pure mathematical theory or experimental high-energy particle physics

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    +1 Even in math and related fields, where “first authors” don’t exist, the underlying desiderata are the same: my judgement regarding a postdoc is less about the number of publications than what's in the publications and what you did for them – JeffE Aug 9 at 13:00
  • "start to supervise more junior researchers" I would add that if a supervisor is frequently making themselves first author, I would be carefully scrutinizing their supervision to see if the junior researchers are being treated fairly. I expect to see the supervisor as last author for work within my field. – Anonymous Physicist Aug 11 at 9:25
  • @AnonymousPhysicist Absolutely, if there are student co-authors involved. I also know a good number of professors who never went "full manager" and continue to do work themselves that is not dependent on student or postdoc inputs. – jakebeal Aug 11 at 10:09

There is no answer that is uniform across academia.

In many fields, such as pure mathematics and much of computer science, paper authors are listed alphabetically and being first author is an accident of birth rather than anything else. Jacob Aagard would be first author on almost any pure maths paper he wrote; Admiral Elmo Zumwalt would be last.1

As I understand it, there are fields where most papers are single-author so, again, the question becomes meaningless.

1 I was once at a workshop in honour of Moshe Vardi. Jeff Ullman's talk included a slide about why he likes working with Vardi: 1. He's a nice guy; 2. He's super-smart; 3. His name comes after mine in the alphabet. Vardi stands up and says something along the lines of, "That's very kind. I work with Pierre Wolper for the same reasons."

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    +1 while this story is interesting, it can only demonstrate that great scientists have sense of humor. – qsp Aug 9 at 16:38
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    Zumwalt should have collaborated with Bill Zwicker. – Andreas Blass Aug 11 at 4:03

First, you are talking about at least three dimensions:

  1. Contribution: In most but not all disciplines, first authorship often denotes greater contribution. Other indicators include being one of a smaller list of authors (e.g., being second author on a two author-paper compared to a ten author paper).
  2. Quality: The quality of your papers; this can refer to the actual quality of the paper as judged by experts who read it; equally, some will judge quality based on the reputation of the journal or other indicators such as citations to the article.
  3. Quantity: Number of papers.

You could also contrast total career output versus recent average annual output. Total career output speaks somewhat to your overall reputation, whereas average annual output speaks to how productive you are both in general, and in recent years. This distinction is more important when people are comparing output of researchers with varying career lengths. In the case of comparing graduating PhD students for post doc positions, this distinction is often less relevant.

More generally, there is substantial variation in how contribution, quality, and quantity are weighted to evaluate you as a researcher.

In general, people evaluating you want to see lots (high quantity) of high (or at least good) quality papers with a decent number of first authorships, and see that this productivity has been sustained in recent years.

Of course, the amount of your time required to generate a given output is broadly related to the value assigned to it by people evaluating your research. On average, higher quality papers where you are the lead author take more time to write than lower quality papers where you are playing a support role.

Given the huge variation across disciplines, countries, universities, academics, it's difficult to give general advice. But here are some general comments.

  • Try to get a few good first-author papers. But also get involved with other people's papers. This shows that you can collaborate. And in the cases where "number of papers" matters, playing a support role can speed up the process.
  • Ask around to get a sense of the relative importance of journal rankings / impact factors / journal reputation in your area.

Since you asked about bioinformatics and computational biology, which is my field, let me add my two cents...

When I am hiring a postdoc, what I want is going to depend on the project, but it will be some combination of:

  • Ability to guide your own research
  • Technical competence
  • Ability of work with others.

A high quality first author paper generally demonstrates the first two of these. If it is obviously multidisciplinary paper, it might well demonstrate the third as well.

In the UK (where PhDs have limited time) and particularly in bioinformatics (where collaborative politics often lead to the computation element of projects being under valued), it is not unusual for perfectly good scientists to finish their PhD without a first author paper.

In an interview I would generally ask a candidate what their precise role was in the publications they are middle author on to see what skills these publications demonstrated.

In a collaborative role it may be better to have many (good) mid-author papers than one first author, although you'd need to explain to me how your role was key for the papers in question and your didn't just do a quick DESeq for supplementary figure 10.

I'm sure the answer will depend strongly on your academic field. I will try to make it as general as possible:

As a postdoc, your role might be switching from working as team member to leading a smaller team. Therefore you'll have to demonstrate that you can hold a team together and work on a broader range of topics. This can be demonstrated by senior authorships. The more significant senior authorships, the more active is your team (please don't aim at numbers for the sake of numbers - high quality is more appreciated!) and you are demonstrating, that you can quide others to do high quality research.

Still, there is a need to show that you are doing your own research and are not just on the administrative side. This is shown by first authorships. Depending on your group size, it might be difficult to find the time to write those.

Other positions in the list of authors are less valuable and they are more or less showing how large your network is. If you have to decide between three second-author papers and one first-author, I would choose the first author paper.

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