November 12, 2004
Michael Jennings on scientists getting the credit they deserve

MichaelJCanonA75s.jpgMy latest CNE Intellectual Property piece is up. It was triggered by the student who is suing Ground Zero architect David Childs for allegedly nicking one of his student designs to use for the big tower at the heart of the scheme. I then talked about academic idea-stealing in other fields, especially science.

This article, linked to today by A&LD, discusses how the expansion of science may have lowered its ethical standards, a matter also touched on by Michael Jennings (recent picture of him there), in the following email which he sent me in response to my CNE piece:

Whilst academia is indeed full of asymmetric relationships in which more senior academics gain credit for the work of younger people, most scientific fields are small enough, and the participants meet each other at conferences and talk to one another often enough, that in the case of any important work everybody knows who actually did it, regardless of whose name is on the paper. In practice, it is usually a case of figuring out which of the multiple people whose names are on the paper actually did the work. Maybe this is changing as academia gets bigger and more corporate, but I am not so sure. For one thing, scientific research responds to this by breaking up into more and more fields with a relatively small number of individuals in them, and I think this is unlike architecture. It varies from field to field though. Some fields consist of large laboratories with hundreds of people, but most are as I describe.

And the most asymmetric relationship that exists in scientific academia is that between a supervisor/adviser and a PhD student. In most circumstances a supervisor has a de facto veto over whether a student gets a PhD. This can lead to abuses of various kinds, and also to somewhat weird human relationships. Nothing bad happened to me personally in this regard, but I have seen one or two slightly dubious things happen to other people.

Rather amusingly if you have done a PhD, science fiction writer Vernor Vinge – a former mathematics professor himself – wrote a story a year or so back about a professor who has a virtual reality simulation of one of his students created and told that he has to get so much work done in the next year, or he will not be allowed to get his PhD and runs it over and over again to get this hypermotivated student to do near infinite amounts of work for him.

And as for your final comment about someone suing Nobel Laureates, the interesting issue is that in the sciences the Nobel Prize committees have credibility, and scientific Nobel Prizes are considered such a great honour at least partly because they are seen to have almost invariably been given to the right people, and that means the committee goes to great trouble to see that they are given to the people who actually did the work. In particularly controversial circumstances, there have been a number of incidents where people have not received the Nobel prize until decades after they did the original work, and where the prize was awarded within a year or two of the death of the more senior academic who laid claim to the work. More senior academics are usually older, so waiting for the
wrong person to die before giving the award to the right person is a workable strategy.

One thing that comes into play here is that there is no limit on the number of authors that may appear on a paper published in most journals, whereas a Nobel prize in the sciences is never shared by more than three people, which means that if the wrong people are awarded a Nobel prize, the right ones usually miss out. Even within this constraint, though, simply giving the prize to the three people whose names are on the paper is never done. In such circumstances the prize tends to be shared between people doing work in the same or closely related fields for different universities/laboratories rather than by people who worked together.

You can actually tell certain things about who did what by the way in which the prize money is split in a three way award. If the three recipients each get a third of the money, this means either that the three of them did related but separate pieces of work, or that the three of them were involved in doing the same piece of work (either as collaborators or (more often) by coming up with the same results independently). If one of the recipients gets 50% of the money and the others 25% each, then this means that the one who got 50% did a separate but related piece of work to the other two, who were involved in doing the same work, either together or independently.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:33 PM
Category: ArchitectureIntellectual propertyScienceScience fiction