23 Oct, 12 | by Iain Brassington
Seriously! Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics has published a paper with a hundred and ninety-eight listed authors!
I’ve always been slightly puzzled by multi-authored papers – by just how many people get to add their names to a piece of work. A friend of mine who is a proper scientist once tried to explain how it works in the sciences to me – about how you need to give credit to the people who ran the experiment, but also to those who did the titration and general donkey-work. That seems fair enough. Having said that, I suspect that there’s often a bunch of people who get credits that shouldn’t be there. (I remember once seeing a CV from a guy that had 45 pages’ worth of publications listed. Granted, it was double-spaced… but, still: there must have been the thick end of a thousand papers listed; there’s no way on God’s good Earth that he could have played a significant role in all of them. So why was he entitled to claim them? Why did he take the credit? Apparently, it was because, although not all of the papers referred to work he’d done, they did all refer to work done by other people in a lab he ran.) Anyway… the Steinhauser et al ad infinitum paper, with its 198 authors, isn’t lab-based, so the credit-where-it’s-due argument wouldn’t work.
(Jozsef Kovacs, writing in a paper currently available as a pre-pub in the JME, is also concerned about authorial inflation, and who should get the credit for a given paper, and how to improve things. It’s definitely worth a look.)
The author list for the Steinhauser paper seems to have been generated at least in part via the membership of a Facebook group (and one that no longer exists, or at least one that is so private that it doesn’t show up on a search). That’s just silly, and there’s no way that anyone can successfully marshall so many contributors. That turns a paper into an open letter. Indeed: the “authors” seem to think that their paper could be treated as such without loss:
[T]here seem to be papers and topics for which peer review per se is hardly applicable. For instance, now that 198 authors have thoroughly discussed and expressed their views, we wonder how the opinions of two, three, or four referees could improve a manuscript such as this one.
I might try that with my next submission. After all, most papers are road-tested in seminars or conferences before they get submitted to a journal; so if I just name the people in the room, I can – presumably – say that the number of authors will be more than the number of reviewers, and therefore there’s nothing important that reviewers could say.
I suppose I should mention the point of the paper. From the abstract:
We argue that the process of peer review can be prone to bias towards ideas that affirm the prior convictions of reviewers and against innovation and radical new ideas. Innovative hypotheses are thus highly vulnerable to being ‘‘filtered out’’ or made to accord with conventional wisdom by the peer review process.
I think that this is a not-unreasonable view in itself, and not all that wild. Peer-review is at risk of being institutionally conservative. Whether that’s a vice or a virtue is a matter for further debate.
Consequently, having introduced peer review, the Elsevier journal Medical Hypotheses may be unable to continue its tradition as a radical journal allowing discussion of improbable or unconventional ideas.
Whoa there! The Steinhauser paper’s a defence of Medical Hypotheses? The no-peer-review-until-recently “journal” Medical Hypotheses?
If you’re not familiar with MH, a quick look at some of its most cited papers might be instructive. There’s a curious obsession with vitamin D, for one thing. But possibly its most famous moment was in 2007, when it published this paper (also available here), described by Ben Goldacre as “bonkers and unhinged“, the broad content of which is captured by its title: “Down Subjects and Oriental Population Share Several Specific Attitudes and Characteristics”. Oh, yes.
Another aspect of Down person that remind the Asiatic population, are alimentary characteristics. Down subjects adore having several dishes dis- played on the table and have a propensity for food which is rich in monosodium glutamate (a salt of glutamate), such as parmigiano, beef broth, tinned food, etc. [...]
The tendencies of Down subjects to carry out recreative–reabilitative activities, such as embroi- dery, wicker-working ceramics, book-binding, etc., that is renowned, remind the Chinese hand-crafts, which need a notable ability, such as Chinese vases or the use of chop-sticks employed for eating by Asiatic populations.
Perhaps the explanation for their capacities re-sides in the monkey-like cast of the hand or rather in the single transversal solcus that replaces the normal creases of the flexion of the hand, and their laxity of ligaments. Also this characteristic of the Down syndrome may be considered a point in com- mon with oriental populations.
This taster from Wikipedia provides more indications of the sort of thing that MH published in its pre-peer-review days (or do a quick web search of your own: the ScienceBlogs stable seems to have a decent collection of pointing-and-laughing entries). MH was forced to change its editorial policy a little while ago, and its editor, Bruce Charlton, removed. Thus Steinhauser et al:
Charlton reported having received more than 150 letters of support by March 2010 (mostly from Medical Hypotheses authors), indicating widespread concern within the scientific community about the policy changes.
Hmmm. I don’t know how to break the news here – but 150 letters of support doesn’t really indicate widespread concern, especially if and when the writers benefitted from the previous regime.
The case being made in the Steinhauser paper is not a mad one; the argument isn’t persuasive in the end, but it’s worth giving it its head. But quite aside from its argumentative strengths and faults, a paper like this is inevitably going to lose at least some of its rhetorical punch just by virtue of being a crowd-sourced piece in defence of the erstwhile editorial policy of a journal that – whatever might be said in its defence – has generated for itself a reputation as a print-any-old-shyte outlet for cranks. A strategic error, that.