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Credit: Hal Mayforth

Will That Be Trash or Credit?

In a world populated by unicorns and centaurs, one creature is more rare and magical than all of the others combined: the graduate student who earns a Ph.D. in the sciences in 3 years.

We’ve all heard myths of such sprites. We dismiss them by qualifying their accomplishments: “That’s because his principal investigator (PI) was retiring,” or “That’s because she went in with a master’s,” or even, “Well, that was back in the ’70s and they didn’t calculate years the same way then.”

Yet my friend, whom we’ll call Ben, was set to do just that. He was that rare graduate student who worked solidly every day from dawn until midnight, then printed out a stack of Science papers to read at home. He was brilliant and hardworking, and his PI relished the data he generated, and you know where this story is going.

Ben made a pretty important discovery. He wrote up his work and handed the paper to his PI. Ben wanted it published quickly because other labs were working on the same subject, and now you really know where this story is going.

The problems began when Ben’s PI disagreed with him over the order of authors on the paper, and that debate raged for a little while. Then he demanded that Ben add an additional author, a professor Ben had never met. Ben pointed out that this professor’s name didn’t belong on the paper, as the professor hadn’t done any of the work. But his adviser insisted, eventually confessing that he wanted the professor to agree to write a grant with him and this was a way to ingratiate himself.

Weeks passed. Ben stood his ground for a while. His PI doubled down, insisting on adding one of the professor’s graduate students as well.

Ben woke up one day to find that another lab had scooped him, publishing the same finding in a major journal as his paper languished in academic purgatory—all because no one could agree on who deserved credit.

Finally, Ben relented. He just wanted to get the paper published. Both names were added to the paper, and a copy was sent to the mystery professor to glance at before it was sent off for publication.

Yup. That’s where this is going. The mystery professor suggested additional experiments to strengthen the paper and refused to grant her blessing until those experiments bore fruit. This was, after all, her right as a co-author. Weeks became months.

Ben woke up one day to find that another lab had scooped him, publishing the same finding in a major journal as his paper languished in academic purgatory—all because no one could agree on who deserved credit.

Ben did not graduate in 3 years.

Scientists like to see themselves—or at least to present themselves—as altruistic and unselfish pursuers of truth. But if scientists merely want to make discoveries that improve the world and increase the bounds of human knowledge, why expend so much energy clamoring for credit? That’s the central question of Morton Meyers’s new book, Prize Fight: The Race and the Rivalry to be the First in Science.i

Meyers tells story after story of scientists battling over credit for important discoveries. Between the fraudsters, whistleblowers, plagiarists, and backhanded opportunists, the book reads like an episode of Flavor Flav Goes to Grad School. (Incidentally, Meyers knows a lot about the ugliness that dwells inside people: He’s also the founding editor-in-chief of the journal Abdominal Imaging.)

Meyers begins with shorter anecdotes (such as the tale of Jonas Salk hogging the acclaim for the polio vaccine while his co-workers felt “invisible”), then settles in for two multichapter case studies. First is the story of Selman Waksman, lauded for his discovery of the antibiotic streptomycin, whose student Albert Schatz felt his own contributions to the work had been deliberately downplayed. By the end, the reader wonders whether this is a tale of a power-hungry PI marginalizing his student—or of an arrogant underling who tries to conflate his own fortunate result with hard work. Like a good scientist, Meyers presents all of the evidence but ultimately lets the reader decide. (A recent article in The New York Times is less generous to Waksman.)

The second case study is the battle between Paul Lauterbur and Raymond Damadian over the development of MRI. As in the Waksman-Schatz affair, Lauterbur reaped fame and fortune while Damadian, who believed Lauterbur exploited his work, did not. (Lauterbur won the Nobel Prize in 2003; Damadian’s prize that year was the Knights of Vartan Man of the Year award for distinguished Armenian Americans.)

Behind Meyers’s stories lies the message that scientists would like to deny that this kind of rivalry exists. We’d like to think we’re above it, that if the Nobel Prize committee knocked on our door tomorrow, we’d say, “Oh, I appreciate the offer, but the real prize should go to science itself. I’m just the worthless human who happened to record it. Please, on your way out, step on my face.”

