Friday, September 28, 2012

Who should be the first author?

After studying and working in organizations where research is a primary area of work, I have learnt a lot of sordid aspects of Research. I will not dwell on all of them here ...I will be talking only about one sordid aspect i.e. "Who gets to be the first author of papers published?"

Everyone wants to be the first author! With a few exceptions that is.....the few people who are (1) not at all ambitious about getting authorship and (2) people who have not contributed much to the research and who also  are also ethical enough to state that they do not want authorship as they dont deserve it.

I have observed with such a profound sense of disgust, people in high positions who bully  students, research scholars and research assistents who are below them in the hierarchy, into giving up the first  author positions to them, though they have done practically nothing!

I have seen a much admired psychiatrist who demanded an authorship just because he loaned his computer to a student doing his thesis!(This was in early ninties when few people had computers in India).
 I have seen a research scholar who did  years of  field work, data collection and analysis and  also wrote the papers for publication but had to take a back seat when it came to authorship! The first authorship went to her boss who was clueless about the work done, the second authorship went to her boss's colleagues and the remaining authorship went to the  Director of the Institute. This girl who did all the work was "thankfully acknowledged' at the bottom of the paper!
 This director in this same Indian organization has authorship of tens of thousands of papers...he is not even aware of many of the  papers where he is an author! Every faculty member and some savvy students gave him an authorship to curry favours. Truth be told, my guess is he never asked for authorship but the Indian mentality to kiss his feet was inbuilt in the people who gave him authorship.

I have seen assertive research assistents fight tooth and nail with the faculty with whom they are collaborating for authorships. The scenes are ugly and one gets to see the  so-called educated and respected faculty behaving like dogs fighting in the street for a piece of meat.

What made me write this article is the bitter-sad story a Chinese post-doctoral student in the USA whose data collected over three years was literally hijacked by a new pushy faculty member who like a gutter-born person, published her work with his name as first author! This girl was bitter but could do nothing about it. She quit her post in frustration and joined another university and has started new research from scratch again! Three years of her life has gone for nothing! And the saddest part is that she has put so many aspects of her life on hold for the last several years to achieve a few papers .(Her goal is a faculty position when she returns to China and she will not get it unless she is first author of published she has to do new work for another 3-5 years all over again! If her data is hijacked again, I think she will either kill herself or kill the hijacker!)

I was so moved by what happened to her but apart from cursing the faculty who stole her work and cursing his family, I do not know what else to do. I have read articles about this happening but not enough is being done about this appaling, disgusting theft by professors.

My suggestions to rectify this issue would be:

  • All faculty should be taught to practice ethical behaviours in research...not just ethical practices about the subjects of research such as not causing pain to animals when conducting experiments but also about this theft of work of students, research fellows, etc.
  • There should be regular meetings where all people involved discuss and come to an agreement as to who will do what, and who will use what data for their papers and who will get what authorships(first author, second author, principal investigator, etc). The decisions should be put down in such thing as a 'gentleman's agreement' here! Faculty are definitely NOT gentlemen; they are not to be trusted and they are worse than dacoits!
  • The faculty, students and research-fellows who are not assertive and cannot stand up for themselves should be given some training to improve their assertiveness.
  • The psychopaths amongst the faculty should be identified early and turfed out(I do not see any point in giving them a chance to change...research by psychiatrists has proved that they do not change even with therapy or rehabilitation programs)
  • There should be meetings devoted solely to the issue of  authorship when the research work is done by a multi-discplinary team. God! The fights for authorships are brutal then! All the happy beliefs I had were broken when I saw people from multiple discplines come together! I thought women are sweet and gentle...they are not! They fight more visciously and savegly than men for the authorships...even when they have little or no work. The belief I had that those with PhDs are decent men because of their high level of education was rudely shattered. They may not steal your money but boy! Watch they stealing all your data collected painstakingly over months of gruelling work!
Another belief of mine which was shattered was the belief I had that if one remains polite and decent one will succeed at some time or the other. This is completely untrue! The Chinese girl I was talking to you about had a wonderful boss who was a gentleman, polite and decent and "not-at-all assertive".
He did not stand up for his student when her data was hijacked by the jackass professor from another department! He felt sorry for the girl but feeling  sorry will not get her three years of life back!
Now that science and technology have progressed so much, the fields of science are no longer exclusive but collabarative. For research in MRI for example, the people collaborating includes medical  doctors of various discplines such as neurologists and people from a variety of  discplines such as  physists, engineers, statisticians, mathematicians, etc. So when the question of first authorship rises, all the discplines are fighting for first authorships as each one thinks his/her discpline has contributed the most or has made  the most valuable contribution!
The fights for credit which goes on behind the closed doors of research institutes is incredible!
Of course, most of you have read about the discords between famous scientists in the gender, race, fame or it's absence made or broke people n the field of science. In the past, women's contributions to science went unrecognized; People of coloured races were not recognized inspite of fantastic work; Now, we have the unethical people who are higher up in the hierarchy  stealing the work of their students and researchers.
  • The faculty needs to firstly acknowledge that these unethical practices are happening.
  • Then they should set up a committee  with the will to prevent these injustices from happening.This committee needs to be manned by ethical people, with the power to set right the injustices and prevent them form happening.
  • The students and researchers should be able to protest against injustices without fear of having their grants revoked.... whatever intimidation tactics used by faculty should be recognized and stopped.
  • Which researcher is doing what part of the research, what is that researcher's expectations in terms of credit and authorship should be agreed upon in advance and with clarity and with consensus with all the concerned parties. If there is no agreement, there should be meetings until consensus is reached.

If this is practiced in the tens of thousands of universities and research institutes, there would be less despair among the people way down in the food chain; there would be greater motivation and enthusiasm to do work.  Of course, the fat professors would lose quite a bit but they should remember that they would remain uncursed by their subordinates!

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