Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Civil disobedience in scientific authorship, & resistance and insubordination in science: The distribution of credit, resources & opportunities in science is heavily skewed due to unjust practices and incentives, hardwired into science’s rules

Civil disobedience in scientific authorship: Resistance and insubordination in science. Bart Penders & David M. Shaw. Policies and Quality Assurance, Volume 27, 2020 - Issue 6, Pages 347-371, May 14 2020.

Abstract: The distribution of credit, resources and opportunities in science is heavily skewed due to unjust practices and incentives, hardwired into science’s rules, guidelines and conventions. A form of resistance widely available is to break those rules. We review instances of rule-breaking in scientific authorship to allow for a redefinition of the concept of civil disobedience in the context of academic research, as well as the conditions on which the label applies. We show that, in contrast to whistleblowing or conscientious objection, civil disobedience targets science’s injustice on a more systemic level. Its further development will ease critical evaluation of deviant actions as well as helping us evaluate deviance, defiance and discontent in science beyond issues of authorship. However, empirically, civil disobedience in science engenders uncertainties and disagreements on the local status of both act and label.

Keywords: Civil disobedienceresistanceresearch integrityresearch governanceauthorshipprotest


Whether in the form of pseudonyms, guest authors or creative authorship attribution processes, civil disobedience in authorship serves the explicit purpose of demonstrating how many of the written and unwritten rules governing the distribution of credit and other resources in academia reinforce a long series of inequalities. The unwillingness of some authors to accept that they cannot give credit to those whom they feel legitimately deserve it, or cannot receive credit when they legitimately feel they should, and their willingness to act in a variety of ways, constitutes a critique of scientific infrastructures and their undesirable fall-out. Civil disobedience calls for critical examination of these infrastructures and invites them to reflect upon themselves. We do not claim that all the examples we included meet the formal criteria for civil disobedience provided by Thoreau, Schuyt or others. Many of them do not: some resemble civil disobedience but are based on laziness or annoyance rather than moral outrage, and others game the system rather than attempting to expose its weaknesses. In many cases the boundaries are very fuzzy.9 If anything, the examples have served as a training set for our redefinition of the notion for the context of science: the cases we discuss support a modification of their conception of civil disobedience for this particular academic context – although the consent requirement would most likely also benefit the conception of civil disobedience in many other sectors of society structured around collective action.

We believe that these modifications retain the conceptual core of civil disobedience as put forth by Thoreau and Schuyt, thereby allowing the retention of the label: the acts of resistance are not part of conventional academic practice, but neither do they constitute conscientious objection or whistleblowing. While they may appear limited in their practical effect in terms of changing the culture of science, they consistently draw attention to issues affecting researchers and also act as a means of combating the moral attrition imposed on researchers by injustices in science. Assembling these seemingly disparate actions under the label of civil disobedience in science will ease critical evaluation of deviant actions as well as helping us evaluate deviance, defiance and discontent in science beyond issues of authorship. To avoid abuse, an empirical focus remains vital, so that the label itself does not act as a legitimation in and of itself.

Scientific publishing practices will continue to evolve, and so will the policies, rules, guidelines and conventions that prescribe specific behavior. Along with prominent scholarship on the detrimental effects of the current socio-political infrastructures of science, civil disobedience is a critical voice that is easily ignored, or dismissed as harmless fun. We must realize though, that many of these policies, rules, guidelines and conventions are national and sometimes even regional (or limited to a single institute). The discussion of whether or not breaking a rule qualifies as civil disobedience is thus an empirical one, requiring the study of local practices and conventions as well as the motivations of particular agents, for instance: does an actor’s annoyance constitute moral outrage or not?

Answering these and other questions about civil disobedience requires data and the need for data also presents a lesson for how to legitimately shape and initiate civil disobedience. When documented, moral outrage, acts of deviance, communication about them and considerations underpinning all of them constitute such data. In the absence of such evidence, when authors are revealed to be guests only after the fact, and transparency about disobedience is lacking, the presumption must be that this is not a case of disobedience but of research misconduct (or at least detrimental research practice), with all the sanctions that that might entail. While we support the use of civil disobedience in science when done ethically, those engaging in it can actively articulate the boundary between practices that could be misconstrued as misconduct and those that represent civil disobedience by engaging with the question as an empirical matter.

We also cannot ignore the political dimensions of the problem. Power asymmetries in science place early career researchers at huge disadvantages, even in their ability to engage in civilly disobedient behavior when legitimately morally outraged. Tenure and other protective measures makes civil disobedience safer for senior faculty than for young researchers.10 To them, incomplete adherence to the aforementioned criteria may offer a proxy for that safety (especially the transparency and consent requirements) and manifestations in the form of satire offer similar protection – but they too can document the process. Ideally, we would see civil disobedience in faculty members such as in the case of Sarah Elgin, who included hundreds of students as authors on a publication. In fact, her actions are exemplary of civil disobedience: she has publically defended her actions when the contributions of all students were challenged as not living up to minimum requirements for authorship. As part of this, she referred to the mismatch between the reality of large-scale research and credit-distribution mechanisms. Her actions sparked immediate debate in the community about credit politics and inequality in science (for a list of examples, see Woolston 2015). In fact, she has done so more than once, as her lab’s web pages disclose. Despite the availability of such a, perhaps paradigmatic, example, in the international, global domain of science, uncertainties and disagreements on the status of resistance, digression, deviant behavior and the attribution of the label “civil disobedience” are likely to remain. Researching the rebellious makes fraud, fun and civil disobedience into strange bedfellows and urges us to take great care in attributing said labels.

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