Recently, Mike Taylor recalled the issue of the effectiveness (or rather, ineffectiveness) of peer review and the standard publishing system (here, here and here are the most recent entries), and this included a small discussion on the form and necessity of “grey” citation, a subject I’ve mentioned here and there. This became compounded by Mickey Mortimer’s frustration at reading variations of his own discussion on the synonymies of Sapeornis chaoyangensis by a new paper from Gao et al. (2012) published in the new Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. The authors, however, did not cite Mickey’s commentary, which has been up for quite some time. This post isn’t about the necessity of whether Mickey should have been credited, and this isn’t necessarily about plagiarism (as the authors do not lift comments without citation). Instead, this is about the criteria of authorship.
First, let me remark that the following opinion is not fully my own: much of it, in fact, stems from the discussion introduced by Mike Taylor. So, it stems from that, and this is not just for me to say: I thought this.
Now, consider what happens when researchers work on a project, say that they are describing a new animal. They bring in an illustrator to render images for the paper, because it is easier to have this when the specimen material is difficult to photograph, or details need to be highlighted by a particular method. Or that you introduce a technique that requires a technician of some sort: you are performing a cladistic analysis, are doing some CT or MRI work, and the person who prepares this must provide input on the visualization or preparation of the output. That person contributes to the work in total. One can extend the timing by also considering for paleontology: the preparator who uncovers the material in question, or the excavator who must map and align the material relative to its setting. These persons have input before the researcher begins morphological analysis, or in the case of DNA the preserver of the material. The person who preserves and prepares material often has specific knowledge of the material and setting of the specimen that is included in a paper’s methods and history, and as such contributes to the paper’s output, if indirectly.
These people are not typically included in a paper’s authorship, merely its acknowledgements. But I wonder if they instead should be considered part of the authorship?
This can extend further, including to the level of citation: If someone writes something, somewhere, and you want to say the same thing, or it inspires an idea you think is true or test-worthy, or you wish to cite it, why not cut out the middleman and invite said person to the authorship to say that thing? This cuts out that pesky little problem called the “personal communication” from “Name,” as cited in “Author & Author, Date”; instead, it’s “Author, Author, Author, Date.” How hard is that?
I cannot think of that many problems of not including authors, save that it brings in the question of including authors who you have some form of ideological difference with, when that person said a thing (or wrote in a blog a thing) you want to write about. One can also consider that the originator may not want to be an author.
My solution? Do not “cite” that thing. Try to find a work around. This is an organic field, it grows and develops and admixes; it should not be a necessity that every paper has to say everything immediately. One can allow another author to present his or her datum that you’d otherwise be attributing to a “pers. comm.” If you don’t have quite the time to describe in detail something you observe, or investigate it, one should never leave something to an annoying “pers. obs.”: You either show it, and your work behind it, or you do not mention it.
And yes, we come to blogs and the “grey literature,” such as abstracts and short-papers prepared for conferences, such as SVPCA. There are some reasons to allow blogs and such to be cited: Mike goes into some detail on this. My general response to this has been mixed: I am averse largely due to the “availability” of untested, unrefined ideas, and the impermanence of this stuff — while it can be said that the Web will preserve information as long as it exists, this requires that the preserving facility be preserved, and there is no formal system for doing this. Just recently, Nature Precedings indicated that it will cease permitting allowing archiving of pre-print and manuscript work that allows authors to “get their work out there” in preparation to publication. We can leave aside the issue that this service is designed for eventual path to publication, not in lieu of it. The argument for blogs as citable resources is that they stand as publications, i.e., are not “grey literature.” There is also arXiv, but this is limited to subject and form, and also doesn’t help.
This skirts the issue of whether or not blogs or such should be citable. I don’t think they should. The permanence of the form is not even the big issue, but the impression that they are either intermediate toward publication, or not “full enough” to deserve it. Instead, we have the promise of electronic journals like Palaeontologica Electronica, PalArch, and Public Library of Science (PLoS) family journals. These present a centralized archiving, edited and managed review system for purely electronic material. The promise this has is that there is no collection of papers for issues, with set processes for release; no embargoes; and acceptance and completion of review progresses to publication immediately, no languishing for an issue to be made ready.
This permits the researcher who needs to publish data to simply submit it as is, without having to complicate things with “impact increasing factors” — one needn’t prepare every possible aspect before submission.
Immediate submission of “small papers” also allows authors to expose information quickly, and easily, and skirts the issue of “secrecy” that pervades the need to develop long papers, keep names “under wraps” to prevent them from being treated as published ahead of formal release — or to stop others from “scooping” the name. Hell, it even makes sure that submission of new nomenclature occurs faster than it does currently, so that when authors are told a name will accompany new research, that name is effectively available and valid. It gives some authors less chance to name an animal or produce “results” when others are clearly working on the details. It even allows such things like conference talks and “short papers” to be more complete and “published”.
But enough about inadvertent and shady interactions among authors.
So, what do I suggest?
If a person contributes in some form to the output of your study, like all the lab guys in gene analysis papers, it serves to give them a spot to, themselves, contribute to the form that output takes: Excavators? Preparators? Illustrators? Cladistic analysts? CT/MRI analysts? People whom you would like to cite but can’t for “grey literature” reasons? All in. Unless you actually do all the work that results in a paper, your output was an integrated exercise. This also means that persons involved in the work become personally responsible for how the results come out: CT workers can compose discussions on the preparation of the data in ways that they are particularly familiar with, instead of having to pass the information to the authors of the study; they become invested in the work.
Gao C.-l., Chiappe, L. M., Zhang, F.-j., Pomeroy, D. L., Shen C.-z., Chinsamy, A. & Walsh, M. O. 2012. A subadult specimen of the Early Cretaceoues bird Sapeornis chaoyangensis and a taxonomic reassessment of sapeornithids. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 32(5):1103-1112.