Authorship Overkill in Science

What Does Scientific Authorship Really Mean?

My friend and retiring senior colleague Jim Johnson recently BLOGged quite reasonably and eloquently about the concept of “group accomplishment.” Take a few moments to read his insights for some background, if you haven’t already. I thought about posting the following comments as such on his site, but they evolved into a stand-alone topic.

It is possible to overindulge in the “group concept” for mere appearance’s sake. The modus operandus is simple: Invite a barge load of chefs into the kitchen. Only one or two or three actually cook the stew, maybe a few more provide flavorings, a few more recommend condiments, someone else donates a ladle. Then, every one of them, along with all others who even sniffed the mouth-watering vapors wafting from the gurgling cauldron, gets culinary credit in order to put forth the bulging façade of a “collaborative effort.”

The trendy mantra of appearing collaborative is manifest in my realm — atmospheric science — in many ways. In particular, I’m pondering the relatively recent proliferation of published papers with more “authors” than ever could possibly write them. Usually such papers are summaries of a field project or of a fairly broad-reaching study within which there are numerous participants, but comparatively few true authors. Yet it seems that everyone from the actual paper writer(s) to the janitors who swept the project trailer floors, to the boy who delivered pizza for the project’s bleary-eyed night owls in the wee hours, to the exterminator who last sprayed the radar trailer for roaches in 1987, gets listed in the author section.

Get this straight: The word author is not a synonym of the word participant or organizer. Author means…author! How much more clearly can I state this?

To be an author, one must have written (authored) some of the text and/or designed (authored) its crucial illustrations. How can one be an author, by definition, without actually composing some of the paper?

Over the last 10 years, especially, and most commonly in Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (AMS), I’ve seen papers with 10, 20, even as high as 36 (!) authors! [If interested, write me offline for examples. Some are almost morbidly amusing in their garishly lengthy “authorship” listings.] Simply put: No freakin’ way did 36 people actually write a paper. When the list of alleged “authors” takes up more of the first page than any figures or body text, there’s a problem.

This foolishness is becoming so common now that the AMS recently allowed references to contain the format, “Author, J. Q., and co-authors,” in references. Just try to find such reference formatting from any AMS journal from the 1980s and prior. You won’t, because collaborative credit-overkill hadn’t yet become en vogue.

The principle distills to this: Bogusing authorship as a courtesy is dishonest. That much is clear. Should we just treat it as a little white lie and look the other way? If so, should we then condone dishonesty in science, in other forms? If falsification of authorship is OK, so what’s next, falsification of data? Oh yea, wait…I had better not go there here or this would grow to an intolerably wordy manifesto. [Instead see: notorious Korean geneticist, or selective severe weather warning verification)].

I know several folks involved in such papers, and they’ve told me that “playing nice,” also known as spineless pandering, became a factor and simply snowballed to the point of extreme ridiculousness; but nobody dared put a stop to the foolishness because of a fear of offending someone. Honesty sacrificed at the altar of ego-driven workplace/academic politics? Realistically, I know it’s common, but that doesn’t make it right.

Fairly, I must acknowledge the other extreme too, one that has been more common for far longer: The power-tripping, credit-grabbing, intellectual parasite. In science, any of us who have been around awhile have heard of — perhaps even experienced — doing tons of tedious toil for egomaniacal professors or senior scientists, including producing tangible portions of the paper (authorship)…only to be relegated to the back of the acknowledgments, if that much. That’s wrong too, in the other direction.

Look, scientists’ purpose is to do science — honestly — and to document it — honestly — and to give and take proper credit — honestly. Our purpose is not to put on airs and assuage egos as fragile as Humpty Dumpty’s exoskeleton, in order to look like we’re “playing nice” or being good “team builders.” Neither is science about taking more credit than due for others’ work — which is tantamount to intellectual larceny, or more frankly, stealing.

Scientific investigation and discovery can, and quite often should, involve many people in the form of truly collaborative projects. For those who actually compose the paper’s visible contents, there is honest authorship. Just because a contributor of insight, ideas, data or helpful comments isn’t listed as an author doesn’t make him or her unimportant to the project. That’s what “Acknowledgments” are for.

I’ve stated the problem, and as often is the case, the solution is straightforward: Include all actual authors in author lists. Recognize non-authoring participants, assistants, non-compositional contributors and organizers in the acknowledgments. And most importantly of all, check egos at the door!


One Response to “Authorship Overkill in Science”

  1. SciFi77FX on December 5th, 2006 11:57 pm

    This is why I got the hell out of research science, biochem to be exact. It was the same double edged sword–a Ph.D. thesis professor who held my work hostage to his lead-authorship, probably because the power mongering b_stard was up for tenure. All he did was “advise” in name only while I did not 99% but 100% of the actual research, figure preparation *and* writing for the formal submission! The same slimeball also made himself lead author of a formal project report with 9 or 10 so-called authors a few years later just because he became head of the department. Two of his tenured (of course) buddies who also did little or nothing were second and third authors. A few of my (former) fellow grad students and an associate prof did all the work. (Of course, the assoc. prof keeps his moth shut if he ever hopes for tenure.) Grand total–9 authors, the middle two were the ones doing all the actual writing. Lesson–In science, like in Washington politics, power and influence trump real accomplishment. Being a programmer is easier and pays better than watching some pompous _shole hold your dreams hostage then kill them.

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