When elbows are used in the world of science
I was part as acarologist and natural scientist in a 2011 scientific paper about a mite preserved as fossil in amber, which was analyzed using the X-ray computed tomography and determined systematically on a family level. In this time, this scientific publication had a remarkable impact in international scientific media, because it seemed, as if this mite was the smallest animal ever visualized via CT on a high quality level.
Strange behaviors of so called „colleagues“?
The technical work was performed by technical scientists in Manchester UK. The natural scientific analyses was performed by me as the only European specialist for the mite family Histiostomatidae. But I noticed already in the time period of this publication that there were strict tendencies by the so called „colleagues“ to mention my name as less as possible, this concerned the drafting of international media releases and also a poster presentation (my name was added days later) and an online abstract on a conference in Berlin. The corresponding poster was even awarded, but I got my award certification only after demanding explicitly for it. I much later, when I decided to complain officially at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Berlin, needed to learn that I was not even considered as one of the first authors. I didn’t notice that before, because the former „colleague“, Dr. Jason Dunlop, curator at this museum, was mentioned in the original citation with 1) after his name, me too. Thus I interpreted this as a double-first-author-ship. It then came out that the „1)“ only indicated the same scientific address, because I was in that time officially a volunteer at the MFN in Berlin.
Mite in an amber fossil, made visible by using the x-ray computed tomography, acarological work: Stefan F. Wirth
The work of a scientific specialist: here an acarologist
The question must be: Who is needed to scientifically interpret three dimensional photos of an amber fossil, in this case the deutonymph of a mite of the Histiostomatidae? A specialist for this taxon is needed, who is able to perform scientific drawings, based on the photos. He first needs even to decide, which of the photos are showing details of scientific relevance. While drawing, the specialist must distinctly recognize single microscopic structures, so that all these structures can be clearly separated from each other including all borders or gaps between single components. The scientific term is „homologisation“. Homologisation means: comparing single structures with (phylogenetically) equivalent structures of other (related) species. As there were not more fossils available, the homologisations needed to be based on recent mites. Thus the specialist must have a very competent knowledge of a high number of species from this family. To reach that level requires hard work over many years. I had the necessary level and found character details in the fossil, which were fitting to recent members of mites of the Histiostomatidae. But it’s of course not enough to discover such homologous structures. They must be made visible for every reader of the scientific paper. Thus the drawings need to be correctly labelled, which requires careful morphological studies. Then a detailed description needs to be written. But that is far not enough. Readers of a scientific paper are usually no specialists. That’s why they need a written introduction, in which the summary of the general recent knowledge of a mite group needs to be presented. And after all that they even expect you to discuss your results. It’s an own chapter, subsequent to the result descriptions.
The discussion chapter also requires a maximum of specialized competence. Some researchers even say that this is the first part of a paper that they read as it puts the results into a general scientific context based on arguments, mostly according to the principle of the most economical explication. Conclusions in the discussion part have usually the character of theories based on the facts, which the paper could contribute. Topics of a discussion part in such a paper as ours are systematic conclusions, the discussing of homologisation problems and also the formulation of a possible relevance for the recent scientific knowledge and also the future scientific importance of these new findings.
This all is, what I as a specialist needed to do. I additionally contributed one of my photos of a recent mite for comparative reasons and captured a stereomicroscopic photo of the mite fossil to demonstrate, how much the CT could improve the visible details of the amber fossil. I guess I did quite a lot, the other part was overtaken by the technical colleagues in Manchester. They needed to explain their technical situation and also needed to discuss their ideas about the meaning of their CT-technology for the future of science, focussed also on work with amber fossils.
Contributions of different authors to a scientific paper
To be honest I don’t remember, where there was still space left for content issue contributions by Dr. Dunlop. But he did some organizational stuff, he collected the contributions from the UK colleagues and me, he arranged the photo table via a graphic software based on the photos, which I had determined as scientifically relevant, and he was the so called corresponding author (I allowed him, because he is an English native speaker). That means, he submitted the final paper to the journal and communicated with the editors. Of course reviewers always ask for revisions. That was then mine and the technicians job again.
It is common that corresponding authors represent automatically the first authors of a paper. But it is not mandatory. I for example once was the corresponding author of a paper, which was based on a bachelor thesis that I (in major parts) supervised. I despite of my in fact major authorship regarding the scientific paper itself and my additional corresponding activities let her (the student) the first authorship. That even means that this paper can be easier found, when searching for her instead of my name. I just wanted to support a younger scientist.
And of course also a double first-authorship might be possible, especially representing an adequate solution, in case another author even contributed more concerning the scientific content itself. In case of objections by the editors, the one, who contributed more, should to be the first author.
But to come back to the amber paper of this article, it is surely not fair to reduce the scientist, who had the major scientific work on a paper secretly to a second author. It is highly unfair to leave him out in the international press release information. And I don’t trust to say here, what it is, when deleting his name entirely from a poster and an online abstract presentation and even impeding him to get a certification of a poster award in time for his work. Should one use the „b-word“? Generally bullying would be an act against the good scientific practice, but there would be clear proofs for malevolence against specifically somebody needed to get corresponding behaviors sanctioned. But when „only“ the elbow mentality is obvious, which means that people leave somebody out for their own better recognition, then the distinct malevolence against the victim is not clearly proven. Thus the interesting question arises: when is elbow behavior equal to bullying and when not?
Warning to young scientists
What I can say for sure is, even when the original bullying assumption is still a kind of questionable: after you complained, you might need to expect a real merciless and long lasting bullying. That’s why I intend to warn all young scientists: be careful and double check, with whom you cooperate. The wrong choice can be a failure as long as you do not agree being a bullying victim. The consequences can last over years and can destroy your whole career. I even once was told by a bullying victim that the accused institution did not even deny its bullying activities, but stated that depending of the kind of position, somebody has in an institute, an equality right would not be automatically existent. I go further and say: don’t become a natural scientist at all, except you are in a love relationship with an internationally highly influential professor.
In these days there are alternatives for possible natural scientists. Earlier I was a harsh critic of the modern gender sciences (sometimes also named genderism). But they have much financial capacities. Nobody there needs to sharpen his elbows, a good basis for fair careers, and based on that after a while surely also the most important basis for a good quality work!
Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, Berlin 2019