The phrase “I could have done that” is sometimes urgently whispered and sometimes proclaimed contemptuously in art galleries. It is typically uttered in response to works that seem to be just a load of rubbish. But the incitement of such responses is the point of these works, as they speak of the death of craft as a defining characteristic of an artist.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, which features a full-size tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde, is a work by Damien Hirst, but he didn't make it. Many artists have ceased to make their own works, neither painting their paintings nor casting their own sculptures. Some artists even outsource the manufacture to the Far East, where manpower and craft skills are still plentiful. Others assemble teams of top engineers to build their installations. Without a doubt, these contemporary artists are producing extraordinary art, but should they be claiming sole artistic authorship?

Contemporary scientists may raise a quizzical eyebrow at this behavior, but we should be careful to get our own house in order first. If you examine the author list of a paper, you cannot really tell for certain if the first author was the main researcher or the head of the research group. You cannot tell if the nth author did anything at all, or is a paragon of humility. How many scientific papers acknowledge the team of people who contributed to the project: the technicians, the wizards of the mechanical workshops, or the microscope support staff? Intellectually, we stand on the shoulders of giants such as Gibbs and Hooke, but our balance on those shoulders is provided by the librarians, on-line archivists, computer support staff, and lab administrators.

In the world of show business, these people do not go unsung, as is evident by the voluminous scrolling credits at the end of every movie. If science were to follow this example, not only would research teams start acknowledging the importance of support staff, but it might have another beneficial knock-on effect – it would instantly become clear who did what on any publication. The scientific producers would be the people who obtained the funding and had the overall vision for the research. The scientific director would be the person whose day-to-day job it was to direct the research – “wonderful darling, but can you do that experiment again, and this time with less feeling!” The young stars would be the PhD students and post-docs who do the work and attend premieres (conferences) in outlandish outfits.

If science adopted this format, not only would we all know who is good at doing experiments, who is good at doing calculations, and who is good at managing funding, we would be acknowledging that science requires teams of people with different skills. In a climate where the media are rightly more and more interested in what we do, a paper could also contain interpretation warnings like the parental guidance ratings in movies. Thus, we might have a ‘hype warning’ rating on papers, which would be the ratio of the potential social impact of a paper divided by the number similar papers that confirm its results. The change might even make scientific papers more interesting to read and turn abstracts, the dry toast of the academic diet, into something a little more appetizing – the scientific preview: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into theoretical waters, the discontinuities are back, and back with a vengeance…”

Read full text on ScienceDirect

DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(04)00270-6