Authorship in News, Science, Totter Riding

Also: Health and safety culture in laboratories

[Editor's Note: HD, a.k.a. Dave Askins, editor of The Ann Arbor Chronicle, is also publisher of an online series of interviews on a teeter totter. Introductions to new Teeter Talks appear on The Chronicle.]

Gareth Morgan on a teeter totter.

Gareth Morgan is a scientist working on problems of protein folding and stability.

The Dec. 11, 2009 edition of the scientific journal Molecular Cell includes an article called “Optimizing Protein Stability In Vivo.” It’s a paper co-authored by nine people. The first two names on the list of nine authors are Linda Foit and Gareth Morgan. The paper combines expertise in genetics and chemistry, reflected in the specific strengths of Foit and Morgan, who are two young scientists working in James Bardwell’s lab at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Michigan.

Foit’s name might already be familiar to Ann Arbor Chronicle readers in connection with what might be called a “unsuccessful physics experiment” near downtown Ann Arbor – an attempt to achieve greater residential density with a project called The Moravian. Foit addressed the city council in support of the project.

Morgan’s name is certainly familiar to our readers, but he’s no relation to the publisher of The Chronicle, Mary Morgan. Gareth Morgan was visiting Ann Arbor from England for a two-week span recently and will return to Michigan in October for around a month to continue his collaboration with the Bardwell lab.

The fact that Gareth and Linda’s contribution to the paper was equal is made clear through the last of seven footnotes on the author line:

7 These authors contributed equally to this work.

The collaborative nature of modern science was one of the topics that Gareth and I talked about on the teeter totter last Saturday afternoon, just before the University of Michigan football team started its season against the University of Connecticut Huskies.

We also touched on the issue of health and safety culture in U.S. labs compared to British facilities, and the role that game-playing might play in the future of science. For details, read all of Gareth’s Talk. By way of preparation, it might be worth thinking about where it’s easier to drink a cup of coffee – a U.S. lab or a British lab.

I took the occasion of Gareth’s explanation of the credit conventions for a scientific paper as a chance to reflect very briefly on how the allocation of credit is indicated in other lines of work, including journalism.

Distribution of Credit in Teeter Tottering

In my specialty – teeter tottering – the activity is inherently a collaborative effort between at least two people, one on each end. So it’s natural that the world record for teeter-tottering is credited to two people – Brandi Carbee Petz and Natalie Svenvold. They established the initial Guinness World Record for teeter tottering back in 2003, tottering for 75 hours. Yes, Petz and Svenvold would make excellent guests for Teeter Talk.

Responding to an invitation to participate in Teeter Talk, Petz wrote in a 2006 email: “… I have not set a single cheek on a teeter totter since crawling off the one after 75 hours, and now I will avoid tottering again until it is in your backyard.” Petz lives in Washington state, where she coaches track and field at Western Washington University, so a visit to Ann Arbor just to ride the teeter totter seems somewhat unlikely – still, there’s a possibility that serendipitous travel could land Petz onto my backyard teeter totter.

While teeter tottering is, in fact, at least a two-person endeavor, the convention of Teeter Talk as a publication is to list just the riders on the other end of the board from me. It’s just implicit that I was one of the people on the teeter tottering board, so I don’t require an additional credit in that sense.

Distribution of Credit in Movies

I can’t tell from its promotional trailer if a recent movie documenting the assault on Petz and Svenvold’s teeter tottering record was successful. The movie’s title is “A Tale of Two Totters.” The director, Andy Lorimer, wrote to me that he hopes to submit “Two Totters” to the Ann Arbor Film Festival. But that festival focuses on experimental films, and I don’t know if Lorimer’s movie fits that classification. If it’s not accepted by the film festival this next year, I think it’s worth trying to figure out some other way to give that “Two Totters” an Ann Arbor screening.

Movies, of course, have their own way of acknowledging contributions to the monumental effort reflected in the finished frames projected on the screen: opening and closing credits. Few movie-watchers will sit through the endless scroll of closing credits that list out names they do not recognize and describe tasks they do not understand – best boys, grips and the like. What do those people care about having their name listed?

For independent films, those kinds of credits are actually part of the motivation for some people to invest their time and effort in the movie’s production. Those credits document a contribution of effort, time and energy to the project, and that documentation itself can help a person establish a credential for doing that kind of work.

