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EDIT: Original title was "Guarantee" Nature publication for PhD?


I am currently applying as a PhD student in a group at the intersection of experimental physics and engineering in a rather interdisciplinary research environment in Germany. The group only exists for about 2 years now. The group leader told me that he would expect every PhD student to be author of at least one Nature spin-off paper at the end of their PhD (Nature Physics, Nature Electronics, Nature Photonics, ...) and not "only" journals like Physics Review Letters (in my eyes publishing in the PRL family is already quite the accomplishment?). He said they would choose their research topics in such a way that these expectations would be realistic.

Are such expectations realistic? Can one "force" publications in such high-impact journals just by deliberately choosing the right topics? I have no experience with publishing my research in journals and thus do not really know what to think about this.

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    Even if one could do it, choosing a research topic just to get published in a particular journal sounds like a terrible way to live. Feb 25, 2023 at 16:05
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    How long did it take for the PI to pass (not define) this threshold set? As in: after how many years into his/her PhD there were papers with his/her authorship in these journals, and how substantial was his contribution? And why these journals, what in their scope/audience is so much more attractive than other journals more specific to his/her direction(s) of research?
    – Buttonwood
    Feb 25, 2023 at 21:48
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    Probably worth noting that PRL is more highly-regarded in physics than Nature Physics, Photonics etc are (or at least that's the impression I have from experimental atomic physics).
    – llama
    Feb 26, 2023 at 4:51
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    There is a very large difference between a Nature publication and a publication in a journal with a name starting with Nature. Those are separate journals that of course profit from the Nature brand, but which you need to judge each on their own merit. Feb 26, 2023 at 12:57
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    By "expect" do they mean "come to our group, we are good and will help you to have a paper there" (→ an ad for aspiring PhD students) or "if you do not have a paper there, your life will be miserable and you will get fired from the program" (→ they are, rightly or not, setting expectations)?
    – WoJ
    Feb 27, 2023 at 11:34

7 Answers 7

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It’s not possible to strictly guarantee publications anywhere but in some groups it is highly probable that you can get a publication in a prestigious journal. If you work in a group that publishes quite a bit in journal A, the odds are you will get publication in this journal.

The Nature family of journals is notoriously clannish: the probability of publishing there is not necessarily related to the quality of the work but strongly correlates to provenance, and your history of publication in Nature journals. Provenance also beyond the institution to personal or professional connections with the editors etc. (Some would argue that publication history in Nature journals is a proxy for quality but in my experience this is far from uniformly true.) For the main journals, papers have a certain style because Nature is primarily interested in high drama work which sell copies, rather than high quality work that advances a specific field.

For secondary journals (and at least one in physics - can’t remember which one), you can actually publish results as long as they are correct (rather than novel) and as long as someone pays the publication charges, coat-tailing on the more prestigious journals. These correct papers are still highly visible and do collect large number of citations, and but can be of quite modest quality.

For better or worse, publishing in Nature (or other very prestigious) journals has become something of a status symbol, kinda like being member of an exclusive club or having tier status on an airline. However, not all elite fliers are equal (or access the same lounges), just like not all Nature journals are equal.

Thus, while you cannot get a true guarantee, you can expect to publish in a Nature journal with very high probability. The question is: which one?


Comment: please note the original title of the question was:

"Guarantee" Nature publication for PhD?

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    @Anyon it could be: I’d have to check. If you are right and the reputation has gone down, I would not be surprised. While I recognize that publishing correct results with limited novelty is important (to confirm other experiments for instance), this journal has gone way too far IMO and has allowed stuff of very limited value. Yet people are still willing to pay to get their stuff in there so the journal must have something going for it. Feb 25, 2023 at 15:45
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    "as long as someone pays the publication charges" Many major journals in physics are still closed and free to publish. ArXiv largely eliminates the advantages of open access. Feb 25, 2023 at 16:29
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    @AnonymousPhysicist I’m not sure what you’re getting at: it is well known that Nature journals in particular frown upon authors posting preprints on arXiv so arXiv is of no help here. Additionally, researchers still read journals simply because the volume of arXiv postings is impossible to keep up with everything. The reality is that the number pay-to-publish open access journals is exploding: witness the new PhysRevs by APS, all open access with publication charges. If arXiv was all that was needed and there was no value in such open-access format, it would be dead by now. Feb 25, 2023 at 16:48
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    @CactusSouffle it’s a really good start. If the PI has a history as a postdoc or student of publication with Nature, then the odds are good although I would never guarantee such an outcome. Feb 25, 2023 at 20:27
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    @CactusSouffle Note that Nature Communications is in a tier below the journals you named in the question. A lot of papers are (desk) rejected from the journals you mentioned, and then end up being published in Nature Communications. Does the group leader include it in the category of Nature spin-off journals? I would say that significantly affects the likelihood of meeting their expectation.
    – Anyon
    Feb 25, 2023 at 21:05
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No, no one can guarantee that a particular research effort will result in publication in Nature or similar venues. However, someone with a lot of experience, working in an active area, can have a pretty good idea about publish-ability. Wide experience gives you a good idea about what a given journal is likely to publish.

However, when engaged in true research - a look into the unknown - there are no guarantees about what will be learned, or the time frame in which it will be learned. In some areas negative results are as valuable as positive ones, so there is less risk.

