Gregg Easterbrook — good sportswriter, crappy at pretty much everything else he does — likes to take pot-shots at scientific research in his ESPN column “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” (TMQ). In this week’s edition he tells us how he doesn’t think scientific papers should have multiple authors and how he doesn’t like the advertisements in the journal Science.
TMQ dislikes the modern convention of listing multiple people as “authors” of a work written by a single person; this is part of the overall cheapening of the written word. Several previous items have concerned the absurd number of people listed as “authors” of scientific papers. For example, the lead paper in the current issue of Science magazine, “Draft Genome Sequence of the Sexually Transmitted Pathogen Trichomonas Vaginalis,” lists 67 authors. (Yes I know science papers list those who only purport to have contributed to the research, but most names are there for reasons of bureaucratic credit-grabbing, and if the paper turns out wrong and must be withdrawn, about 65 of the 67 will claim they aren’t responsible.)
He got one thing partially right: the purpose of listing authors is to give credit to people who have contributed to the research. Most of the names are NOT there “for reasons of bureaucratic credit-grabbing”, although some are. Most of the people listed as authors contributed either to designing the experiment, data collection, data analysis, or writing the paper. Not all of the authors are ‘authors’ in the tradition sense (ie, writers), which appears to confuse Easterbrook.
Are there problems with authorship? Yes, but undeserving authors are found in a small subset of all scientific papers — a professor may get authorship on a paper without contributing to the intellectual content of the research. These ethical lapses are an area of open concern. But multiple author papers are not about diverting blame. They are about credit-grabbing because people deserve credit for the work they have done. Genome sequencing papers (the example given by Easterbrook) report on large projects that involve collaborations between sequencing facilities and multiple research labs. They have so many authors because so many people contributed to the research.
Easterbrook isn’t happy with the advertising in Science either:
Coming Soon — Drive-Through DNA: “RheoSwitch — precise, variable control of mammalian gene expression.” Haven’t you always dreamed of precise control of mammalian gene expression? Buy it here. Hmmm, wonder if they will send me a free sample of this pMYB5 control plasmid so I can try manipulating a little E. coli at home. Welcome to the world of the gene-device ads in Science magazine,which has been taken over by advertising for genetic materials and gene-manipulation laboratory devices. All of the full-page ads in the front of the magazine in a recent issue were for such products. (Advertising in the front of a magazine costs more than in the middle.) “Ambion’s MagMAX delivers high-quality RNA to maximize the success of your gene expression studies,” one ad says. “Achieve excellent transfection efficiency in some cell lines,” a Roche ad promises. “One reagent convenience for DNA and RNAi transfection,” an ad for Invitrogen proclaimed. “SpeedStar DNA Polymerase is a convenient, efficient DNA polymerase specifically designed for fast PCR,” Takara Bio promised. I liked my polymerase convenient! “Enter the world of reliable gene silencing,” Qiagen’s ad headlined. “Our next generation of high-fidelity Pfu-based fusion enzymes sets a new standard for PCR performance,” Stratagene’s inside-cover ad proclaims. OK, medical laboratories need to shop for products just like everybody else does. What’s spooky is that these are slick ad-agency ads with graphics and sell lines. “MessageAmp II — Biotin Enhanced!” cries an ad for Ambion, whose Web site promises, “Scale up easily to acquire more RNA.” The magazine ad for Ambion has flowers and looks for all the world like a prescription-drug sales pitch. “DNA Sequencing for $2.50 per reaction,” with “plasmid and PCR purification available” and “no charge for standard sequencing primers” proclaimed a recent ad in Science, while “Simplify Gene Silencing Experiments with Pre-Designed RNA — Fast! Easy! Guaranteed!” declared another.
I’m not sure what to make of this rant, consisting almost entirely of a list of ads from the journal. How else will suppliers of research products make their potential customers aware of their products? It’s just odd.