Scientific misattribution: Academia’s worst-kept secret


Balancing the scales of scientific credit: is an equitable attribution in research possible? Image credit: Tingey Injury Law Firm, via Unsplash.

Scientific misattribution is a serious and growing challenge facing the world of academia today. Defined as the act of wrongly crediting an individual for the work or findings of another, be it intentional or not, its effects are widespread.

The issue of citations

One study reported that roughly 20% of academics experience coercive self-citation during the publishing process when submitting their papers for review, mainly at the hands of editors themselves. This coercion can include authors being pressured into making additional, and in many cases unnecessary, references to the editors’ work for fear of rejection or refusal of publication. Choosing to do so also diverts attention from the work of more relevant researchers in favour of further promoting already well-known ones.

A survey conducted on academics across multiple fields found that 60% of respondents manipulated their references to include honorary and padded citations favouring the works of reputable researchers over those of lesser renown. Citation padding is often done in the hopes of boosting one’s chances of receiving positive reviews and attention from these authors, even if they were unrelated to the research at hand.

The widespread practice of preventing lesser-known works from receiving as much attention as those of greater repute indicates a fundamental disconnect with how research is accessed and communicated at an institutional level. Academia’s inaction towards such behaviour reinforces the existing status quo of credit loss and misallocation and keeps unrecognised researchers from gaining the attention they deserve.

The importance of credit

Misattribution has recently been brought to the forefront of scientific discussion because of the inherent value credit holds in the contemporary world of academia and research. Academic credit exists in multiple forms, both explicit (i.e., prizes, patents, awards) and implicit (i.e., reputation and promotion of work), and can improve the career prospects of individual researchers: bringing more attention to their work, improving networking opportunities, and incentivising them to continue working in their field to generate more innovative findings. It can also provide authors with other benefits, such as hiring and promotion, greater funding for their work, and more professional connections.

Misattribution, on the other hand, has the opposite effect of preventing researchers from reaping these rewards. It can occur for multiple practical and personal reasons, ranging from some fields receiving more attention, to the overrepresentation of certain demographics in academia. Research topics perceived as being of greater importance or interest to the community also tend to receive disproportionate attention and citations compared to groups working on more niche areas (e.g., COVID-19 vs. neglected tropical diseases). This pushes the findings of the former to the forefront to garner more attention, while the latter remains unacknowledged and overlooked.

Academia and hierarchy

In other cases, misattribution may occur based on an individual’s academic status, with some receiving more credit and recognition for their work. Dubbed the “Matthew effect”, this phenomenon was inspired by the Gospel Reading from Matthew 13:12, in which Jesus proclaims ‘…For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away’. This principle is mirrored in modern academia, where individuals possessing a lot of prestige receive more citations for their discoveries than those who are relatively less reputable, even if their fields, outputs, and work are similar.

This principle can also apply to joint findings involving multiple researchers working on a project. One notable example is the discovery of the Calvin-Benson cycle—a chemical reaction involved in photosynthesis. The original findings were made by Dr. Melvin Calvin, a notable biochemist at the University of California at Berkeley, and his former students, Dr. Andrew Benson and Dr. James Bassham. Despite all three men contributing to the discovery, only Calvin received recognition and a Nobel Prize for his efforts after dismissing Benson from his lab and failing to properly acknowledge either of the two researchers in his work.

A survey conducted on academics across multiple fields found that 60% of respondents manipulated their references favouring the works of reputable researchers over those of lesser renown.

Further practical constraints have made it increasingly difficult to correctly assign credit where it is due, including a lack of standardised practice across scientific disciplines regarding authorship conventions (e.g., alphabetical order or level of importance). The ambiguity in authorship practices makes it challenging to choose a style of authorship compatible with multiple fields. It has also increased the difficulty of assigning individual credit within collaborative, interdisciplinary projects, especially for junior scientists or trainees whose work and contributions often go ignored. Current guidelines attempting to resolve this issue struggle to do so, with efforts to implement starred authorship designations in papers creating conflicts resulting from disagreements over individual contributions.

