Archive for April, 2012

A version of this piece was published in The Australian Higher Education Supplement on 4th April 2012 as ‘Credit where it’s due – but who deserves top billing?’ I posted this on my blog last year but have moved it up as I have made quite a few revisions.

We do not characterise a ‘philosophical author’ as we do a ‘poet’, just as in the eighteenth century, one did not construct a novelist as we do today. Still, we can find through the ages certain constants in the rules of author construction.

Michel Foucault, ‘What is an author? In The Foucault Reader. Edited by Paul Rabinow. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984, p. 110

Random thoughts in response

In the late 1960s, French theorists Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault famously pronounced the author to be, if not dead, then decidedly fragile. Foucault in his 1969 article ‘What is an author?’ drew attention to the considerable ambiguity surrounding contemporary and historical notions of the author, defining the author as the originator of certain socially agreed upon types of writing.

To explain what he means by the ‘certain constants’ referred to above, Foucault invokes the four criteria Saint Jerome used to determine whether a body of work had the same author, namely (1) consistent quality across works attributed to one author (2) conceptual and theoretical coherence (3) consistent style (4) references only to events which happened before the designated author’s death. (p. 113) While recognising that Saint Jerome’s criteria might appear very simplistic in the context of contemporary literary criticism, Foucault argues they are still descriptive of the basic processes used to attribute authorship.

What I want to do here is offer a few reflections on the idea of the author in the current university context. Authorship is perhaps one of the most highly prized commodities in the academic world. It is used as a measure of reputation and a measure by which individuals are judged worthy of promotion through the ranks of what remains an intricately feudal hierarchy. Being an author who has produced numerous works published by prestigious publishing houses and journals and which are cited and otherwise referred to by many others (‘impact’) is the nirvana of academic achievement. Other functions such as being a good teacher, a good administrator or engaging in community research and consultancy, still come in a remote second in this tacitly agreed upon academic pantheon, in spite of the best efforts of university administrations to valorise these latter roles.

But authorship does not function in the same way across all academic disciplines. The sciences, social sciences and the humanities all have different rules which govern what it means to be an author. In the sciences, the rules are complex. A paper often has numerous co-authors. This can reflect the notion that the paper or journal article tends to function more as a report or a write up of findings than a piece of argued writing and that everybody involved in conducting the experiments and theorising the empirical research should therefore be acknowledged as an author. Thus authorship becomes a category which is used to recognise the generation and ownership of certain research practices and theories rather than simply writing. The authors listed on a scientific paper might not always necessarily be the actual writers of that paper.

Further to this, sometimes attribution has more to do with the relative rank of the author in a hierarchy of power than the amount of actual work done by the named author(s). For example, a professor and supervisor may be given far more weight than a student – even if the student has done most of the work. This rather worrying practice is being imported into the social sciences and humanities and sees postgraduate students (a minority as yet) automatically listing their supervisor as co-author on papers for which the student has been solely responsible. Thus the Matthew principle begins to operate and the professor/supervisor accrues more power, adding items to their publication list at little cost. The student (perhaps) improves their chances of publication and the status of their work by the addition of a prestigious name to their work. One might also mention another practice, which is hopefully less prevalent than it once was, namely the publication by the god-professor of the work of anonymous research assistants and postgraduate students under his own name (and the gender attribution here is deliberate).

To deal with the problem of the order in which co-authors should be listed, there is now even a piece of software – Authorder – which is purportedly designed to simplify the process, using complex calculations of percentages in relation to work done. Theoretically at least, the order of authors listed should then reflect who has done the most work on the paper.

This situation in the sciences has long been recognised by those involved in the field as one fraught with dangers and wide open to corruption and abuses of power. Practices which have been observed to be highly problematic in their scientific disciplines of origin are now seeping through, without any apparent thought as to the consequences, into the humanities and social sciences. The adulation of science and scientific method as a benchmark of truth for all forms of knowledge, even after coming under heavy attack in the 1960s and beyond, is clearly reasserting its primacy in ever more sophisticated forms in the new millennium.

In the humanities however, the link between author and writing cannot be attenuated in this fashion. Humanities output is defined by the writing and argumentation itself: it is not simply a report on some other exterior ‘research’ activity. The problem of how others should be recognised in the production of this kind of writing, has usually been solved by the practice of acknowledgements, rather than by granting co-authorship. So, for example, research assistants, editors, typists, colleagues and friends who have read the writing and made suggestions, colleagues who have helped to write research grants and other institutional supports are thanked in footnotes or dedicated acknowledgements sections, they are not listed as co-authors.

But things are perhaps not so cut and dried in the social sciences where various types of empirical research such as statistical, interview and survey data are all reported on. Is the model of multiple authorship of papers, in the science style of recognising contributors to the research (or even supervisors), rather than solely those involved in the writing and conceptualisation of the paper valid here? This is an interesting question. Often a paper in the social sciences is more than a matter of mere reporting of findings: it includes an argument about the data. Given this is the case, should those merely collecting data be included as authors?

In some areas of social science there has been a trend towards granting co-authorship to the diverse categories of people involved in the infrastructure of producing a journal article. This is sometimes done in a democratic spirit of inclusivity, expressing a desire to help people accrue points in the struggle to achieve the holy grail of promotion. Laudable as this inclusive impulse may be, can this diversity of contributors be granted the title of ‘author’ without unduly attenuating what this is generally understood to mean?

Perhaps we could ask a further question from a slightly different angle. What is the general expectation of a reader when he or she sees an author’s name attached to a piece of published writing? I might specify that we are talking about the ‘author function’ here. As Foucault notes ‘A private letter may well have a signer – it does not have an author; a contract may well have a guarantor – it does not have an author. An anonymous text posted on a wall probably has a writer but not an author’ (pp. 107-8). The reader of an article in the social sciences or humanities usually assumes that the author of a published piece of work has been involved in some way in the actual drafting of the text and the construction of its arguments.

Foucault adds that the historical invention of the notion of ‘authorship’ marked a ‘moment of individualisation in the history of ideas, knowledge, literature, philosophy, and the sciences’ (p. 101). One might be tempted to argue that once the number of listed authors has expanded beyond a certain numerical threshold, then there is a move away from this moment of individualisation. But this doesn’t take into account the fact that each listed author accrues another point on their CV which individualises them further both within the power structures of the institutional field of the university and that of the larger global academic community.

If a new model of authorship is going to be instituted in the social sciences, then in the interests of truth and transparency, there needs to be a far clearer delineation of just what the attribution of ‘author’ means. Or, perhaps to make things simpler, there needs to be a return to earlier and still existing models of acknowledgements with author status only being granted to those who have actually done the writing and arguing.

What is not in doubt in any of this, however, is that the notion of the author is, and has always been, shot through and through with complex relations of power. These need to be the subject of constant vigilance and critical consideration within the academic economy if the integrity of the research process and the value of its contribution to the wider social body is going to be maintained.

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