My 10-year battle with 10-page PDFs
I got my PhD from Stanford University without having published a single journal article. I am now tenured and ready to share-ish my experiences with the publish-or-perish culture that is academia.
In 2011 I published my first lead author journal publication. It happened more than a year after I received my PhD from Stanford, and most of the article was not even included in my PhD thesis. Ten years and tens of articles later, I still cannot believe that academia took a chance on me despite my dismal publishing start. Now that I am tenured at École Polytechnique in Montreal, and wrapping up my first academic sabbatical in Macedonia, I would like to share my experiences with the publish-or-perish culture that is academia.
I started my undergraduate degree at Stanford in 1997, but it wasn't until 2004 that I actually decided to do a PhD in magnetic resonance imaging. I don't think I became interested in MRI as much as I became interested in John Pauly. He had just started his faculty position at Stanford, and I was his teaching assistant. I became fascinated by the way John thinks. He doesn't say much, but what he does say tends to stick with you.
After I published my first MRI conference abstract in 2006 I went to John's office to ask him what to do next. I was pretty proud of our abstract on Single-sided Quadratic Phase Outer Volume Suppression Pulses for prostate spectroscopy, as it was well-received at the conference. So I asked John if we should write up a paper on the topic, and he told me to calculate the opportunity cost. That's when I realized that the opportunity cost of writing a 10-page PDF is delaying working on another research question. So I told John that I will not write the paper. After all, the entire paper was in the title of the abstract. Then I asked him what I should do next. He said 'I don't know'.
I spent the next year in a whirlwind of learning and teaching about MRI, but I didn’t have a clear idea of what to do next. The most frustrating part was reading 10-page PDFs written by other researchers. The articles were long, the language was dry, and the equations and figures were difficult to interpret. I could not believe that passionate researchers could write such dispassionate prose. I tried to emulate them, but I couldn't. The best I could bring myself to do was submit a number of one-page conference abstracts that never seemed worth the opportunity cost of writing a 10-page PDF about them.
It was then that my labmate Miki Lustig started writing his Magnetic Resonance in Medicine article on compressed sensing. He asked me to read multiple drafts of it, and I realized that Miki (who had also never published an article before) had thought about the whole package: the words, the equations, the figures and the code accompanying them. His passion showed in the countless rewords and reworking of figures, and in the fruitful discussions about the best way to explain the concept of compressed sensing. That paper deserved its length with its insight, its prose, and its didactic nature, and Miki was kind enough to acknowledge my contribution in a footnote. It is possible that this footnote will end up being my biggest contribution to science, as that paper spawned the field of compressed sensing MRI and became the most cited article in the history of the journal Magnetic Resonance in Medicine.
Encouraged by Miki's success, I decided that I wouldn’t write my first journal article until I was happy with it, however long it takes. I had no idea what that would mean for my graduation prospects, but my advisor John told me that I could take as long as I need. He also said that my PhD does not depend on publishing a set number of articles, but on convincing the jury that I could do independent research. That is when it dawned on me that I spent the previous years doing exactly what a PhD student should do, which is to explore freely and to propose a novel insight that has the potential to advance the field. Once I started thinking in those terms, I realized that my insight (using magnetization transfer and diffusion imaging to characterize tissue microstructure) should open academic doors regardless of my publication history.
Finally, with a PhD thesis in mind, I spent long days modeling cartilage and myelin, and long nights acquiring MRI data of knees and brains. I was fortunate to work with Katy Keenan and Garry Gold on musculoskeletal imaging and with Bob Dougherty and Brian Wandell on myelin imaging, and my work slowly started to decouple from John Pauly's research interests. I was becoming an independent researcher, and by 2009 I had gathered enough material to write my thesis. Furthermore, I had secured a postdoc position with Bruce Pike at the Montreal Neurological Institute.
My thesis ended up being 76 pages long. I am proud of its conciseness, and I am even prouder of its acknowledgements section, which takes up 10% of the page count and is the best prose I have ever written. There is still a $10 bill in one of the library copies, in case you decide to check it out from Stanford libraries.
Yet, even after submitting it, I did not feel ready to publish my first research article. After leaving Stanford in September 2009 I spent a year in Macedonia working remotely with Bob Dougherty on an idea that would shape the next ten years of my research. Eventually we proposed a method to measure the g-ratio (a microstructural property of the myelin sheath) in living brains. You will see no mention of the g-ratio in my PhD thesis, but it was the pinnacle of my graduate studies, as well as a preregistration of my next research steps. It was 2011, and I had finally published a journal article!
It is now December 2021, and I am about to continue in Macedonia my academic sabbatical that was interrupted by the pandemic. I started this year by receiving a salary award from the Quebec Research Fund (FRQS), and I wrapped it up by co-authoring what I believe is the most important work of my career. It's been a good year and an even better decade. Yet there is some spite in me, a desire to tell the world how one can succeed in academia without playing the publish-or-perish game. It is time to share my publishing experiences over the past decade, and to cherish the friendships and collaborations established along the way. Welcome to the SHARE-ish newsletter!
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