The case of Benson, Bassham, and Calvin is not an isolated incident. One study looking into the perception of scientists’ work based on their academic status reports that famous scientists are more likely to receive recognition than minor researchers. Only a few select authors constitute the vast majority of papers and citations within certain fields, an issue made worse by the increased number of researchers and publications today. Bibliometric software used to organise such high volumes of work tends to be biased towards already highly cited pieces of work, many of which are authored by popular authors or journals. As a result, the findings of smaller groups remain overlooked or even ignored in favour of these highly cited studies. Only focusing on the works of a small subset of authors publishing in an equally narrow collection of journals may affect the roundedness and comprehensiveness of a particular field, creating a potential confirmation bias that leads readers to favour certain conclusions and opinions over others.

Misogyny and the influence of gender

While many issues exist with the structural and practical aspects of academia that contribute to misattribution in science, this discussion of credit misallocation would not be done justice without broaching the topic of discrimination, particularly sexism and racism. Discrimination continues to feed into the miscrediting or misrepresenting of findings made by women or scientists of colour to this day.

Historically, many female scholars have received less credit or recognition for their work than their male peers, something that has been termed the “Matilda effect” (coined by Matilda Joslyn Gage). This “effect” can be attributed to many causes, ranging from the responsibilities of women in the household that push them to choose part-time work over full-time, to the discrimination many face in fields like physics or engineering. Such discrimination may impact their performance or force them out of the field altogether.

The Matilda effect has affected countless female scientists whose findings have revolutionised our world. From Lise Meitner, whose contributions to the field of nuclear fission were ignored in favour of her male peers that received Nobel Prizes for her work, to Trotula of Salerno, the forgotten female gynaecologist that revolutionised the field of reproductive health. She was deliberately masculinised throughout history owing to the sexist notions of scholars misinterpreting her work in later centuries.

Discrimination continues to feed into the miscrediting or misrepresenting of findings made by women or scientists of colour to this day.

It might be easy to think of such biases as being confined to the ignorance of 20th-century science—after all, female presence in science has increased and even outnumbers men in some fields. Unfortunately, this has not been the case, as several studies report this divide as more prominent and resilient than ever. One study reported the existence of a citation and productivity gap (number of publications per author) between male and female researchers. This gap has increased from ~10% in the 1950s to ~35% in the 2000s, despite more women being present in the field. These figures indicate that women publish less than before and are less likely to receive the same amount of credit for their work as male researchers, even if they receive a similar or even greater number of views per paper. Even the most prolific female scholars in a field remain affected, receiving fewer citations for their work despite attracting greater usage and having a greater overall productivity than other male authors. This means that a woman must obtain more views per paper before acquiring a similar number of citations as she would if she were a male scholar.

The productivity gap might be explained by the differences in career length between the two genders. On average, male researchers retire later than their female counterparts, allowing them to progress further in their careers and giving them a greater timeframe to publish and grow their productivity. Men are also more likely to engage in self-citation, meaning their work might give the impression of having a more significant impact.

Citation and productivity gap between male and female researchers has increased from ~10% in the 1950s to 35% in the 2000s, despite more women being present in the field.

Women are likely to experience greater drop-out rates than men, usually stemming from having greater family responsibilities, maternity leave, or facing discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace. This loss of women along the academic pathway is termed the “leaky pipeline”, highlighting the difficulties women face in making their way up the academic hierarchy. A disproportionate number of professorships are also awarded to men over women, which may further exacerbate the problem.

Racial biases and discrimination in research

Beyond gender, racism is another systemic issue present within academia that affects the proper representation of work. Contributions of numerous scientists of colour go either ignored or unnoticed. A lesser-known case of this is that of Dr. Charles Henry Turner, a Black American zoologist responsible for pioneering the field of animal cognition and studying novel insect behaviours, such as spatial learning and “free will” in insects. Turner’s work was only marginally recognized, as racial biases and discrimination at the time restricted his career progression. Similar findings would later be “rediscovered” by White entomologists such as Dr. Nikolaas Tinbergen or Dr. Karl von Frisch, who would receive credit for their work. Meanwhile, Turner’s contributions were forgotten by history.

