Giving Due Credit

Due Credit

When I was setting out as a young PI, the standard thing to do (on acetates, once we’d moved on from 35mm slides) was to acknowledge co-workers – students or postdocs, or wider collaborators – via a simple list at the end, with affiliations as appropriate. These days, mini mugshots on the relevant slide are de rigeur. It is very nice to see the human face behind exciting results.

However, whichever way it’s done, what matters is that it is done. Because upon occasion, even if the whole act of acknowledgement doesn’t get omitted, individuals may do. Too often, that implies bad behaviour, bad faith, on the part of the senior scientist. Let me give a couple of examples. I once observed a senior scientist, now dead, give his talk in honour of a prize he’d just been awarded, carefully listing every person he’d collaborated with in whatever capacity – bar a couple. Both female as it happens (although in my experience gender is not necessarily a contributing factor), and substantially more junior than him, albeit already independent researchers. Both people he had had pretty public fallings out with after extended and fruitful collaborations starting during their student years. It was noted by others in the audience with some revulsion. It was shocking behaviour, and yet there were – of course – no consequences for him. He was the one winning the prize; they were ‘merely’ being short-changed.

I find this kind of behaviour deeply depressing. It is just one way in which the established scientist feels they are untouchable, as they indeed almost invariably are, and can get away with whatever they feel like. It involves no active aggression, bullying or harassment, and yet the damage may be substantial. It does not have to involve women or even junior scientists. On another occasion I watched a different (male) senior scientist give a conference talk about his work with industry. He was very proud his fundamental work had such relevance to manufacturing; indeed, that was rather the thrust of his talk. Yet the industrialist I was sitting next to, who was funding the work, someone I too had collaborated with, turned to me in disgust at the tenor of the talk in which team members – both from industry and academia – were being written out of the presentation. No acknowledgements to the wider team, it looked as if the work was almost entirely down to this single senior scientist. The industrialist felt such dislike of the behaviour, which was clearly of a long-standing pattern in his eyes, that he admitted follow-on funding for the project from his company had all but been cancelled because of the professor’s behaviour.

Why do people do this? Why do they feel it necessary to take all the glory, or withhold other’s fair share, when they – as senior professionals – don’t need it. Furthermore, no one is going to be fooled that the professor was spending long hours in the lab, rather than sitting on committees, running a department or devising new teaching courses. Few professors are going to be doing the legwork of lab or computational work, even if they are the ones who have to write the grants to fund the work and exhort their team to better things. In an ideal team, everyone plays their part, even if not necessarily equally. And everyone should be appropriately credited.

Ottoline Leyser, as UKRI’s CEO, and Amanda Solloway, as the Science Minister, talk a lot about research culture. What will and should they do to stop this particular sort of inappropriate and unattractive behaviour? How will whistleblowing be made easier and less painful for the whistleblower? Should my industrial colleague have stood up in the Q+A and challenged the professor’s behaviour, pointing out how Joe Bloggs and Jane Doe should have been credited with carrying out the finite element analysis, and Ann Smith and Tom Brown the experimental studies? After all, he was close enough to the project to know exactly which students and postdocs had done which part of the work. If he had, no doubt an embarrassed silence would have fallen upon the room. That sort of thing simply isn’t ‘done’. When the first professor I mentioned had omitted the names of Dr X and Dr Y from their credits, when many in the room knew this, should I have stood up and challenged him (goodness knows, I’d challenged him enough in private on other matters) and said how come those names were omitted?

In this particular case, I had indeed raised the issue behind his back in a different context, by pointing out to a (different) prize-giving committee he had a reputation of not giving due credit. My intervention was not appreciated – even though I did it privately and discreetly to the chair of the committee – and I was brushed off, essentially told that it didn’t matter. But it did and does. Not giving credit where it is due means those written out lose street cred, impact and citations, and hence their own prospects are damaged. Said professor duly won the highly prestigious prize.

The trouble is, our cultural norms make silence the name of the game, so that the victims continue to suffer. Speaking up when one knows the truth of the matter should be everyone’s responsibility. Yet, even for those of us with standing, there is a cost to such speaking up. Without such matters falling necessarily under the usual terms of whistleblowing – although in some cases omissions, particularly on papers, will be straying close to research integrity territory – we who call out bad behaviour are in danger of simply being dismissed as troublemakers. I don’t know what the answer is. I wish I did. I do feel more noise should be made about those who don’t always give credit where credit’s due. I think, given a room sprinkled with people who can spot what is going on, it should be possible to introduce a scientific form of sending to Coventry, of marking down future grant applications and refusing to allow such people conference slots. I fear this is just a pipe dream of mine.

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