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Nobels go to only three scientists max, while some papers have as many authors as members of this audience. © Nobel Media AB, Alexander Mahmoud

Swinging between extremes in giving scientific credit where credit is due

China Daily’s front page on the morning of Tu Youyou’s Nobel win.

The headline on the first page of China Daily on October 6 was striking: China wins first Nobel prize in medicine. Actually, Dr Tu Youyou of the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine won the prize, not the country.

That same day, on page four of the New York Times, the headline read “Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded to 3 Scientists for Parasite-Fighting Therapies.” The article noted, almost in passing, where the three winners came from: the United States, Japan and China.

It’s one thing to celebrate the number of Olympic wins by athletes from a particular country – after all, the medals are awarded with flags flying and national anthems blaring. But scientific achievement is quite something else.

The nationalistic medal-chasing is one symptom of a disconnect between the way contemporary science is done and how credit is allocated. The scientific landscape has changed since Nobels were first awarded to solitary geniuses in 1901. Swinging to the other extreme in scientific crediting is the explosion in the number of coauthors of articles in many scientific journals. Nobel credits and irrational co-authorship illustrate two sides of the same coin: systems of scientific credit have run amok.

Nobel model is based on an old way to do science

Nobel prizes are awarded for specific and notable achievements and, by implication, a lifetime of scientific work. The credit accrues to the researcher or sometimes several colleagues or scientists working independently on a similar topic. The country where the research was done has little, if anything, to do with the achievement – although the relatively generous support provided to scientific research in the United States has contributed to the numbers of Nobel prizes won by scientists working in the US.

Indeed, as is often the case, the researcher may be from one place, and is working in another. The American who was co-winner in medicine, Dr William Campbell, for example, was born in Ireland, received his bachelor’s degree in Ireland and his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. He did his prize-winning work finding treatments for parasite infections while at Merck, an American pharmaceutical company. Indeed, many Nobelists, especially Americans, were born and received part or all of their education in other countries.

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen won the first Nobel Prize in physics, back when science actually was more likely to be done by individuals alone in their labs.

Increasingly, science is carried out by groups of researchers, often affiliated with a particular laboratory. The Nobel committee has yet to recognize the implications of the fully collaborative and international realities of contemporary science; they do not award prizes to groups and, indeed, limit the number of scientists who can receive a specific prize to three, a policy that has come in for some criticism.

Credits run amok

While the Nobel authorities set hard limits for allocating credit, academic publishing may have gone off the deep end in the other direction. An article was recently published in Physical Review Letters, a respected journal, with 5,154 authors. Another Physcial Review Letters paper from 2012 had close to 3,000 authors – 21 of whom were deceased by the time the article was published.

One of the authors on the latest paper, Dr Aad, who is listed first, will receive a huge number of citations, no doubt boosting his reputation and increasing the citation rate for his university, an important metric used by government evaluators and the global academic rankings. The paper’s topic was the Higgs Boson, and the article involved collaboration among scientists in many countries. This seems to be a world record for co-authors, although there are an increasing number of published articles with 1,000 or more coauthors.

While it is certainly true that science has become more collaborative, I’d argue there’s little justification for listing such a large number of authors. Could they really have all contributed substantively? Just as there was no rationale for listing a lab’s senior scientist as first author, even if he or she had done little or no work on the specific article, as was common and remains a practice in some laboratories and departments, it seems at least some of those many hundreds of coauthors are getting a courtesy listing. It’s not appropriate to provide authorship credit to people who have had a remote relationship to the writing and preparation of the actual article.

This issue is important for a number of reasons, among them that citation counts are used for university rankings as well as for national policymaking in some countries and often for the evaluations of individual professors when promotions or salary increases hang in the balance.

Modern science often relies on large groups of researchers from various fields of expertise, like these involved with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. CERN

What does it all mean?

Globalization, academic competition, misplaced nationalism, the obsession with rankings, ever-increasing demands for accountability by governments, and significant changes in how science is carried out all contribute to our contemporary “credit problem.”

Although the examples cited here may seem to border on trivial, they’re actually important. Scientific productivity is increasingly an international phenomenon, with top researchers educated in one country, working in another, and frequently developing and sharing research with colleagues around the world.

Science is global and it’s increasingly irrelevant to credit Nobel research to a country or university. Yet, support for basic research is dwindling everywhere – and it’s on the basis of basic research that Nobel-level discoveries are made. Countries that provide funding and autonomy for basic research will inevitably scoop up the best scholars and scientists.

At the same time, the scientific community itself must be reasonable about distributing authorship credit for academic articles. These articles, especially those published in the top refereed print and electronic journals, are the gold standard of science and remain a central means of knowledge and its dissemination. The number of authors should be limited to those who have actually been involved in the writing of the article, even if a much wider community contributed insights or data to it. Others can be mentioned in relevant credits or references.

As in so many aspects of contemporary science and higher education, we are in the midst of an “academic revolution” in scientific recognition and research support and evaluation. A rational approach is needed to restore sanity to a system that is increasingly out of control.

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