Such unsavoury biases exist to an extent today, with non-White American scientists having to endure both longer waiting periods between submission and acceptance of manuscripts, and fewer citations, despite similar content and research as their White counterparts. Black and Hispanic scientists, in particular, remain consistently under-cited relative to White and (East) Asian/Pacific Islander researchers than what is predicated by the textual similarity of each other’s work. Such racial disparities indicate a persistent bias in how discoveries and findings are credited, even subconsciously. Reducing the visibility of minority researchers also limits the funding and support they could receive to grow their work and careers.

On top of this, a reduction in the number of racial minorities enrolling in undergraduate programmes has been reported, with the enrolment of Black American students into science programmes dropping from 12.4% in 2016 to 12.1% in 2018. The Royal Society reported the presence of similar biases in British institutions, with Asian researchers making up only 19.2% of STEM academics aged 34 and under. Black scientists make up even less than that at 1.8%. A gradual decrease in minority progression along the academic hierarchy is also reported, with ethnic minority STEM students experiencing a greater non-completion rate than white STEM students. Fewer BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) academics progress to higher-level positions such as tenure or Senior management, making up only 6.1% of Senior management positions and 11.2% of F1 Professorships between 2018-19, factors potentially affecting an individual’s overall research output and recognition.

Even minority students who progress in academia are more likely to remain on a fixed contract than an open-ended or permanent one.

Many of these figures could result from the wealth disparity that exists between White and non-White minority ethnic groups that prevents the latter from seeking these expensive and often time-consuming careers. When considering the level of participation in higher education by geographic area, which is usually intimately tied to income, Black students from low participation neighbourhoods were less likely to achieve “good honours” than White STEM students from similar backgrounds. Such an interplay between race and class can have knock-on effects on career productivity and impact. Even minority students who progress in academia are more likely to remain on a fixed contract than an open-ended or permanent one. This can lead to problems with job security and satisfaction, increasing an individual’s chances of dropping out of research and preventing them from further progressing in their career.

A Remedy for poor practice

Due to growing concerns of misattribution in science, several solutions are now being proposed as alternatives to traditional academic practice. Examples include algorithms that quantify the share of credit received by collaborators of multi-author papers and allocate it based on an individual’s contribution. It also includes the establishment of committees to address and resolve authorship disputes and ensure proper allocation of credit. Updating current policies on credit allocation to encourage scientists to determine the authors of a paper and their respective responsibilities before research starts could also ensure everyone is informed of their role to prevent any disputes arising over individual contributions later on.

Academic institutions must also pull their weight by addressing systemic issues promoting coercive or manipulative behaviours during publication and citation. Reducing the benefit of self-citations is a good place to start. This could be done by removing such citations from calculations of a given work’s impact factor (how often a paper is cited in a given period). It can then be taken further by issuing greater punishments for editors attempting to coerce credit from authors, such as journals banning them from future editing jobs.

We must confront the reality of these biases still playing an active role in affecting our perception of each other’s work before we can ensure that credit is properly given where it is due.

Issues pertaining to biases and discrimination that prevent women and minorities from receiving as much credit and recognition for their work must also be addressed. This might involve establishing better support systems that help address concerns regarding discrimination or prejudice, introducing diversity and equality training for students and researchers to prevent such biases from impacting their perception of another’s work, launching access schemes that encourage the entry of women and minorities into the sciences, and developing mentoring or networking opportunities that prioritise and encourage underrepresented demographics within the sciences to share their work.

With all these issues and barriers facing researchers that seek to have their work rightfully recognised, there is still a lot of work to be done before the academic system can ensure equal attribution and recognition in science. Major social reform within the scientific infrastructure is necessary to resolve these issues. We must confront the reality of these biases still playing an active role in affecting our perception of each other’s work before we can ensure that credit is properly given where it is due.