And that way of acknowledging and distributing credit can even partly underpin a general approach to getting projects done. Last summer, Bill Tozier presented as a topic of one of the brown bag discussions at the Workantile Exchange something called “The ‘Independent Film Model’ for Project-Driven Businesses.” From the description introducing that brown bag discussion:

… which is inspired by independent film production companies but intended for projects that are not necessarily films. The business structure is different from most entrepreneurial models, since the goal is not to start a long-lived business or get a job, but to get a project done as an ad hoc group, distribute credit and revenue, and move on past “distribution” as a group of independent collaborators with no long-term affiliation.

I think the absence of a longer-lived business entity that ties collaborators together on a project at least partly accounts for the more explicit acknowledgment of a person’s contribution to those kinds of projects.

For the kinds of projects associated with a business entity, or some other kind of longer-lasting affiliation, many contributions are simply taken as background assumptions that need not be explicitly stated. In a given Teeter Talk, which is by now a relatively long-lived endeavor, the background assumption is that I was one of the riders.

Distribution of Credit in Journalism, Science

Instead of a teeter tottering interview website, let’s consider a news publication – like The Ann Arbor Chronicle – as an example of a longer-lasting, business-type entity under which a vast number of projects are organized and completed. We give them names like articles, stories, columns, or pieces.

Unlike the practice in the scientific community, a news publication will typically acknowledge only a single author – we call them bylines – for a given article. Others who may have contributed in small ways aren’t singled out for credit – or blame. For example, in my guise as a lowly editor, I am not allocated a byline just for changing some of the words so that they convey coherent meaning, or adding relevant factual context the author might not have known about. Nor are editor folk allocated any explicit credit for having had the idea in the first place to devote some resources to following an issue and writing about it.

In that regard, the field of journalism seems to differ slightly from scientific fields. Take the paper that was first-authored by Gareth Morgan and Linda Foit. Listed as the last two authors out of nine are Sheena E. Radford and James C.A. Bardwell. The last position in the author listings designates the principal investigators – footnotes with contact information accompany Radford and Bardwell’s names, but not other authors’. It is Radford and Bardwell’s program of research that Morgan and Foit were executing in that paper, so Radford and Bardwell get author credit for that.

The Chronicle has a kind of “program of research” as well, but we don’t call it that. We’ll typically refer to “editorial direction.” The editor doesn’t get credit for that direction or the actual editorial work on every single occasion an article is published in The Chronicle. For example, when I asked Hayley Byrnes to write a profile of city planning commissioner and environmental commissioner Kirk Westphal, she turned in a piece, I edited it, and it then was published in The Chronicle with Byrnes’ byline – no byline for me.

Even though I conceived of the occasional “Know Your” profile series, and specifically thought it would be a good idea now to include Westphal in it, gave Byrnes the assignment to write the piece, changed many of Byrne’s original words, and added some of my own, my name is not associated specifically with that article. Instead, I’m indicated elsewhere in the publication as its editor.

That’s just the way it’s done. There are several good reasons why the pattern and practice of news publications is to leave editors’ contributions unacknowledged. For one thing, career advancement of editors does not depend on a count of bylined articles in the way that it does for reporters. So editors aren’t necessarily clamoring for their names to be tacked onto the articles they edit.

What possible positive effect would it have to add “Editorial direction and writing consultation provided by [NAME]” to every news article? One effect might be to provide readers with an assurance that someone is actually minding the store – besides the reporters, who we assume are trying the best they can, but might fall short despite their best efforts.

But an assurance to readers that someone is actually minding the store has historically come from the masthead of the publication itself. It’s implicit that any news publication employs someone else besides the reporter – an editor – who looks at everything before it’s published. Readers are supposed to take that on faith.

In the same way, the readers of Molecular Cell take it on faith that there are people who verified the merit of the papers that appear in that scientific journal – peer reviewers. The reviewers of each paper are not listed anywhere in the papers themselves. Readers simply make the fair assumption that each paper was reviewed and properly vetted.

As traditional news organizations try to compete in the mass online marketplace of news and information, one way they could try to differentiate themselves from the work of “mere amateurs” is to give explicit credit to the work of editors with every article. But I’m skeptical that tactic would be an effective way to distinguish a publication’s quality in the online marketplace.

What if there’s no perceptible difference in the quality between material that’s posted unedited online by just some guy – as compared to the articles of journalists who do the work for a living and who’ve had actual editorial assistance? If that difference is not already apparent to a mass market readers, then an extra editor’s byline isn’t going to help those readers understand that its quality is any better.

So for now, The Chronicle will be sticking with the traditional byline – with the implicit understanding that each article is carefully edited before publication.

