Friday, May 25, 2018

Silverbacks and scientific progress: no more co-authorship for just supervision

A silverback gorilla. CC-BY-SA Raul654.
Barend Mons (GO FAIR) frequently uses the term silverback to refer to more senior scientists effectively (intentionally or not) blocking progress. When Bjoern Brembs posted on G+ today that Stevan Harnad proposed to publish all research online, I was reminded of Mons' gorillas.

My conclusion is basically that every senior scholar (after PhD) is basically a silverback. And the older we get the more back we become, and the less silver. That includes me, I'm fully aware of that. I'm trying to give the PhD candidates I am supervising (Ryan, Denise, Marvin) as much space as I can and focus only on what I can teach them. Fairly, I am limited in that too: grants put pressure on what the candidates must deliver on top of the thesis.

The problem is the human bias that we prefer to listen to more senior people. Most of us fail that way. It takes great effort to overcome that bias. Off topic, that is one thing which I really like about the International Conference on Chemical Structures that starts this Sunday: no invited speakers, no distinction between PhD candidates and award winners (well, we get pretty close to that); also, organizers and SAB members never get an oral presentation: the silverbacks take a step back.

But 80% of the innovation, discovery we do is progress that is hanging in the air. Serendipity, availability of and access to the right tools (which explains a lot of why "top" universities stay "top"), introduce some bias to who is lucky enough to find it. It's privilege.

No more co-authorship for just supervision
Besides the so many other things that need serious revision in journal publishing (really, we're trying that at J.Cheminform!), one thing is that we must stop being co-author on papers, just for being supervisor: if we did not contribute practical research, we should not be co-author.

Of course, the research world does not work like that. Because people count articles (rather than seeing what research someone does); we value grant acquisition more than doing research (only 20% of my research time is still research, and even that small amount takes great effort). And full professors are judged on the number of papers they publish, rather than the amount of research done by people in his group. Of course, the supervision is essential, but that makes you a great teacher, not an active researcher.

BTW, did you notice that Nobel prizes are always awarded for work to last authors of the papers describing the work, and the award never seems to mention the first author?

BTW, noticed how sneakingly the gender-bias sneaked in? Just to make clear, female scholars can be academic silverbacks just as well!