Giving credit where credit is due

It was striking that the headline on the first page of China Daily on 6 October was “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 “3 share Nobel for Work on Treatment of Devastating Parasitic Diseases”, the article noting, almost in passing, where the three winners came from: the United States, China and Japan.

It is one thing to celebrate the number of Olympic medals won 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.

Another aspect of the irrationality of contemporary science is the explosion in the number of co-authors of articles in many scientific journals. Nobel credits and irrational co-authorship are illustrative of two sides of the same coin: systems of scientific credit have run amok.

What is the Nobel Committee awarding, after all?

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.

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 degree in Ireland and his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin, USA. 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. And many are no longer working at the universities where they did their pioneering work.

Thus Nobel Prizes are the work of individuals or teams. Increasingly, science is carried out by groups of researchers, often affiliated to a particular laboratory. The Nobel Committee has yet to recognise the implications of the fully collaborative and international realities of contemporary science – they award prizes to individuals not groups and, indeed, limit the number of scientists who can receive a specific prize to three.

Credits run amok

If the Nobel authorities set hard limits for allocating credit, academic science 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 Physical Review Letters paper from 2012 has close to 3,000 authors – 21 of whom were deceased by the time the article was published.

One of the authors of 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. The 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 co-authors.

While it is certainly true that science has become more collaborative, there seems to be little justification for listing such a large number of authors. Could they have all contributed substantively?

Just as there was no rationale for listing as first author the senior scientist in a laboratory, 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 these many hundreds of co-authors are getting a courtesy listing.

It is 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 policy-making in some countries and often for the evaluations of individual professors when promotions or salary increases hang in the balance.

What does it all mean?

Globalisation, 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 are 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.

Thus, science is global and it is increasingly irrelevant to credit Nobel research to a country or university. Yet, support for basic research is dwindling everywhere – and it is on the basis of fundamental 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, remain the gold standard of science and are a central means of knowledge 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, from the Nobels to articles 'authored' by thousands.

Philip G Altbach is research professor and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA. A different version of this article appeared in The Conversation.