A peek behind the science curtain

Bethany Brookshire

Spiny media battle highlights importance of scientific credit

It’s not about lionfish or science fair projects, but about who came up with the big idea


Lionfish may be spiny, but a recent battle over credit on research about them got still more pointed.

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When we decided recently to give Scicurious a new tagline — “A peek behind the science curtain” — my editors and I knew this meant looking now and then at the human side of science. Science, after all, is something that people do. And where there are people, there are friendships, jealousies, loves, disagreements and hatreds. Most of the time the science should speak for itself, but sometimes the politics speak louder. This is especially true when scientific credit, or attribution, is involved.

Last week, the social media world got an unexpected peek behind the scientific curtain — and we got our opportunity to look at the human side of science much sooner than we’d planned.

In early July I wrote a piece on lionfish that live in brackish rivers for my education-oriented blog Eureka! Lab. The story centered on a science fair project by middle school student Lauren Arrington, and papers published in 2011 in Aquatic Biology and in 2014 in the Environmental Biology of Fishes by then–graduate student Zack Jud and colleagues at Florida International University in Miami. In the 2014 paper, Lauren’s work received an acknowledgement and was cited in the methods. When I spoke with Lauren, Jud and his then-adviser Craig Layman, I was told that Lauren’s research was important to the 2014 work. Other media outlets apparently got the same message; she got top billing in stories by NPR, CBS and NBC.

On the morning of July 22, Jud posted publicly to Facebook saying he felt that all the publicity was denying him due credit. Soon, I began to see news reports from outlets such as Fox and The Atlantic charging that Lauren had stolen Jud’s research entirely. Things were getting ugly — and pretty murky. (Jud has since issued a public apology for over-emphasizing the student’s role in the research in his interview and e-mail exchanges with me.)

The whole episode emphasizes the crucial importance of scientific attribution. Here’s your peek behind the curtain: Who did what matters, and who did it first matters more. Such struggles usually take place behind the scenes, in person or over e-mail. It’s rare that those outside of science get to peer behind the lab doors. Or trap a 13-year-old student in the middle. 

“The main reason proper attribution matters is for professional scorekeeping in science,” explains Janet Stemwedel, a philosopher and chemist (and personal friend) who studies the responsible conduct of scientific research at San Jose State University in California. “Who first observed a phenomenon, or measured it, or came up with a new techniques or a new theory: Giving proper credit to the first to do these things is how scientists recognize each other’s contributions to the shared body of scientific knowledge.”

While credit is essential for building up the knowledge base in a particular area, scientific credit is also personally important to the scientists involved. A name, or not, on a paper could be the difference between a job at the university and having to leave the Ivory Tower.

“Scientific credit is the basis for advancement and funding in my field,” says Bree Barker, a microbiologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who is completing postdoctoral research studying whooping cough in the laboratory of microbiologist Peggy Cotter. A name on a paper, she says, illustrates that “the researcher can use funds to a productive end.” Barker also notes that scientists help their students’ future careers by crediting them in public talks and on scientific papers. Other scientists take note of such contributions when making hiring decisions. A lack of attribution, on the other hand, can be deadly. “When our names are omitted from publications,” she explains, “it’s difficult (if not impossible) to prove that we deserve credit for a body of work. It’s like working for 18 months with the promise of a paycheck, and then never being paid.”

Even though individual credit is important, science isn’t done in a vacuum. Biographies, TV shows and media coverage still tend to perpetuate the “great man” narrative of science, depicting the creation of new knowledge as a solo enterprise: Newton works in a darkened room, alone with his ideas. Galileo stands alone with his telescope gazing into the night sky. “The ‘great man’ narrative has pretty firm toehold,” says Meg Rosenburg, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., who also specializes in the history of science. “There’s a tradition of almost mythlike historical anecdotes passed on between scientists. The ‘great man’ narrative is often part of them because they usually include quite beloved myths about favorite figures. But the stories tend to focus on their work in isolation, de-emphasizing the collaborative nature of scientific work.” And when modern papers can have over 200 authors, who gets to be the great man or woman?

Scientists don’t work alone. They exchange letters and e-mails, attend seminars and share ideas with each other. And where people will work together, they will need to publish together. This is where the conflict begins.

Battles over scientific credit play out in laboratories around the world every day. Who did the most work, who provided the materials, space and funding, and who originally bred the animals. And of course, who had the big idea. There are different ways this conflict gets resolved, including co-first authorships, middle authorships and acknowledgments. But the decision making can become intense. An author on a paper published in Nature, after all, has a far better chance at a coveted tenure-track job, not to mention the best chance at a Nobel Prize. Grad students and postdocs can get upset as they realize that their years of late nights and weekend experiments were not enough to merit first authorship — indeed, that they may garner only an acknowledgement. And of course, if a paper gets a lot of publicity, it’s easy to wonder how your career will be affected if you’re not getting a mention.

“Credit given in the scientific literature is arguably the most relevant for a scientist,” says Anthony Caravaggi, a graduate student in conservation biology at Queen’s University in Belfast who studies invasive hares in Northern Ireland. “However, the growing importance of social media shouldn’t be understated.” Proper credit in the mainstream media certainly couldn’t hurt an application for funding or a job.

As a young scientist with a newly minted Ph.D., Zack Jud might have hoped his adviser would have helped him to get the kind of publicity that would aid his new career, and that those getting interviewed for the study might mention his name. At the end of the day, Jud is the first author on both papers, and that’s what’s important — not whether he appeared on CBS This Morning. But in the world of scientific credit, every little mention counts.

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