However, there is another tactic that might be at play. Some researchers are funded by outside agencies and they are very prolific. One way that this sometimes happens is as follows:

Suppose you have already done a significant piece of work but haven't yet published it. Apply for a grant to do that work, promising good results. If the grant reviewers don't know about the work, but judge it important, then you get funded. You then use that funding to do the next piece of work while you publish the results you obtained previously. This makes you successful in the eyes of the grant agencies. When you complete that new work with the funding for the old work you repeat the process. Applying again for a grant to do the work you've just completed and use any such funding for the next bit, having already completed the work for the hoped-for grant.

I don't think the above is a ubiquitous practice, but historically it has gone on.

In the current situation, you can believe the claims if that group already has a very good publishing record for significant results. They seem to know what they are doing and manage resources to aid the success of members, including students. Not a terrible situation, but less than a guarantee.

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    "I don't think the above is a ubiquitous practice" Hmm, are you sure that this kind of optimism is justified...? (But +1 of course for a very good answer, as usual.) Feb 25, 2023 at 14:32
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    @JochenGlueck, maybe I should have said "I hope that it isn't a ubiquitous practice." ;-) It is perfectly proper to work on several projects at once, of course, including when you are funded for only one of them.
    – Buffy
    Feb 25, 2023 at 14:45
  • "However, when engaged in true research - a look into the unknown - there are no guarantees about what will be learned" That is how it works in science, but engineering researchers often choose to improve a metric without consideration for what is learned. Feb 25, 2023 at 16:36
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    @AnonymousPhysicist, hmmm, what they "learn" is how to improve the metric and I doubt there are guarantees of success in a given timeframe. Or if it is just scut-work then it is hard to call it research.
    – Buffy
    Feb 25, 2023 at 16:48
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    @Tom I've been in this game 20 years, I have papers in journals of every level from Nature to journals that no one that hasn't published in them has heard of, and I still couldn't tell you with any level of confidence whether a given piece of work was going to get into a Nature family journal. Feb 26, 2023 at 15:48
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Your statement in the body of the text is slightly different from the question in the title and this difference is crucial. Of course there are no guarantees but a successful research group can have a high probability of success.

I would separate the process into two parts. First the group leader needs to find suitable problems and questions that if the solved would get a publication in a Nature journal and that their group is qualified to solve with the lab equipment they have. If the group leader is good they will manage that part.

Second the PhD student needs to successfully do the research. And here is the difference between title and body of the question. The group leader expects their PhD students to manage that and provides a lab and guidance that make this possible. Whether you actually manage still mostly depends on your own work. No honest group leader can give you anything like a guarantee for this part.

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  • That is true. I changed the title, I think it was misformulated when I tried to quickly come up with a suiting title for the question. Feb 26, 2023 at 17:08
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He said they would choose their research topics in such a way that these expectations would be realistic.

That will not work. In physics/engineering, the only way to obtain high probability of publication in an elitist journal is to have a very large budget. I would suggest $10 million per paper in Nature. (If you spend that much, you would incidentally get a lot of other nice things.)

Lots of papers in journals like Nature cost much less, but for an individual author, those are unlikely events.

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I would be extremely skeptical of these claims, in two separate but equally important ways:

First, I am skeptical that this can be arranged. I would not even entertain this as a reasonable possibility unless and except the professor in question has a long history of Nature (and spinoff) publications under both their own name and their former students' names. The former is easy to track down through Google Scholar; the second may take some digging to verify.

Second, I am skeptical of the true meaning of "expect". Does the group leader "expect" that this will happen in the sense of selling you on the idea to join the group, i.e., the expectation is theirs to fulfill? Or do they "expect" that this will happen as a soft requirement for you to achieve prior to the defense of your dissertation? The difference between the two is critically important for you in making your decision. As is making sure it does not change from the former to the latter during your candidacy.

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    I agree with this - It is incredibly important to figure out if the PI is saying "We're going to try as hard as possible to make sure your work is sufficiently interesting that you get a nature publication, and we'll make sure you have the resources to do it" Or "We expect you to get nature publications, and we'll do little to support you, but bully you until you get one or have a nervous breakdown" One of those is a good environment to be a part of, one of those is unfortunately common in academia.
    – lupe
    Feb 27, 2023 at 9:39
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Your descriptions raise a few red flags. First, a newly established group with a 2 years history probably can't really even promise you, that you will get any publication, let alone one in a Nature journal. Is your group leader by any chance just starting? This sounds very naive to me. They haven't worked long enough as a group to have an established work flow yet. So how do they even know if you will end up observing something worth reporting?

Second, even if you end up observing something, how do they know it will be something interesting enough for that particular journal?! Again, are you one of the first phds your supervisor is working with?! Please don't fall for such nonsense.

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Personally, I am familiar with some European groups where PIs are alumni (PhD, postdoc programs) of Northern American groups working on hot topics that got a bunch of Nature-family papers when they finished their programs. So, if the topic is hot, and there is some innovative experiments going on, a hard-working PhD can indeed expect authoring a paper in a Nature-family journal. In other words, this is quite a realistic scenario if the PI and the group have the decent background, appropriate equipment, and budget (an ongoing project that financially supports they studies).

I would even consider this not as a requirement but as an advertising from the PI, so they present working with their group as an enticing opportunity that will also contribute to the future PhD's career. A Nature-family publication during a PhD can surely help securing a postdoc position.

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