Do reporters ever understand authorship?

Debbie Brock, in red sweater, with a recent undergrad she mentored, and his parents.

Debbie Brock, in red sweater, with a recent undergrad she mentored, and his parents.

We just published a paper in PNAS that showed something really cool. In summary, we identified the small molecules produced by an inedible bacterium and used as weapons against other clones and secret sauce for the host Dictyostelium discoideum clone. Second, we showed that the host also carries a variant of that weapon Pseudomonas fluorescens clone that has become edible by losing a whole suite of defensive pathways with a single stop codon. Third, we showed that the food probably evolved from the weapon.

What do I mean by we? The work was a wonderful collaboration between two labs, one with a focus on small molecules in symbioses and the other with a focus on social evolution in microbes. The two postdocs that did most of the lab work were chemist Pierre Stallforth at Harvard, and biologist Debbie Brock at Washington University in St. Louis. Also involved were a graduate student at Harvard, Alexandra Cantley, and another postdoc, Xiangjun Tian, at Washington University in St. Louis. The lab heads who were very invoved were Jon Clardy at Harvard and David Queller and me at Washington University in St. Louis. We all contributed hundreds of hours to this project which began more than two years ago.

I could tell you exactly what each of us at Wash U did, down to all the lab meetings, discussions, email exchanges as we struggled to get everything just right after we had spent two years in research. I could show you earlier versions of figures that needed to be changed. I could simply leave it at the 86 between-group emails I have in my mail from Pierre. Written and verbal communications with Debbie would be in the thousands. The point is, this really was a team effort. Remove any member of the team and the paper would not have existed in anything like its current form. Fundamental insights on the significance of the discoveries that helped meld the paper came from everyone. We worked well together.

So why am I so cranky? It is because reporters end up telling the story that is seen by most people and this time one of the best messed up. I understand that a reporter wants to tell the story and doesn’t really care about who did what. But if they are going to use names, they should get it right. They cannot assume that the work was done only in the lab of the last author, for example. Sometimes the last author isn’t even the lab head, even when that head is deeply involved in the research and secured the funding for it.

In this particular case that has me so bothered, Ed Yong initially made the work sound like it came entirely from the Harvard lab and left us out completely. Someone must have told him how inaccurate this is, or maybe he saw my Facebook post. He fixed it by adding in our postdoc, Debbie Brock, calling her the team leader and the Harvard postdoc Pierre Stallforth a postdoc. It is fine to keep the names to the two main postdocs, I suppose, if he called them that. You would think the brilliant Ed Yong would get it right the second time around. Remember that he is one of my very favorite science writers.

The public misunderstands both the content and the process of science so much, reporters should take care to get both right. Every author on that paper did something important. I feel sad when the human side of the story gets corrupted.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Science writing for the public and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Do reporters ever understand authorship?

  1. Ed says:

    Hi Joan, thanks for this post and apologies about the confusion around authorship.

    I appreciate that science is a team effort, and it’s not that I don’t “really care about who did what”. But the problem is that, yes, I have to tell a story and I have to make that story engaging to a reader who may not care about any of this. So, unfortunately, listing everyone isn’t going to work, and all the authors aren’t going to get a mention.

    My usual solution to this problem is to credit the first authors, who presumably (and as you say, rightly) did the lion’s share of the work. Stallforth was always in the post, but I wrongly credited Jon Clardy with the original discovery.

    That was a serious and sloppy mistake on my part, and embarrassing since I had correctly credited Debbie Brock when I wrote about the original Dicty farming paper. I’m not entirely sure how that happened, but I fixed it and appended an update to the post.

    I acknowledge that it’s an imperfect solution, but most PIs who I speak to are happy to have their students and postdocs credited in this way, especially since the majority of media stories leave their names out entirely.

    Finally, my name is Ed Yong, without the u.

    • Thanks! Stallforth and Brock are both postdocs, is all. I am fine with just the postdocs being mentioned. Sorry about the name misspelling. I get it all the time (StrassmanN), so am usually sensitive to this. I do love your writing and the biology and connections was great!

  2. Ed says:

    Oh I see your point. I’ve added a note to say that Brock is a postdoc. Thanks for the exchange. I am sensitive to authorship issues, and I sort of feel there are only bad and less bad ways of dealing with it. I usually try to aim for “less bad”. 😉

  3. Pingback: I’ve got your missing links right here (3 August 2013) – Phenomena: Not Exactly Rocket Science

  4. Nancy Dudek says:

    I think the team is lucky to have you as a champion of their contributions.

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