Researchers and academics below the full-professor level in Italy are currently busy with an idle exercise - putting together their applications to a selection for would-be assistant and full professors. By the way, this is happening to me as well, so you may understand why this blog has received little attention from me this past week: the occupation is extremely time-consuming.

Becoming university professors in Italy in the last few decades has been a rather complicated business, where the merit of candidates was often overshadowed by favouritisms and private interests.

In many institutes one even often finds whole collections of family members; the effect is statistically significant and cannot be explained by the concentration of talents or research interests in single lineages, so one must conclude that the mechanism at work is the following: e.g. the father is a full professor with influence and power, and he manages by lobbying and politics to get his daughter or wife or brother hired as professor as well, despite the lack of qualification. At some point the latter do the same, and soon you get a whole family occupying prestigious and well-paid positions without doing nothing for the community.

Although the above is a relatively small effect, I mention it because it gives the flavour of the problem. It is annoying especially because the phenomenon becomes an easy target of those who claim that universities are a waste of public money. But now a solution is being put forth: a national selection which will decide, basing the choice on purely objective measures of comparison, which will be the professors of tomorrow. Of course, there is no real place to fill: this is a zero-positions selection, one which only produces "chalk marks" on the candidates that are "able" to fill a position of professor, judging by their academic record. You only get a qualification, not a position; but a position might soon follow once there are openings, because only qualified candidates will be considered.

The application you need to fill, if you want to be judged able and get that "chalk mark", is apparently not too difficult to complete - you will have to put down your personal data and job record, a curriculum and a list of titles worth mentioning, and a list of all your publications, with a specific indication of 12 or 20 of them which you deem significant. The latter have to be provided in electronic form (thank god, not in paper form - I am old enough to have myself been forced to collect boxes of hundreds of scientific papers to be sent to selection committees for a researcher position, and I assure you it is not fun).

Now, the busillis (a latin mix of two words which can be translated as "thorny point" or "issue"; it comes from the merging of "diebus illis", two words that had been inadvertently split and re-merged as "die busillis", to the disconcert of the translator) for applicants who come from experimental particle physics is that they often have a publication list which contains hundreds of papers (mine contains over 700 titles). Uploading the list of these publications in the application is then made a nightmare by a coincidence of factors.

Any researcher has in fact access to a system which keeps track of their publications. This system then transfers all these data to your application. The problem is if you have in the past uploaded a small subset of your publications, and want now to upload all of them: you soon end up uploading twice the same papers by mistake. Now the system cannot remove duplicates by itself, so you need to remove them one by one by hand through a very slow web interface. Strangely and unwittingly, there is no possibility of scratching all the data in one shot and restarting from zero!

What is worse is that each publication record includes the full author list. Now imagine how long is one record for a CMS publication, which has 3500 authors. Basically I spent one full day scrolling up and down the list to check if a publication was the same as the next one in the list, then going back up and hitting a "erase" button in case it was, waiting for a second confirmation screen...

But I am getting it done, eventually. It involved running scripts (thanks Paolo Ronchese!) that do some smart parsing of DOI codes and quite a bit of wrestling with text files, but it is coming together. In the meantime, I learned that my Hirsch Index is 64, which means that I am author of 64 papers which have at least 64 citations each. It is an extremely high number in an absolute sense, but I believe that for researchers in experimental HEP it is a pretty common one.

This deep down a rather uninformative post I know I am left with just the most affectionate readers, and so I can let go with some private information. I decided to ask for the qualification not just as assistant professor, but also as full professor. Of course you could be surprised to know that my current job level is still below that of assistant professor, but Italy is unfortunately in a very sorry situation with jobs in research. So it would be "normal" for me to try and get to the next level -assistant professor. Why then do I ask for the full professor qualification too ?

There are two reasons. One is that I obviously fully qualify for the full professor position, given my academic record. The other is that I know how these things work in Italy. They claim that starting now they will do these selections routinely, every couple of years or so; but it often happens that this ends up as a one-time manouver, after which they have a long list of would-be professor from which to fish, and they do not bother replicating the effort. So you get in now, or you don't know when you will be allowed to get your certification again!