I recently had the pleasure of helping to judge the Max Perutz Science Writing Prize competition, held by the Medical Research Council in collaboration with the London Metro newspaper. The brief for aspiring young writers was to explain why their research mattered – in a manner that could catch the eye of a harried, half-asleep commuter picking up a free paper on the Underground.
Such a task is not easy, but the short-listed authors did a great job of using eye-catching imagery to snare our attention. From gleeful descriptions of “desperate volunteers” helping to implicate norovirus as a disease agent, in true Koch’s Postulate fashion, by drinking diarrhea, to snippets from history or literature, their strategies were diverse and effective. The winner, Andrew Bastawrous, a postdoc at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, wowed the judges with a snappy account of an iPhone app to aid blindness research that he was trialling in Africa.
For me, the most interesting fact I gleaned from the experience came not from the official entries, but from a speech at the celebratory drinks reception afterwards. Robin Perutz, son of the eponymous Max and himself a professor of Chemistry at York University, talked passionately about his father’s dedication and talent in communicating science to the public. This much about the man I knew, but a little revelation near the end was entirely surprising.
According to Perutz junior, his father – who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1962 with John Kendrew for shedding light on the protein structure of haemoglobin – was apparently not a fan of lab heads claiming authorship for work going on under their auspices. Simply being the team leader and bringing in the money and resources should not justify this person being listed on the paper spearheaded by one of his apprentices – if the specific ideas and experiments stemmed from PhD students or postdocs, they ought to get full credit. And in Max’s lab they did: Robin said that many seminal papers from those times simply do not bear his sire’s name.
Nowadays, in my field, such a mindset is unthinkable. Not only is the lab head always on the paper, but it is very rare indeed for this person to relinquish senior authorship. In most cases, the first author is not even allowed to be co-corresponding author, let alone the sole corresponding one. This occurs despite the fact that the lab head might not know exactly how the experiments were performed, in precise detail, or be able to provide such details or data in further correspondence. Sure, there are many cases when the lab head provides crucial intellectual contributions – but they do not always justify an automatic placement in the most prominent position on the list. And of course we’ve all seen cases where the lab head did not even earn a minor authorship, and indeed had little idea of what the paper was about.
It’s not just about the paper itself. In a bibliometric-centric world, such unearned authorship means that the lab head’s reputation grows disproportionately faster than those of his or her trainees. In the worst case, possibly rare but by no means unheard of, such a situation can lead to rather mediocre people amassing vast intellectual empires, simply because the papers produced by their team can attract more great young researchers to contribute to the snowball effect of great data, great grants and great papers.
It’s interesting to think what might happen if authorship in the life sciences one day reverted to a more Perutzian philosophy: credit where credit is truly due.