Whose By-Line?

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.

Doin’ It

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?

Talkin’ It

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.

Bloggin’ 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.

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8 Responses to Whose By-Line?

  1. I should add that one of the effects of data preparation and draft assistance by some is that this actually contributes to changes in the paper, added sections. It is an organic process, and only some get remarked as “the researchers”? Authorship of ideas is a critical part of Scientific evaluation, and you have to know from where an idea comes and to whom you must go to clarify when confusion occurs: sometimes, a thing an author prepares is done out of some ignorance, such as only the photographer mentioning a feature that the author’s agree with, but themselves do not notice but write into the paper anyways. The photographer is responsible for the idea, not the author.

  2. chris y says:

    why not cut out the middleman and invite said person to the authorship to say that thing?

    This reminds me of my late friend (not a scientist) who used to go into a pub and ask an acquaintance, “Say, x,y,z.” So the guy would say it, and in due course my friend would publish a magazine article beginning, “As the man in the pub was saying to me the other day…”

    Which is to say that I can see how in science such a practice might be abused by a scoundrel.

  3. CC says:

    Your post is not about scientific papers – your post is a defense of current culture. Western culture demotes web content, and many people, like yourself, simply accept this. You immediately write off any material in a blog as ‘grey literature’. It is less important and therefore, the owner’s rights to their own work are less important as well.

    This is a dangerous attitude. When we say its all right to take blog content without acknowledging the contributor, we are also tacitly saying it’s OK to take photos and pictures without acknowledging the creator, or its OK to download music without paying the artist for their work. Should we contiune to let culture dictate that some people have less rights to their work than others? Or do we take the stance theft is theft?

    Which brings me to another dangerous attitude in your post – privledge. I am sure if the same material had been in a unpublished student’s paper and the student had complained, your reaction would’ve been very different. Now lets break this down for a minute. The student’s paper would’ve been available to other students and teaching staff. The person who reads it, therefore, has to have the means to obtain a college degree. A blog, on the other hand, is open source. It can be read by anybody who has access to internet. Demoting web content is an attitude driven by privledge.

    Which is where your defense of culture ‘norms’ falls apart. What are the biggest barriers to scientific knowledge? Sharing knowledge, funding research, and passing the torch to the next generation. Which platform does a better job of breaking down these barriers – papers, libraries, and journals based on barriers built on privledge? Or the internet and its blogs, based on the concept of creating open access?

    • I may misunderstand your post, so let me explain some positions where I stand:

      My argument derives from the position that there is an esteem to “actual” publication, yes, but where it differs from your accusation of privilege is that I seek to allow researchers 9even student papers, if you wish) to be submittable to a short-form publication digitally. They go through the process of review or editing and are managed (digitally, mind you) by a separate organization. This does not itself force support of that organization, merely it’s utility. The form that organization takes is variable, either through monetary support by donors, peers, etc., as perhaps any society might require of its members. If a typical Zoological society maintained a digital short or long-form publication service through the contributions of its members or related interests, it would be no different.

      I do not want my blog to be cited. It’s a digital enterprise that I can change at any time; the plasticity of which allows me to go back, after it’s cited — say — and alter the meaning to suit whatever I wish. It lacks a quality of permanence. It was the suggestion of archiving to “fix” this object digitally that led to the argument (I made) that what you are citing is no longer a “blog,” but a separate digital document. When you cite a “blog,” especially if it’s through some other form, you ignore the original form in which it takes and instead are referring to a derivative, which itself may have varied from the original form. I know I’ve gone back and edited contents of my blog and resized elements in order to conform to formatting, either by fixing typos, adding “Edit:” or “Update:” addenda, and so forth. This is done in paper literature with corrigenda, and as separate, citable objects. I also don’t want other people’s blogs to be cited, but only for that reason: not to exclude ideas.

      And finally, I don’t quite understand the tack you take in regards to comparing a student’s paper versus a web-based “document.” A blog doesn’t have to follow the form of a paper and force the attitude that the individual who wrote it has a degree, and indeed I do not; If the writer is sufficiently practiced or knowledgeable, the content has the quality that may be publishable, or have the data that can be cited. That was Mike Taylor’s whole point: It’s data, and nothing else, that should be useful. My argument was about form. Similarly, if a student’s paper is of sufficient quality, there are more than a few teachers I’ve known who’d have suggested that student publish it. You seem to suggest that I would have that student then submit to a physical journal with paywalls and such, but I deliberately invoke three digital, open-access journals as submission profiles, and soon we’ll have PeerJ, a fourth, maintained BY peers. The promise that these provide is not just ease of path to “formal” publication, but the promise that there will be attempts to review the document in something akin to actual qualitative filtering, rather than impact-based or ego-based filtering. Of course, the latter still exists, and still exudes its own level of “privilege,” but there is nothing in my writing that I think claims some form of exclusion of ideas based on ego.

      Science is Science, and data is data: they should both be available, in a final, and as indelible a form as possible: Blogs, and personal communications, etc., fail these assumptions of permanence.

      • Nick Gardner says:

        PE does not match the submission profile you are describing. While it is an electronic journal, articles are not deemed published upon acceptance with formatting (ala PLoS). Papers in PE are put on a delay in order to be released with issue packages. You cannot simply submit and see your work appear online upon acceptance or cursory review. It is nothing like arXiv, which is what we need, a good preprint service where papers can be submitted quickly for crowd-review by professionals and students prior to formal publication.

        • Well, one of the things that I was suggesting was that there could a service that archives short-form “papers,” i.e., extended abstracts that can themselves be developed but aren’t really intended as “publications” themselves. Notes, comments on other papers, reviews, notices of examination, even commentary on morphology or genetics.

          • Andy Farke says:

            The closest thing that\’s out there in this regard is figshare.org – some folks have already started using it for the stuff you mention. Indeed, I’ve been placing many of my notes and measurements of specimens online.

  4. Rob Gay says:

    Good read, good thoughts. I’m going to come back and chew over this again in the future. I like the idea of the quick-to-publish small “paper” electronic stuff. It seems like there are more options for that sort of thing now than before BUT the need is still out there for sure.

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