Is THIS what scientists get paid for? Um. Sort of…

Gustav Arthur & Josephine Cooper working in the AMNH. They had a lot on their plate at any one time.

I’m extremely lucky to be getting paid to find things out. But I sometimes forget that the etiquette of scientific publishing is often misunderstood by people who aren’t employed as scientists. Which I completely understand.

Academia is a fickle, prickly, self-loathing private members club, which requires its members to shun the world in order to succeed (See ‘We Look Like You’).

But scientists are usually nice, curious people who are just trying to understand the world, and maybe make it better. Therefore, it’s important to relate some stuff we know on the inside about how we work, but readers of the news don’t realize.

I’m working at the BBC right now and it’s whilst being in this (lovely) environment that I decided I needed to write this post. It was due to a paper I wrote with my friend and office-mate Lionel Hautier and my boss, Rob Asher.

I popped back to Cambridge to interview someone last week and decided to say hello to my supervisor.

He told me that our most recent paper had done pretty well, being blogged about by (peer review colossuses) Science and Nature, (questionable online newspaper) The Huffington Post, and (champion of evolutionary biology) Jerry Coyne.

But one of the comments from a creationist site that picked up our work, made me think that I’d heard “it took HOW MANY scientists to work that out???” once too often.

Here’s the deal:

If someone publishes something, the work’s probably been funded by a grant, usually from a funding body like BBSRCThe Wellcome Trust, or NERC.

But that isn’t to say that a single paper is the sole consideration of all the scientists working on it. 

Let’s take our paper as an example.

It was about how sloths have enormous variation in the structure of their inner ears. This is important, as sloths move very slowly in comparison to the other animals we studied. So to see such huge variation in the structure of the inner ear – which is the organ of balance – backed up Darwin’s idea that structures that are not under large amounts of pressure from natural selection (just like an organ of balance in an animal that hardly moves) will be far more variable between individuals than organs that are under larger pressure from natural selection.

Nice!

But here’s the thing. I’m funded by a government body. I’m writing a PhD. But I don’t work on sloths. Drs Billet, Hautier, Asher, Schwartz, Martin, Ruf and I… all seven of us… we didn’t have a meeting one day a year ago and say “Darwin said this… how can we investigate it? Hmmm…. Ah! Sloths! Of course! OK team. LET’S DO THIS!”

Some of the authors on our paper are experts in evolutionary theory. That’s how they contributed to this work. Others had a detailed knowledge of the morphology of inner ears and that’s how they contributed to this work. By meeting at conferences and talking about really cool interesting work they were doing, maybe one of them said to the other “wow, I wonder if such and such is found in the species you study” and so on. An idea is generated, and then often forgotten about for weeks.

Some of the authors had been working on other mammals (like me, for instance, working on small mammals) and through their work had accrued scans of the skulls of mammals. When some of the other researchers found this out, they contacted them and said “hey, I’ve found this cool thing… I wonder what would happen to our conclusions if we included your data in our analysis too?”.

Then the guy/girl they contacted became another contributor to the work. And then, depending on how much effort that guy/girl had to put in to help the other contributors – boom – they might become a CO-AUTHOR!

Generally, scientific papers don’t represent a team of scientists locking themselves in their offices for years trying to work out the answer to a specific question like, for instance, ‘how variable is the vestibular system of the three-toed sloth’.

They’re ideas someone has, a project they were working on as part of a larger research interest, whilst thinking about lots of other projects, and then they got other people interested in it.

Eventually, someone found some results and out of respect to the people that helped them on their way to their conclusions (which might have been made on a laptop in Starbucks, not necessarily in the bowels of an ivory tower) they might offer ‘co-authorship’ to their colleagues.

And so you become a co-author on a paper which, to people looking from outside this peculiar business, might appear to ask ‘how many scientists does it take…’ Maybe you clean up a diagram or two, maybe you check over the manuscript and look for errors, maybe you write half the paper…

But please don’t think a paper that features seven authors came from seven people working on exclusively that.

We do other stuff too. And when we get around to publishing that, we might ask some of our friends to help us understand something in that work.

And then, to say thanks, the whole thing starts again.

(Gustav Arthur & Josephine Cooper from Flickr commons)

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2 Comments

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  1. If that had to be said (and I think it did), you said it well. Anything that breaks the perceived mysteries of how science is conducted is helpful.

  2. Thanks, Launcher 🙂

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