As for Teeter Talks, I’d like to take the occasion to thank the 179 people who’ve taken a ride over the past five years, dating back to the first talk with Rene Greff on a wintery day in December 2005. Like the paper co-authored by Linda Foit and Gareth Morgan, alums of the totter have contributed equally to the Teeter Talk effort – and they all deserve some explicit credit for that. If a book is ever published, then this is what the title page should look like:

“Teeter Talk,” a story, in reverse chronological order, by Gareth Morgan, Brian Kerr, Metta Lansdale, Scott Rosencrans, Brian Tolle, Caryn Simon, Shawn McDonald, Brenda Bentley, Ariane Carr, Zachary Branigan, Christopher Taylor, Fred Posner, Kay Yourist, John Floyd, Bridget Weise Knyal, Jameson Tamblyn, Neal Kelley, Dawn Lovejoy, Elizabeth Parkinson, Carsten Hohnke, David Lowenschuss, Charity Nebbe, Stewart Nelson, Jennifer Hackett, Patti Smith, Jeremy Keck, Jeremy Nettles, Jeff Gaynor, Paul Cousins, Colleen Zimmerman, Linda Diane Feldt, Gary Salton, Dan Jacobs, Jeremy Lopatin, Julia Lipman, Andrew Sell, Sara S., Dave Lewis, Bruce Fields, Debra Power, Debbie T., Stephen Smith, Kate Bosher, Charlie Partridge, John Roos, Mary Rasmussen, Alpha Omega Newberry IV, Richard Murphy, Rob Goodspeed, Greg Sobran, Brian Ruppert, Steve Edwards, Chicken Keeper, Debra Schanilec, Cindy Overmyer, Matt Naud, Trevor Staples, Michael Paul, Lucy Ament, The Andersons, Barbara Brodsky, Burrill Strong, John Weise, Laura Rubin, David Wahlberg, Edward Vielmetti, Brooklyn Revue, Mark Lincoln Braun (Mr. B), Bryant Stuckey, Doug Selby, Al Sjoerdsma, Kyle Campbell, Amanda Edmonds, Strange Fruit, Chris Buhalis, Richard Wickboldt, Chris Zias, Russ Collins, Peter Beal, Kris Talley, Derek Mehraban, William J. Clinton, Peter Sparling, Will Stewart, Arrah and the Ferns, Patrick Cardiff, Mark Bialek, Royer Held, Matt Callow, Coco Newton, Shannon Brines, Gina Pensiero, Pete J., Liza Wallis, Diane Ratkovich, Peter Thomason, Iden Baghdadchi, Lou Rosenfeld, Bob Droppleman, Charlie Slick, Josh Funk, Nyima Funk, Zach London, Jimmy Raggett, Aimee Smith, Matt Greff, Dale Winling, Tracy Artley, Steve Kunselman, Doug Husak, John Hieftje, Paul Schreiber, Tom Wall, Melinda Uerling, Nancy Shore, Brandon Wiard, Lisa Dugdale, Geoff Eley, Annie Palmer, Dave Sharp, Eileen Spring, Todd Leopold, Matt Erard, Brandon Zwagerman, Matt Lassiter, Sam Vail, Dave DeVarti, Chris Bathgate, Chris Fici, Mark Ouimet, The Boyds, Tom Crawford, Alan Henes, Neil Cleary, Doug Kelbaugh, Scott TenBrink, Barnett Jones, John Roberts, Shelly Smith, Khurum Sheikh, Chris Pawlicki, Jesse Levine, Patrick Elkins, Sam Nadon-Nichols, Dennis Rymarz, Jim Roll, Karl Pohrt, Scott Schnaars, Josie Parker, David Collins, Erica Briggs, Ed Shaffran, T. Casey Brennan, Andy Bichlbaum, Ingrid Sheldon, B.J. Enright, Jeremy Linden, Gaia Kile, Laura (Ypsi-Dixit), Alan Pagliere, Stephen Rapundalo, Alicia Wise, Leigh Greden, Eli Cooper, Joan Lowenstein, Dustin Krcatovich, Adam de Angeli, Todd Plesco, Larry Kestenbaum, Susan Pollay, Chris Easthope, Brandt Coultas, Henry Herskovitz, Rebekah Warren, Tom Bourque, Conan Smith, Dan Izzo, Steve Glauberman, Rene Greff.

One Comment

  1. September 8, 2010 at 4:16 pm | permalink

    I feel humbled seeing my name there amongst all of those folks! I reread my interview and noted that a) you are a great interviewer and b) I sure can talk a lot! :)