Help ! My co-author is an animal !

July 11, 2014 § 2 Comments

I came across this paper yesterday, co-authored by Polly Matzinger and Galadriel Mirkwood. So far, so good. Wait, Galadriel Mirkwood ? The elve character in Lord of the Rings ? Turns out that this Galadriel is actually a nickname for the author’s dog. Yep, the authors co-authored the paper with her dog, which she was very fond of. I didn’t ended very well, as, as reported in Wikipedia:

Once discovered, papers on which she was a major author were then barred from the journal until the editor died and was replaced by another.

It’s not the only case where an animal is a co-author of a paper:

  • Andre Geim, the Nobel prize recipient for his co-discovery of graphene, co-authored a paper with H.A.M.S. ter Tisha, his hamster.
  • The American physicist and mathematician Jack H. Hetherington co-authored papers with his cat, F.D.C. Willard. You can read the whole story here.

There might be more, let me know if you’re aware of any other similar case.

Beyond the obvious provocative move by these authors (and Geim seems to be an interesting character), there are some serious underlying considerations here, I believe. When these cases were uncovered, most of the people were not happy. Academic is a serious endeavour, and pranks like these are not really welcome. To the public, scientists are serious people, doing serious work.

Humor is a terrific way of transmitting ideas. And yet, this is largely underestimated and underused in science. The main argument is that humor undermines credibility. I don’t buy it. Two years ago, I tried to incorporate a (very relevant) Calvin & Hobbes strip at the end of a review paper. The reviewer was happy with it, but the editor clearly said no (I was ready to pay the copyright charges for it. I thought it was worth it.). On of the main problem is that humor is a very cultural thing. Experimenting with jokes at an international conference can be a disastrous experience…

Keeping this rigid attitude nevertheless does not make outreach any easier. I suspect that this somehow contributes to the defection of young people for scientific career, among many, many other reasons of course. Similarly, papers should (well, not really, but this is still the majority) be written in the passive voice, destroying every single hint that the research was performed by humans, because we’re all robots, right ?

What does it takes to be a co-author ? According to Nature for instance:

All authors have agreed to be so listed & approved the manuscript submission

and, more importantly to me:

Authorship provides credit for a researcher’s contributions to a study and carries accountability

Many journals are now requiring to specify the authors’ contribution, which is a move in the right direction, but is still an imperfect solution.

It is well known that academic research can also be a dirty little business. We all know a Prof. Big Name whom requires his name on every single paper coming out from his group, in particular if published in a high profile journal (Nature, Science, Cell, etc.), even if he even hardly read the paper before submission. This is unfortunately still a common practive plaguing academia. When we published our paper in Science, since I was the main contributor, my colleague and friend Tony Tomsia asked me to be the corresponding author. A very unusual move in my experience. The consequence was very direct: the day after, I started receiving emails and phone call starting by “Dear Professor Deville”… This little move also impacted my career in many more ways that I could have imagined.

So, an animal as a co-author ? You’re complaining about what’s just a funny little prank in a handful of papers (among several millions published per year) ? Give me a break. Give credits where it’s due for every paper published out there, and come back to me. As this point, I may listen to you. In the meantime, I’ll get myself a blobfish to help me draft my next paper.

PS: Stuart Cantrill  tweeted me that he’s written a blog post on a similar topic. Before reading his post, I wrote this one. Let’s see what’s his take on the issue.

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