Yet we’re not, and we know it. If I received a Nobel Prize tomorrow (which is about as likely as Snooki receiving the Lasker Award), you’d better believe I’d accept the medal, if only to slap it on the desk of my Intro to Chemical Engineering professor whose midterm I failed in 1998. Who can’t calculate heat transfer now, beeyotch?

By the end of the book I noticed commonalities among the stories of scientists who enjoyed credit at the expense of others. So if you make an amazing discovery (small “a” and “d,” not to be confused with the infomercial series Amazing Discoveries, in which host Michael Levey learned that the Europainter system allows you to paint a room this size in under 20 minutes), I’m pleased to share these seven steps to ensure that you can keep the credit:

1. Document everything.

Since you don’t know which discovery will be the important one, write down every miniscule detail of your lab work. Spend every moment documenting. Don’t even do lab work. Just document.

2. Bake muffins for the Nobel Prize committee.

Let’s say you’re one of five people who discovered something. Major scientific awards can’t be given to five people! That’s absurd! They’d need to print five individual certificates of merit, and that would tax their trial version of Broderbund Print Shop! In fact, Alfred Nobel, presumably having anticipated Broderbund Print Shop, practically guaranteed infighting by stipulating that his award could not go to more than three people per category per year.

I can’t promise that the committee members have a special affinity for muffins, but who doesn’t like muffins? Terrorists, that’s who.

3. Publicly, and passive-aggressively, thank your co-workers for their tiny, tiny contributions.

This technique allows you to minimize your peers’ work while sounding magnanimous. “I wish to thank my postdoctoral fellow, Pete,” you might say at the end of the lecture, “for the cleanliness of the glassware.” And who can guess your true motive? After all, you’re thanking him.

4. Offer consolation gifts to those who might want to share credit.

You’d be surprised how often they fall for the old “sign this document waiving your commercial rights, and I’ll give you ice cream” trick.

5. Invent a serendipitous story regarding your discovery.

People reward what they can remember, and nothing is as memorable as a dubious and apocryphal tale of serendipity. “I was eating Weetabix,” you might announce, “when the grainy crumbs fell on the floor in the exact wording of my abstract.” Your anecdote will easily supplant anyone else’s claim of boring old “work” and “accomplishment.”

6. Trust no one.

Especially, don’t trust a colleague who says, “Wow, nice data. Can I hold it for just a minute? Please? I promise I’ll give it right back!”

7. Be male.

Many scientists’ contributions have been minimized simply because they had the temerity to not be male. (Had Rosalind Franklin been permitted to append her name as a co-discoverer of DNA structure, James Watson and Francis Crick reasoned, she probably would have insisted the molecule was pink.) Should you find yourself not being male, take corrective measures immediately. You may argue that it’s difficult to simply “be male,” to which I’d reply that I’ve been doing it consistently my whole life without any effort at all. Except when I cried at the end of The Notebook.

Meyers’s central question—why do scientists value credit so highly?—is valid and interesting. And when major prizes or large sums of money are at stake, the question answers itself. But these squabbles happen every day in science, even when the squabblers have very little to gain. Just imagine the number of homicides that have been averted by the funny, little, double-headed superscript cross at the top of journal articles that footnotes to: “These authors contributed equally to this work.”

My friend Ben learned his lesson the hard way. He ended up switching labs, a disruptive event in any graduate student’s trajectory. He graduated in 4 years, which still makes him a unicorn. But the disagreement with his PI poisoned him toward academia, so he chose a path where he’d never again have to deal with petty jealousies or arguments over credit.

He went to law school.


i I first heard of this book when Meyers contacted me to ask if he could include excerpted lyrics from my YouTube video (The Grad Student Rap) in his chapter about mentor-student relationships. Then, coincidentally, my editor at Science Careers asked me to write about the book. So I can say, with only minimal conflict of interest, that the absolute awesomest part of this book is page 217.