Wednesday, 3 February 2016

How to get your name on a paper

I am in a panic. An incredible paper is being written that could change my career forever. The problem: it is not being written by me. I desperately need to get my name on that paper.

I should explain.

In science the basic unit of worth is the publication. Published papers are like stocks, with the price measured in citations. Just like stocks, we would all prefer to have only a few big winners. But with no real clue how to invest, we just get as many as we can.

For people like me, with a dim mind, no creativity, and minimal work ethic, you might think this would be rather difficult. Fortunately, you are allowed to cheat. Or, to adhere to the correct knowledge-industry terminology, you can use your initiative.

The only real obstacle is getting started. It is the same in all hierarchical fields. All of your talent, hard work, dedication and creativity are needed at the very beginning. You need to get yourself established long before you have acquired any experience or solid understanding. This is a gruelling, stressful time. You cannot imagine how hard it is to worm your way onto papers, and into prime spots on their author lists, without the aid of a shred of prestige, influence or financial leverage. Those of us who manage to do so fully deserve the powerful positions we later acquire. By the time we reach the top, we truly are world-class bullshitters, bullies and backstabbers.

You want me to tell you how to do it? Fuck off. You either have the talent, or you don’t. But I can tell you this for free: if you’re wasting your time reading this blog, instead of pumping your friends for their ideas, signing up to do trivial tasks to get yourself included in a potentially important project, or spreading lies about your friends to your advisor, then… well, then you may as well give up now and keep reading.

You never know, though: this little tale might actually teach you something.

Once you are at the top, everything is easy. Make sure your students and postdocs are working on all the coolest topics, and when a nice result comes along, demand that they include you on the paper. If they don't, fire them. Not only does that free up some cash to hire someone more malleable, but it is also a valuable service to the field. Talented people with principles are a direct threat to your rising influence and prestige, and should be eliminated as quickly as possible.

This requires iron discipline. There are those who argue that the rogue student or postdoc should be allowed to publish on their own, and that intellectual generosity, openness, and honesty will nurture a far more productive, creative environment. Beware these evil dissemblers. They are trying to sabotage your career. Take a look at all the dingbats running hot-shot research groups and prestigious institutes, and decide for yourself.

I can freely share this wisdom because I already have my professorship, my big grant, and my productive group. I have already got far further than should have been possible with my negligible talents. Now I can stop scrambling to get higher. Except… Except that now there’s a chance for me to be a real superstar. If only I could get on that fantastic new paper!

Why am I not already on it?

I admit that it’s my own stupid fault. I was distracted by a long departmental political fight, which required all of my strategic skills. I was involved in hours of the most careful deliberations over who to suck up to and who to intimidate. There were large quantities of evidence that had to be gathered, and even more that had to be manufactured. I had to plan carefully, strike ruthlessly, and argue powerfully. It took up months of my time. I believed it was a worthy fight, and I still do. And I won — in the end, I got that bigger office.

The cost was that I wasn’t paying attention to all the interminable email lists from all the research projects I am signed up to. I thought these guys wouldn’t manage anything useful for years, if ever, and then I missed the first breathless emails about the breakthrough. That’s fine — people are deluded into thinking they have made a breakthrough every day. What is unforgivable is that weeks passed, and the possible turned into the likely and then into the actual, and I still did not notice. I was too busy placing a huge purchase order to fill up my new bookshelves.

By the time I found out, I was afraid it might be too late.

This has been the biggest research challenge of my career. This is how it played out:

Day 1: a lucky break! It turned out one of my postdocs was involved in the project. The moron claimed that he had not done enough to be an author on the new paper. Ha! Where do I find these naive nincompoops?

I quickly set him straight. “This is a very important result,” I explained to him. “But impressive claims require impressive evidence. It needs to be cross-checked. You need to go through all of the results with a fine-toothed comb, and make sure there isn’t an error anywhere. And make sure you pass everything you find on to me.”

He was a good fellow, and he worked hard. I quizzed him on everything. I made him explain every detail twice, and check everything three times. Of course, I didn't understand a word he said. I didn't have a clue what was going on. But by asking him lots of ignorant questions, and demanding that he spend hours or days following up every one of them, I performed a function at least as valuable — if not more — than those show-offs who came up with this big idea in the first place. There was a huge chance that this guy, motivated by my tireless efforts at badgering him, would find a flaw in what they had done, and fix it. That would be our way in.

Week 3: Dammit, he still had not found anything! The paper was almost done.

I sent emails to the lead authors. I made the point that our work cross-checking their results was extremely valuable; now they could be much more secure in what they found. You cannot take any chances with a big result like this.

They ignored me.

I understood their position. They were the ones who put in all the hard work and effort. I had been an irritating blow-hard nuisance for almost a month, but they had been doing it for years. Such a virtuoso tour-de-force display of Machiavellian manipulation and manoeuvring deserved some reward. Maybe I wasn't worthy to have my name printed among these true leaders?

That was a low point. I was really losing my nerve. I had to remind myself just what an excellent scientist I really was. I had to believe in my abilities. Each morning I looked at myself in the mirror, and explained to the befuddled mug staring back at me, "I am just as duplicitous, treacherous and unprincipled as them! I have as much right to be on that paper as they do!"

Week 5: Shit! Now my pathetic postdoc claimed he had a nervous breakdown. He was in the hospital.

The doctors said he was in a fragile state. Only friends and family could visit.

I had to pretend to be his father to get in. The indignity of it — imagine the shame of claiming to be his father? But these were desperate times, and of course a true scientist doesn’t care what other people think. He will risk embarrassment and public ridicule in the pursuit of Truth!

I managed to get from him the file location of all of his data and analysis, before he started screaming for help. It was a near miss to get out of there. In all of the running and jostling — I almost got punched by a mere medical doctor! — I nearly forgot the details of what he told me. Thankfully there was a taxi right outside (that guy on crutches was lying! it was a free taxi!), and then I had a chance to write it all down.

All that adrenalin was good for me. It really cleared up my mind. Now I knew the solution.

I had been taking all of this far too seriously. I let the importance of the paper get to me. Who cares how historic and groundbreaking it is? In the end it is just a paper like any other, and the people writing it are just ordinary scientists. In other words, suckers.

I went back to my office. I logged on to the file system my postdoc told me about. I tracked down the latest version of the draft of the paper. I scrolled through the pages. There — Figure 3! It was an amateur piece of work. The labels were in a very poor choice of font. It was a matter of mere minutes to generate a better version, and update the file.

Over the next few days I made a number of other improvements.

Week 8: I had to explain to the doctors that of course I had not been to the hospital. My postdoc must have been hallucinating. The poor guy. We decided that it was best for all concerned if he took an extended break from work. In fact I made sure he felt no pressure to do any work at all, by relieving him of the psychological strain of his monthly pay.

The paper was almost complete. I pointed out my valuable contributions to the other authors. The evidence was there in the file logs. They were extremely angry. They threatened to track down every one of my changes and weed them out. I had to point out that a messy public authorship dispute might harm their attempts at positive press coverage. Not to mention the harrowing story of the postdoc driven to mental collapse by the threats they made to leave his name off the paper.

They saw my point.

In my smug final email, I suggested we put our differences behind us, and from now on work together to make this paper great. As I patiently explained to them: "In the end, it's the science that matters."


  1. It's funny because it's true!

  2. 100% true. The craze and Mantra "publish or perish " has done more harm than good to academia.


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