There was a time when science, like monasticism, attracted people driven by passion only to seek the truth regardless of prestige, financial rewards or other forms of recognition. In fact, accused of heresy, many scientific truth-seekers were often oppressed and their work denigrated. The times have changed since, and we have never had so many people, supported by the state, whose only purpose of work is to better understand the world.
The exponential growth in the number of scientists in the 20th and 21st centuries has far-reaching implications, both good and bad, for society. More than anything, science has now become a respectable career option with an attendant cohort of rewards and recognitions, reflected in the number of doctorate-holders, scientific journals and, most importantly, the rate at which papers are published in these journals.
On the flip side, scientists’ incentives – to better understand the world – have often been substituted with more germane goals, most commonly in the form of a pressure to publish scientific work in order to succeed in academic life. And those academics that have a poor publication often lose out on career advancement opportunities. The pressure to publish can and does lead researchers to adopt questionable practices, like publishing false or manipulated results, that can’t be replicated by other scientists, and representing what is known as bad science. More often, people who haven’t made any intellectual contributions are gratuitously featured in the credit line of scientific manuscripts, sometimes even as the principal author because of the power they wield.
Recently, a scientific paper published in April 2017 in a journal called Measurement, published by Elsevier, attracted some attention on the social media. As spelt out in the highlights portion of the text, the paper – entitled ‘Anti-Bourdon tube pressure gauge’ – discusses how “the principle of measurement of the novel device is (sic) opposite to that of the Bourdon tube”.
The first two sentences of the paper’s abstract state, “A novel pressure transducer is investigated in this paper, which works on an anti-Bourdon tube (ABT) principle due to dual effect of differential expansion of the tube at various points and the end moment induced due to asymmetry of cross section. Different materials such as rubber, stainless steel, nickel, brass, copper etc. and different geometries of tubes and bellows are investigated experimentally and analysed using theoretical formulation and finite element analysis.”
Bourdon tube-gauges are the most common pressure-measuring mechanical devices. The authors in their paper introduce an alternate pressure-gauge system together with some experimental proof.
I have no mechanical engineering expertise to judge the quality of the work but the fact that it may have been published after a peer-review process would be enough to convince me, as well as most scientists, that it is prima facie case a professional piece of work. But what bowled me and others over were the credits: the paper’s first author is listed as Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, a somewhat well-known spiritual guru and who is known among her followers by the mononym “Amma”. The two other authors appear to be faculty members of the Amrita Vishwa Veedyapeetham, a deemed university that Devi heads as the chancellor; it has six campuses but the principal one is in Coimbatore.
Anyway, the question automatically arises: how did the head of an ashram with no scientific background or training participate in designing an experiment and have the results published, that too as the primary author?
Authorship of a paper is typically accorded to an individual based on their contributions to the study that the paper describes; it carries a measure of accountability. Additionally, primary authorship indicates that the individual had the initial idea for the study, that they designed the study and led the interpretation of its results. When other scientists cite the study in their own work, the typically format is to do so by the first author’s last name together with the year of publication; for example, if I am the first author on a paper with multiple authors, it will be cited as “Rajendran et al, 2019”.
All the world’s better scientific journals have also been instituting a protocol for authorship. For example, the authors of papers submitted to the journal Science must formally fulfil some criteria, like acquisition, analysis and interpretation of data, drafting or revising the work, and agreeing “to be personally accountable for the author’s own contributions and for ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work, even ones in which the author was not personally involved, are appropriately investigated, resolved, and documented in the literature.”
Similarly, each manuscript is expected to contain a clear description of each author’s contributions to, among other reasons, avoid including ‘guest’ or ‘honorary’ authors. It’s not uncommon for authorship on a paper to be ‘gifted’ to some individuals without even the recipient’s knowledge, say to make the work contained in the paper seem more authoritative or even as a form of homage. And this is probably what happened in the 2017 Measurement paper in which Devi is listed as the first author.
As one commenter on Facebook wrote, “It was probably a token of gratitude to their spiritual mentor.” Unbeknownst to her, Devi may have been provided with senior authorship. It is also probable that she had agreed to be listed as the principal author without realising the implications. Nonetheless, many question remains on the paper’s reviewers – whom the journal would have commissioned to ascertain the validity of its contents – and whether they did or did not flag Devi’s inclusion.
Although science has an awesome potential to understand how the world works, it is also inescapably human and is subject to all the shortcomings that come with human engagement, irrespective of the popular claim that ‘science is self-correcting’. There are many, many examples as to how the human element of the scientific enterprise negatively impacts its progress, either through sheer incompetence or fraud or simply as the result of honest oversight.
However, these shortcomings wouldn’t impact the overall march of science if only scientists remain honest about their own efforts as well vigilant to mistakes on the parts of their colleagues and peers, and ensure the results of bad science don’t get mixed up in “an ocean of nonsense”, as in Jorge Luis Borges’s Library of Babel. The adoration of Devi should certainly not have blinded the Measurement paper’s coauthors to their professional responsibilities as well as the requirements of ethical conduct.
C.P. Rajendran is a professor of geodynamics at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru. The views expressed here are his own.