Intended for healthcare professionals



BMJ 1997; 315 doi: (Published 20 September 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:744

Changing authorship system might be counterproductive

  1. Tim Scott, Research fellowa
  1. a Centre for Health Services Studies, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL

See editorial by Richard Smith

Editor—The problem of authorship in science1 should be set in the wider context of debates that have raged in literary criticism since the early 1970s. In the work of Derrida most notably, the traditional concept of authorship with its implications of individualism and authority over the interpretation of textual meaning has been overthrown in theory, if not entirely in practice.2 Authorship is a political problem; it involves staking and maintaining territorial rights, colonisation, and empire building. In this it fairly accurately reflects the power game that is involved in the conduct of science itself. The sociology of scientific knowledge shows the actual practice of science to be remote from the received image of selfless dedication to the pursuit of disinterested knowledge.3 4 It is, rather, a highly politicised sector of the economy in which the first priority is to obtain the funds necessary to establishing and maintaining those research programmes on which so many scientists' careers, at all levels of seniority, depend.

This is not a criticism, merely an observation. Hence I think it would be a mistake to conclude that the authorship system has broken down and needs radical revision.5 If the present system reflects the structural and dynamic power relations that constitute scientific communities, and if these relations are the inevitable basis of the institutionalisation and conduct of science, then the only reasonable justification for change would be to represent accurately a radically revised basis of science itself. As far as I can tell, this revision is impracticable because power relations will always be the essence of the generation of scientific knowledge. A depoliticised authorship system implies a depoliticised science, which implies its total detachment from the state, industry, and society. Even if such a science were possible it …

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