Credit where credit is due?

A recent book (Crewdson, J.  2002.  Science Fictions: A Scientific Mystery, a Massive Cover-up and the Dark Legacy of Robert Gallo.  Little, Brown; Boston) describes the role of pulling (and enhancing) rank in the history of HIV’s discovery.  In fact there were two histories: the real one in which two post-docs in Gallo’s lab, Bernie Poiesz and Frank Ruscetti, succeeded in isolating human T-cell leukaemia virus – the seminal step on the road to HIV; the “engineered” history, in which credit for the discovery seemed to pass entirely to Robert Gallo.  However that particular revision of reality emerged, building rank through annexation of credit is not uncommon in academic circles.  Peter Lawrence of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge University has expanded on Crewdson’s careful investigation to produce a useful warning, particularly for beginning and junior researchers in all disciplines (Lawrence, P.A. 2002.  Rank injustice.  Nature, v. 415, p. 835-836).

Lawrence’s thesis is that the scientific community allows experienced researchers to take advantage of the inexperienced, so that credit generally flows up the ladder of rank.  Part of the problem is that graduate students, and even post-docs, nowadays rarely generate projects themselves and increasingly work under the control rather than the guidance of a supervisor, team leader or major grant holder.  It is not always a case of high-ranking scientists mendaciously grasping credit for discoveries made by underlings, for various practices make misplaced credit inevitable.  Lawrence lists a whole number of these.  For me, one is particularly interesting.  It centres on how to stick in one’s peers’ memory.  If the same name appears again and again in publications – it makes little difference where it figures in the list of authors – it is that name that is remembered as an “authority”.  During the 1980s, Gallo managed to figure as an author in up to 90 papers a year, despite mainly travelling back and forth to conferences.

Most people’s view is that whoever does most of the work, discusses its ramifications and draws conclusions should be the first author in a list.  But are they the “senior” author?  In terms of rank that is often not the case, and one need only scan the publications of a large research team to see the same name appearing again and again, often in last position; that of the “owner” of the lab or the funds.  What they have done to appear on the list is rarely clear, but by sheer number of appearances it is their name that is remembered, and more importantly these days, figures in measures of productivity.  As they say, it is a “win-win” scenario.  Any paper, in whose list of authors the “name” appears, that meets peer acclaim serves to boost that “names” citation rating too.  If such a paper turns out to be sloppy or even fraudulent, then someone safe among the “also-rans” can shrug off responsibility.

The same issue’s Editorial (Thoughts on (dis)credits.  Nature, v. 415, p. 819) quotes from a letter submitted by Max Perutz (Peter Lawrence’s former “boss”), shortly before his death on 6 February 2002.  Perutz spent the first 25 years of his career in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, headed by Ernest Rutherford and then W.L. Bragg, neither of whom put their names on papers to which they had not contributed, despite the fact that a whole number represented epochal breakthroughs inspired by them.  And nor did Perutz.  That generosity damaged none of their careers or reputations, but made them properly respected, admired and fondly remembered.  Will careers based on annexation of credit (an excellent euphemism!) find the same fate?

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