Reply to Liberman and López Olmedo’s “Psychological Meaning of ‘Coauthorship’ among Scientists”, Javier Zavala Rayas

SERRC —  August 31, 2017 — Leave a comment

Author Information: Javier Zavala Rayas, Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas, México,

Rayas, Javier Zavala. “Reply to Liberman and López Olmedo’s ‘Psychological Meaning of “Coauthorship” among Scientists’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 70-72.

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Image credit: Novartis AG, via flickr

To examine scientists, and science itself, from a social sciences perspective helps us reach partial agreements. Although one may agree neither with the methodology used, nor the outcome, such research invites discussion and diverse positions that enrich the dialogue and, ideally, open avenues for future research. Research on coauthorship—the object of Liberman and López Olmedo’s (2017) work with scientists from different areas—helps develop a perspective not only on its meaning, but also links other aspects of the study of scientists from diverse areas such as psychology and sociology.

Scientific communication lends a fundamental and useful process from which to analyze science. Scientific communication possesses many different aspects, processes and cycles—it may start casually, starting with conversations face-to-face, exchanging ideas and points of view through email—that may establish a permanent interaction leading to a scientific article published by coauthors. Through their interactions the participants’ lives, in one way or another, are impacted. Given these interactions, and given that both the concepts of ‘collaboration’ and ‘coauthorship’ are used in different ways in scientific communication, Lieberman and López Olmedo’s research is especially relevant.

Science leads to social progress, yet it seems difficult to speculate how much farther it can advance. Despite these advancements, we find certain words less frequently used by scientists at the beginning of their investigations. Advancing science requires consensus in a particular scientific field. Lieberman and López Olmedo used the method of natural semantic networks in order to describe the results from the psychological meaning of a word, words or terms, used as stimulus—in this case asking what ‘co-author’ means in four scientific knowledge areas.

Lieberman and López Olmedo note that ‘teamwork’ and ‘collaboration’ appear as the first two words that define ‘coauthor’ in three of the four groups (except chemistry) of researchers studied. On one hand, it is important to see the contribution the professional role of ‘scientist’ plays in defining these concepts. On the other hand, it is evident there are social and personal features in defining words. For example, in three disciplines appears, among the 15 reported words, ‘friendship’ (except in the biological sciences). It would be interesting to know if the word appears in chemistry even if it is not part of the first 15 words—perhaps that data should be requested from López Olmedo. There are few articles that describe friendship as a defining factor in the formation of groups, or research teams, and their day-to-day activities; besides, chemists consider ‘comprehension’ as a defining term. However, it is unknown if the term relates to the comprehension of people, or to knowledge in a research area particular to chemistry.

‘Active participation’ is another term describing a coauthor. The term appears in physics, mathematics, and in the biological sciences, but not in chemistry. Perhaps this outcome reflects specific characteristics of the interactions in these knowledge areas. Further analyzing the results, the term ‘common interests’ appears in third place among physicists and mathematicians and in the penultimate place within biological sciences, but it does not appear with the chemists. A certain uniformity exists in mathematics and physics. We find the word ‘discussion’ in fourth place within physicists, sixth place within mathematicians and biological sciences, but it was not found among the chemists.

‘Trust’ and ‘honesty’ are defining words found only among chemists. We often link them to characteristics established from the ethics and morals that are a part of scientific progress. The defining word ‘work’ appears in the four disciplines—as an activity to complete in order for an investigation to progress. The defining word ‘commitment’ is found in biological sciences and chemistry. However, we should not dismiss ‘commitment’ as something not part of physicists or mathematicians. But because ‘commitment’ does not appear as a defining word, it invites future research into the concept of commitment (perhaps using Lieberman and López Olmedo’s work as a model).

‘Human resources training’ appears as a defining term with physicists and mathematicians, possibly as result to a low demand from students for those disciplines (at least in Mexico).  It is considered important to promote an increase in researchers in physics and mathematics to continue contributing scientific knowledge and advancements.

A relevant aspect of the “inner cycle” of scientific communication is the description of informal processes. Such communication can happen in the hallway, such as a chance encounter, and is part of the skills developed for each researcher to interact with peers that allows future collaborations or research developments. We also have the “outer cycle” of scientific communication —the result of a process completed by the coauthors in the form of a scientific article. Notably, coauthorship can get difficult when assigning the order of the coauthors (except for the first author) given the relevance or importance of contributions to the final product. In many cases, this discussion leads to conflict. Such conflict can be an object of study extended out from the dynamics of scientific coauthorship.

Lieberman and López Olmedo’s findings open the possibility for further studies. For example, to know what ‘coauthor’ means in an area of specialization, such as high energy physics, given the likely differences in the nature of specialist work (as opposed to physics as a whole), the differences among research teams, and group dynamics. In the chemists’ research group, for example, some discrepancies were found regarding how the defining words used by Lieberman and López Olmedo were understood. These discrepancies invite us to do more research about chemists—into defining words in particular—perhaps starting with organic and inorganic chemists (as two general classifications) to find out more about their conception of the scientific work. Hopefully, we will get pleasant surprises

The idea of publish or perish becomes a dynamic in the exchange of theoretic positions about topics of investigation, and the exposure and advancement of scientific knowledge. This idea became present in Liberman and Lopez Olmedo’s examination into the defining word ‘productivity’. Such work, in Mexico, could result in public policies on science. For example, in looking at collaboration as a tool of ‘high production’ and ‘rewards’—sometimes not knowing the content of published articles, productivity and other publications—such words are common in all areas of research. We want to assume that the primary interest is to contribute knowledge in respective disciplines, support scientific growth and its impact on ordinary social life.

The absence of notes and references in my reply comes as I wanted to reflect my work sessions and discussions with my mentor, Dr. Sofia Liberman. These sessions lead to a beautiful friendship. Thank you, Sofi, for your lessons of life. I would like to offer a public posthumous acknowledgment of Dr. Sofia Liberman’s work as both a great scientist, and as an originator of studies about science and scientists.

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