Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The death of the "author" in scientific papers

It has already been suggested on this blog that the development in the 18th Century of our notions of authorship may be inextricably intertwined with the development of copyright law as it existed before the digital revolution. And despite the fact law school seems to valorize judges as the "creators" of the common law through the opinions they "author," I myself have suggested that

[J]udicial writing as a quintessential example of collaborative writing, a view corroborated by the ways experienced lawyers use and interpret judicial opinions in practice. The judicial opinion is . . . a piece cobbled together from a number of other sources that include established law, the lawyers' written and spoken legal arguments, secondary legal sources, and earlier opinions that were themselves built up from the bits and pieces floating through the legal discourse community.
I've also always emphasized to my students that lawyers, not judges, are the most important component of the never-ending collaborative legal writing project.

And now,
from JR Enterprises Incorporated, here's a suggestion that we're fooling ourselves about whom we consider authors in another genre, scientific writing:

Coturnix writes: "But seriously now, the question of authorship on scientific papers is an important question. For centuries, every paper was a single-author paper. Moreover, each was thousands of pages long and leather-bound. But now, when science has become such a collaborative enterprise and single-author papers are becoming a rarity, when a 12-author paper turns no heads and 100-author papers are showing up more and more, it has become necessary to put some order in the question of authorship."

Maybe it's time instead to rethink the whole concept of authorship. Creation is almost always a collaborative process. I suppose rethinking the whole concept may in fact be what Coturnix has in mind inasmuch as he proposes a list of "credits" for scientific articles to detail the various contributions collaborators make to those articles.

1 comment:

Meghan said...

Was Coturnix calling for a reevaluation of the concept of authorship in his blog post or was he instead calling for a return to the traditional concept of authorship in the scientific field?

When he writes that “for centuries, every paper was a single-author paper,” he is explaining the tradition of one person performing all of the experimentation and analysis necessary to produce a scientific work. The single author was then also competent to receive the accolades attributed to his work.

This tradition has metamorphed slightly in the last ~50 years: the experimentation and analysis necessary to produce a scientific work is performed by one junior scientist overseen by a senior scientist, with occasional input from another scientist or technician. Because the junior scientist performs almost all of the experimentation and analysis, he is rewarded with a first authorship position, and because the senior scientist provides mentoring and laboratory facilities, he is rewarded with a senior authorship position. Additional staff members who provide no significant intellectual contribution to the work (i.e. providing reagents, running routine experiments to save the junior scientist time, etc.) are mentioned in an acknowledgement section at the very end of the work and those staff members who provide significant intellectual contribution are listed as middle authors on the paper.

The trend toward 12 to 100-author papers discredits the intellectual integrity of the junior scientist, implying that he is incapable of performing the work necessary to achieve the scientific discovery, i.e. designing the necessary experiments and analyzing the results. In a field where the intellectual quality of the scientist is judged by the quality of his publication and his place in the list of authors on the publication, this dilution of credit for work product can have disastrous effects on scientific careers. Often the middle authors on 12 to 100-author paper have made no other contribution to the paper than providing a sample or running a routine experiment and have in no way contributed intellectually to the paper.

What Coturnix is calling for when he suggests credits, then, is a way to continue to reward the junior and senior scientists for their intellectual product and a way to deny credit sharing for persons who made no intellectual contribution to the work. In this respect, his credit system is a return to the traditional concept of scientific authorship.