Publish or perish

How I ended up as single author on my latest paper

January 19, 2020

Last week, my master’s thesis was published in the Journal of Environmental Management: Can Citizen Science using social media inform sanitation planning? I’m very proud of this result and it makes me happy and grateful.

At the same time, there is a small peculiarity about it that you don’t see often in engineering sciences. Most engineering projects are interdisciplinary and involve several researchers.

Why then a single-authored paper?

This question has a short and a long answer, which reveals a lot about structural deficiencies of our current scientific system.

The short answer: Publish or perish. Many academic institutions measure scientific performance by the sheer number of publications. This puts pressure on researchers to get their name on as many publications as possible. Such an environment gives incentives to use (peer) pressure to receive a position on the authors’ list. When I questioned this practice, further peer pressure and friction forced all my co-authors to withdraw from the authors’ list.

The long answer: After I finished my thesis, my supervisors and I agreed to publish it. Shortly after we began working on the manuscript, another researcher who had in my opinion not been directly involved in my project claimed a position on the authors’ list. In her opinion, my project was based on previous research of hers and would thus not have been possible without her work.

While it is certainly true that my work was based on hers, inspiring further research doesn’t automatically guarantee you a position on the authors’ list of resulting publications if you’re not also directly involved in the project. Following such a logic, Einstein would have to be on the authors’ list of all publications dealing with general relativity.

Also ETH Zurich and the research institute where I carried out my thesis have clear authorship guidelines stating that authorship can only be granted to people who “contribute in an essential way to the planning, execution, control or evaluation of the research work through their personal work; participate in the drafting of the manuscript; and approve the final version of the manuscript.”

Although these guidelines leave little doubt that an authorship of the respective researcher couldn’t be justified, senior researchers from the research institute exerted massive pressure on me to accept her authorship. For instance, they described research as an inherently social process, implying that my insistence on a transparent process showed my lack of social skills.

Even after two independent ombudsmen tried to mediate the case and didn’t find any reason to justify her authorship, they kept up the pressure. When I refused to accept her authorship, some co-authors decided to withdraw their authorship which led to peer pressure making others withdraw as well.

What this tells us? Even if ethical guidelines seem to be clear in theory, reality looks different. In practice, authorship decisions are at times taken for political reasons, not for actual contributions. Another senior researcher advised me, for example, to accept her on the authors’ list because having a well-renowned name on my article would make publishing it much easier. Luckily, the editor and reviewers of my paper cared more for academic quality than for who is on the authors’ list and who isn’t.

This process was an eye opener and a huge learning opportunity for me, which I am deeply grateful for. Still, I find it unacceptable and stories like this won’t help in making academia an attractive working environment nor in restoring public trust in science.

At the time that this story happened, a friend and I were already working on a book project about transformative Science. Therein, we look at ways to do research that generates both academic and societal progress. At the same time, we also ask whether our scientific system itself is still in shape to tackle the large questions of our time. Which structural deficiencies do we need to overcome to make it fit for the future?

The experiences I made during this authorship issue will feed as well into our book which will be published later this year. If anybody of you has experienced a similar story that you would like to share in a confidential manner with us, feel free to contact us. Besides this, we use different participatory tools to reflect not just our own, but a broader perspective on science and research. You’re all cordially invited to contribute – more info can be found on our website: Wissenschaf(f)t Zukünfte (English summary here).