Gendered science kits aren’t so great for boys either.

In response to my post about science kits for girls, a reader wrote to me:

I would be really interested to see an exploration of the kits for boys from the same company. They also appeal to stereotypes that are damaging by offering only destruction, gags, and grossouts as the appeal of learning about science.

As requested, here we go!

If the selection of science kits for girls was inescapably pink, the boys’ ones have to be blue. Otherwise, how would the adults doing the shopping know that they were on the right page to find appropriately gendered gifts for the kids on their shopping lists? Surely, these adults must be utterly baffled by a webpage layout like this one:

How do you tell which are the girls’ kits and which are the boys’ ones? What’s the big idea of making kits sortable by subject-matter categories, or price, or appropriate age range? There are just too many possibilities here for interesting the gift-recipient in science!

Although maybe that’s a feature, not a bug.

Anyway, back to the WILD! Science boys’ offerings. In contrast to the girls’ offerings, which included 13 different kits, there are only six kits targeted specifically to boys. It’s unclear what the thinking is behind this disparity. Perhaps it’s that science is a harder sell for girls, requiring a greater variety of kits to grab their interest, while boys are more “naturally” inclined toward scientific pursuits and thus need less of a prodding from a kit. Maybe it’s that girls are more acquisitive of consumer goods (especially those packaged in pink boxes), thus supporting a larger stable of girls’ kits than boys’ kits.

Or possibly it’s that boys’ interest in science are so narrow that these six kits include the only plausible points of entry.

(Recall, though, that the 13 girls’ kits included enough overlap — multiple kits on crystal growth, fragrances, and soap-making — that they don’t really constitute 13 possible points of entry to their interest in science.)

One of the boys’ kits is Weird Slime Science. Its product description is nearly identical to that of the corresponding girls’ kit, Beautiful Blob Slime. One difference is that the description of the girls’ kit emphasizes the safety of the chemicals used. Does this suggest that adults worry more about (or care more about) the safety of girls than of boys? Is implied danger a selling point of science where boys (but not girls) are concerned? Either way, the big difference between the two kits seems to be that one comes in a blue box and the other comes in a pink box.

The boys also get a soap-making kit, although theirs is described as “Practical Joke Soap”. In addition to making the soap, they get to “[e]xplore … multiple stage embedding and the art of welding with soap to create realistic and gruesome soap objects like brains and eyeballs.” The girls’ soap-making kits offer no such practical instruction on practical joking.

Let’s pause for a moment to examine an assumption that seems to be built into the gendering of these soap-making kits: that girls are interested in what is pretty and fragrant (and exfoliating) while boys are interested in the gruesome (or in the hilariously shocked reactions of people who come upon these gruesome soap specimens). Some girls may prefer the pretty and the fragrant, but other girls may prefer realistically gross stuff. (I am a parent to at least one such girl.) Some boys may enjoy the gross-out, but other boys don’t. And, science kits that police these gender stereotypes run the risk of alienating boys from science, too. If you’re a boy that doesn’t like gruesome stuff, this kind of kit will not encourage you to like science. As well, it may lead to the uneasy feeling that you’re not living up to societal expectations of masculinity.

That’s a pretty rotten gift to give a kid.

This is not to say that these heavily-gendered science kits are the only source a kid has about these expectations. When I was little, I was so fascinated by creepy crawlies that I routinely picked up any earthworm I could get my hands on. Despite some pretty consciously egalitarian parenting, my younger brother was (I am told) of the view that if a girl could pick up a worm, a boy should be able to do it too. (Maybe he got this message from kids at preschool, or other relatives, or TV.) However, he was so grossed out by actually doing so that he squeezed the life out of each of the poor worms he picked up.

In other words, gender stereotypes don’t just hurt boys and girls — they also hurt earthworms!

Other boys’ offerings include a Hyperlauncher Rocket Ball Factory (with which to make superballs and explore F=ma), Spooky Ice Planet (which seems to involve crystal growth, but it’s pretty hard to tell from the product description), Perils of the Deep (ditto), and a kit called Wild Physics and Cool Chemistry. As it happens, this last kit combines the boys’ Hyperlauncher Rocket Ball kit and Weird Slime kit, which is probably why it appears in the boys’ offerings. It’s pretty striking, though, that none of the girls’ kits is identified as a Physics and/or Chemistry kit. Is it more important that boys recognize these activities as connected to well-defined science subjects in school? Why exactly should that be? And, how is this consistent with the lack of clear descriptions as to what scientific principles boys might learn from “Spooky Ice Planet” or “Perils of the Deep”?

