APS News


Authorship Practices Need Review

How "scientific" is the process of assigning authorship on a scientific research paper that includes a postdoc? I decided to find out with a questionnaire. Three samples were taken of close to 100 postdocs each from: 1) a set semi-randomly approached at a conference, 2) from a national lab mailing list, and 3) a university postdoc mailing list, with an overall return rate of 57 percent. The core of the questionnaire was the APS ethics statement.

Let us first start with how many postdocs have ever seen the APS ethics statement? A low 23 percent.

Did postdocs think that obtaining grants and other funding for a project qualifies as a "substantial contribution" that warrants authorship? Forty-six percent of the postdocs answer affirmatively, while almost everybody else has the opposite opinion (a few say it depends).

Since postdocs apparently have different opinions about authorship a discussion about authorship criteria seems needed in order to properly assign authorship credit. Thus another question read: Has your supervisor ever discussed the criteria for authorship with you? Only 28 percent answer affirmatively.

I then asked about the details of the authorship assignment of papers written (with the postdoc as an author) in the current postdoc position. I asked who were the authors and whether - according to the APS ethics statement -- the authors of the papers made a "substantial contribution."

In 22 percent of papers with the supervisor as an author, the postdocs, guided by the APS ethics statement, feel that the supervisor should not be an author. Papers with additional authors other than the supervisor and the postdoc had in 37 percent of the cases one or more authors, other than the postdoc or the supervisor, who should not be there.

What were the reasons for inappropriate authorships? Implicit or explicit pressure from advisor; advisor's friend needs to be an author; tradition; advisor of a collaborator needs to be rewarded; the authors should appear as a team, etc.

It appears that the process of assigning authorship is not particularly scientific.

A full report can be obtained fron the author [tarnow@netcom.com].

Eugen Tarnow
New Brunswick, New Jersey

Less Than Optimistic Views

I found Julian Simon's Back Page article an interesting exercise in misdirection. The concern of serious observers over the current exponential growth of population is not that food is going to vanish off our plates at some precisely determined date in the future, but rather that such growth seems unsustainable over the long term. Not being an economist, I would hesitate to insist on which of energy, water, disease, food, or whatever will come first as the major future challenge to mankind. Speculating on copper futures couldn't be more irrelevant.

Simon provides solace to those who do not need it; those already unwilling to admit that an exponential population growth cannot rationally be sustained indefinitely. Ironically, the implicit message is that technology can be counted on to ride (repeatedly!) to the rescue. Ironic because many of the apologists for unfettered population increase have little or no other interest in technology, if not downright antipathy. If memory serves, Professor Simon earlier gave a positive spin to this issue as "more geniuses" being born to solve our problems thanks (in both senses) to the ever-expanding population. How it is that economists, of all people, know that technology can be depended on to deliver in every case is not spelled out in the article. Another question that is not addressed is: why? What advantage does our present rapid population increase confer? If indeed we can always count on new solutions and substitutes coming along, fine. But why put ourselves in the position of facing disaster if any one of these falters? No Western government to my knowledge is actively trying to get its population to grow faster in order to "reap" all of these purported advantages.

The hydrologist comes back to report that the reservoir is almost dry and Professor Simon runs among the people shouting, "Wonderful, drink all you want because someone will then even sooner think up another solution to our need for water!" Sure. As for bets, I'll bet that half the (non-domestic) animals in current children's books will be extinct in 50 years; I'll bet that carbon dioxide continues to increase exponentially in the atmosphere as long as the population itself increases exponentially, I'll bet that the population will easily exceed the official UN "predictions" (which are consistently twice whatever the current population is: 10 billion a few years ago when the total was 5, now it's 12 given that the total is 6), baring of course massive die-offs of Malthusian proportions. Trouble with betting on the long term is you aren't around to collect.

F. Curtis Michel
Rice University


Has your mail bag been coming in light, or what? It's hard to resist responing to Julian L. Simon's "Resources and Population: A Wager" in your March 1996 issue. However, my paycheck is too insecure to wager, so a letter will have to do.

It is good to hear there really is some form for optimism about the future and the possibility that technology will preserve the improved standard of living we enjoy and help spread it more uniformly to other lands, including those close to the equator. The same point is made by Jesse H. Ausubel ("Can Technology Spare the Earth?" in American Scientist, March-April 1996) He suggests ways evolving efficiencies can restore the environment even as population grows, but also notes haw increasing levels of consumption make the problem appear more formidable.

Guarded optimism appears appropriate because of the way destructive unrest can accompany population growth. Savage events in Rwanda and in what was Yugoslavia are examples of this apparent correlation. The incredible destruction of human life in Europe during this century has been linked to population pressure by historians such as Friedrich Meinecke and Jacques Bainville. Surely other factors are also involved, but all deserve to be considered and weighed if we hope to prevent such misfortunes from visiting us in our own communities. The economic value of personal security may be difficult to estimate, but its subjective value is enormous when it is our own or that of those close to us.

It is an oversimplification to state flatly that better living started only 200 years ago. More than two centuries ago, Adam Smith remarked (in print) on the sensible improvement in the human condition compared to earlier times. Charles Van Doren points out ( in "A History of Knowledge") that the growth of knowledge needed for this improvement was accelerated by a general increase in prosperity subsequent to the black death four centuries earlier. And this paradox shows population growth is not a negligible factor in Professor Simon's wager, in which I wish him every success.

Both Professor Simon and Jesse Ausubel present the same valuable message: those of us who hope for a better future should be on guard that pessimism does not paralyze our capacity for positive action.

Robert R. Turtle

Simon Article Legitimizes Foolish Notions

I usually enjoy reading the well-considered comments on The Back Page, although I do not always agree with them. However, I do not think the recent illogical article by Julian Simon was worth printing. It wastes paper and your readers' time as well as lending legitimacy to some foolish idea. The author has an extremely narrow point of view concerning the success of progress without any concern for the environment. Now I assume there will be many letters to the editor with further discussions of what most of us understand.

Janet Machol

Editor's Note: Indeed the Back Page article by Julian Simon stimulated many more members to respond than we can accommodate. The gist of these letters are represented by these printed here. We apologize to those whose letters were not printed.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin