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Science Tribune - Article - April 1998


The scientific author

Would more single author scientific papers generate new paradigms?

Tiiu Ojasoo

E-mail : ojasoo@tribunes.com

By publishing work in an internationally acclaimed scientific journal, a scientist gains prestige but does this practice not debase both the scientist and science ? the scientist because, to obtain funding for his research, he has to seek prestige at the expense of knowledge, and his science because it tends to be judged on the basis of conformity with the prevailing paradigm rather than originality. The end result is that in-scientists publish in in-journals on in-topics and train their post-docs not only in their discipline but, by their example, in the science of career advancement. For the post-doc, it has become a question of 'I'm following in my mentor's footsteps' rather than 'Let's do it, let's innovate'.

Criticisms - even positive self-criticism - of the peer review system of grants and publications abound but, because the consultants to the purveyors of funds, the grant recipients, the peer reviewers and the authors of scientific papers are emulative clones defending the same privileges, it seems as if no amount of faultfinding will rock the establishment. Moreover, editors and publishers call the tune; they have to defend their markets and revenues.


Recently, several leading biomedical journals have tackled the issue of author-ship. Should we be able to identify "true" authors in a world of gift authors and ghost authors ? Should there be any authors at all or just contributors whose input to the published work is briefly summarized in a footnote ? This soul-searching is partly motivated by the observed increases in the number of multi-author papers and of authors per paper. Admittedly, much scientific work today is well beyond the capacity of loners. A single study may require expertise of many different kinds in a variety of disciplines, let alone the flair of the person(s) who conceived the study and interpreted the results. All contributors to the study may be highly qualified and experienced professionals and rightly consider that, as active members of a team, they should be identified by name.

But who among the listed authors will gain the social prestige that goes with the paper regardless of their effective contribution ? The parallel world of scientific conferences often provides an answer because bigwigs are invited to present plenary lectures, the up-and-rising give short communications, and the juniors are stationed in front of posters. But does identifying the hierarchy answer the vital question of who had the flair behind the experiment, that is if there is any, since the bigwigs have divided the land among themselves and, within their individual territories, each piece of research follows on neatly from the previous one. Frankly, it often matters little where the originality of the next experiment comes from in a uniformly grey world.

Testing or finding hypotheses?

Most published research is about testing hypotheses and not finding them. Authors state a hypothesis in the Introduction of a paper, provide the hard evidence for and against in the Results Section, and conclude, with a minimum amount of speculation, in the Discussion. To acquire the necessary proof, many participants and much team-work may be needed.

However, a bona fide author is not a legal defendant who compiles evidence but an artist, a creative individual able to give a new twist to an old story, someone who, after some research, discussion, and much solitary thought, temporarily retires from the hum-drum world to tell a credible story that fires the intellect and imagination of the reader. The story is the author's personal vision of a reality. How about asking the scientist to follow suit ? There is SCIENCE based on experiment that needs to be rendered in a precise, descriptive, crisp and maybe rather dry style but there is also a scientific vision, embracing abstract concepts and principles, that forms the backdrop to the design and interpretation of experiments that is often best communicated using analogies, metaphors, philosophical comments, etc...

Many a scientist has had premonitary inspirations before acquiring the means to test and prove them and, more than once, modern-day scientists, nurtured on just a couple of decades of scientific literature, have been told that "their" "idea" was first evoked many decades, if not more than a century, ago. Therefore, why not ask scientists to describe the background to their research, formulate hypotheses, and imagine the possible consequences of their ideas, without expecting them to rush out and perform the experiments on the spot ? Others could then help complete the description and provide their complementary or opposing views. A little more publicly shared pre-experimental thinking couldbe beneficial. The only requirement would be that each comment or paper be authored by just one scientist taking full responsibility for all that is written; the only prohibition unwarranted repetition. These theoretical papers - published on the Internet - hopefully would form a pool of ideas (of which, in the end, only some may need to be tested and, not always, by the experiments that first come to mind) that would help develop new frameworks of reference for scientific experimentation. Science, in particular biomedicine, is not so much in need of new experiments as of new paradigms !

An utopia?

Is asking scientists to share not only their results but their abstract and conceptual powers, an utopia ? Maybe so, in a world where science has become mercantile and where a major obstacle to free thought and expression is the dominant "ethic" of wishing to reap the financial benefits of a discovery. This might explain also why science has become increasingly technical.

Admittedly, in this utopia, public and private research institutions might attempt to defend property rights on "intellects" to which they often pay little heed but that belong to the staff whose wages they pay. Their major concern so far has been for budgeted, traditionally peer-reviewed research projects; let it be so. However, the wisdom and flair of a scientist should remain his own and not be prostituted for a salary. All a scientist requires is free expression for his creativity, a suitable environment to nurture this creativity, and appropriate recognition for his ideas. Let those capable of developing new systems, products, applications .... from new scientific concepts do so and reap the financial rewards as long as they are willing to plough some of their profits into the broad-based education of the next generation of scientists. But let the scientists and not the developers and publishers decide what this education should be!