Righting authorship wrongs

I had never heard of Dalton Trumbo until today, and I daresay you haven’t heard of him either. He was a member of the “Hollywood Ten,” which was a group of writers and directors who were blacklisted after being deemed Communist sympathisers. Trumbo was sent to prison and later he moved to Mexico. He continued to write but had to use a writer friend as a frontman. Thus his script for the film “Roman Holiday” was credited to Ian McClellan Hunter. Hunter received payment from the studio and forwarded it on to Trumbo in Mexico. When the film won a screenplay Oscar, Hunter continued the pretence and picked up the award. IMDb mentions that:

In December 1992 the Academy decided to change the records and to credit Mr. Trumbo with the [Oscar]. Ian McLellan Hunter was removed from the Motion Picture Story category and the Oscar was posthumously presented to Trumbo’s widow on May 10th, 1993.

Now, according to an article at Reuters and various other papers, the Writers Guild of America has agreed to formally acknowledge Trumbo as the screenwriter of the film.

I wonder whether authorship corrections will take off in science? Nobel prizes always generate a bit of controversy about who was responsible for the prize-winning leap forward (think Rosalind Franklin, Douglas Prasher and this year’s immunology prizewinners), but I am sure there are many other squabbles about authorship that bubble under the surface. I am aware too that sometimes generous PIs omit their names from papers in order to give a boost to their up-and-coming proteges.

Just goes to show that you can never be sure who actually wrote something. And don’t even mention that Earl of Oxford.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we slip from print through to electronic information resources.
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4 Responses to Righting authorship wrongs

  1. I did know who Dalton Trumbo was – but then I am a card-carrying movie bore (and hence sometimes in demand for pub quiz teams). I didn’t know Trumbo had written Roman Holiday, though, despite being a big fan of the film – I remembered that Trumbo had been black-listed, and that had written the script for Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus.

    Talking of Roman Holiday, from another distant recess in my mind I recall on a student holiday in Rome in the early 80s making a special trip to see the Bocca della Verità because it had famously featured in the film.

  2. Frank says:

    I’m impressed by your knowledge, Austin. And just a little bored 😉 If pressed I would have said that Dalton Trumbo must be an anagram of something rather than a real name.

  3. ricardipus says:

    Haven’t seen Roman Holiday, although I can claim to have heard of it. Spartacus, on the other hand, is brilliant (particularly that famous scene – you know the one I mean. That one. No, that one. It’s that one! No no no, that one [etc.]).

    This reminds me a bit of the film industry’s use of the pseudonym “Alan Smithee” when the director chooses not to have their name associated with the final product (presumably, usually following a creative spat with whoever’s paying the bills). I would guess that this has rarely, if ever, happened for something as popular as an Oscar-winning film though. The example I remember is Floria Sigismondi replacing her credit with Alan Smithee on a Sarah McLachlan video.

  4. Frank says:

    Clearly my knowledge of films is severely lacking.

    The Alan Smithee phenomenon is interesting. If the ORCID project is successful in establishing a common author identifier then I suppose it might be possible for an author to disown papers that they were not proud of simply by removing those papers from their profile.