The Problem with Scientific Credit

Our algorithm said a courtesy driver should have won the Nobel Prize.

By Albert-László Barabási | NAUTILUS

I first learned about Douglas Prasher three years ago, when an algorithm we’d just developed made an unpredictable prediction: He should have been a recipient of the 2008 Nobel Prize.

Instead, the award had been given to three other scientists. Even more surprising was our inability to find Prasher anywhere. He wasn’t on the faculty at any university. We couldn’t locate him at an industrial research lab. In fact, as we started digging for him, we realized that he hadn’t written a research paper in nearly a decade. It was truly puzzling. This fellow, who, according to our algorithm, deserved a Nobel Prize, had seemingly disappeared off the face of the Earth.

In 2013, Hua-Wei Shen, an accomplished computer scientist from Beijing, joined my lab. Though new to the team, he was intimately familiar with our work. In addition to running a network science lab at his own university, he had also translated my previous book, Bursts, into Chinese. He eagerly joined our small but growing “success group.” Each time we begin a new project, we start with a journal club—a reading group that surveys the current scientific literature to understand what is being done in a particular area. Each of us reads a batch of papers and summarizes key findings for the rest of the lab. Given that a million papers are published each year, this is the only way we’ve found to explore the vast body of knowledge out there.

At one of these journal clubs, Hua-Wei presented a sociology paper that investigated credit allocation in science. As we discussed the issue, we realized how bizarre our profession’s credit protocols are. You have to be an insider to understand the nuances. Take, for example, the paper that reported the discovery of W and Z particles, which was authored by 137 scientists. Who walked away with the Nobel? The 105th and 126th authors, Carlo Rubbia and Simon van der Meer, of course. Somehow, the Nobel Committee manages to sort out who did what and who deserves the lion’s share of the credit, no matter where an author’s name lies. But how exactly?

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