More generally, note that the boys’ kits seem to assume that boys are interested in: stuff that’s spooky or gross, stuff that bounces, and (maybe) stuff that’s dangerous. Unlike the product descriptions for the girls’ kits, none of the product descriptions for the boys’ kits pitch these activities as ways to make gifts for family and friends, which suggests that boys are assumed to be more self-centered and less giving.

Again, these are gendered stereotypes that will only fit some boys, while ignoring the complexities of most actual boys. To the extent that these kits send subtle and not-so-subtle messages to boys about how they ought to be, they police masculinity in a way that is bound to be limiting to boys and the men they grow up to be.

And, it’s not obvious that using these gender stereotypes is a good way to get boys interested in science.

Some reasons gendered science kits may be counterproductive.

We want kids to explore science and get excited about learning (and doing) it. Given that kids learn so much through play, rather than just by trying to sit still at a desk and to pay attention to a teacher who may or may not convey enthusiasm about science, you’d think that science kits marketed as “play” would be a good thing.

Why, then, am I skeptical about the value of science kits for girls?

Packaging “science for girls” this way is likely to teach girls as much about societal expectations as about science.

There is, without a doubt, a lot of interesting chemistry involved in making soap, perfume, and make-up. However, defining that chemistry as of interest to girls — especially pre-teen girls — conveys a message that girls are (or should be) naturally interested in grooming and cosmetics. This, in turn, conveys a message that girls ought to be exfoliating and toning and moisturizing, mastering the smoky eye and the shiny lip, and discovering a signature scent.

Here, I see two messages being sent to girls by gendered science kits.

One is that science is not so cool in itself that a girl would appreciate it if it came in a box that wasn’t pink. Instead, science is presented as cool because it can be shown to be compatible with acceptable femininity, crammed into one of the narrow boxes that contain it.

Bath bombs, after all, do not actually explode on contact with bath water.

The other, more subtle, message is that cramming oneself into the narrow box of acceptable femininity is important. This box puts constraints on acceptable appearance (at least neat, if not pretty, fluffy, and glittery), and smell (like a flower rather than a young human), and behavior (interested in making stuff, especially as gifts for others, rather than in blowing stuff up or taking stuff apart to see how it works).

In tandem, the messages conveyed by these kits seem to be saying: you can like science without transgressing the boundaries of acceptable femininity — but those boundaries are very important, and you would do well to learn where they are and stay within them. Maybe they will convince some girls that science is cool, but if they also convince those girls that they have to perform femininity in such a narrow way, is this a net win?

Here, I think it’s worth thinking in the longer term. Will buying into societal expectations about the right way to be a girl help girls succeed in science education and careers? Consider that “the right way to be a girl” has tended to be skewed against showing oneself to be good at math and science in middle school and high school. Consider as well that “the right way to be a woman” has tended to be loaded up with expectations about having and raising children, making meals, and keeping a beautiful house — duties that rather cut into one’s time in the lab or the field, if one wants to pursue a scientific career.

Plus, the phenomenon of stereotype threat suggests that girls and women recognize that society sees being female and being good at math or science as in opposition. To the extent that policing acceptable femininity strengthens this perception, whether on the individual level or the societal level, maybe we’re better off not feeding this pretty pink beast.

These kits won’t make girls who know that gendered expectations are a raw deal love science.

Amazingly, some of us weren’t pretty pink princesses when we were girls.

If we didn’t already know science was fun, packing it into a pink box and reassuring us of how feminine it could be would turn us off.

If we did already know science was fun, packing it into a pink box and reassuring us of how feminine it could be would insult us. Why would you think you’d need to give science this particular spin to make us want to do it? Why wouldn’t you give us the really good science kits — the ones they boys were getting as gifts?

Here, the folks marketing science kits for girls are making the assumption that all girls are the same. Assuming that young females are a monolithic group — especially one whose interests you perceive to be so narrow — means you are bound to alienate the girls who don’t fit your stereotype. And if it’s simply a matter of not getting their money because they aren’t buying your product, that’s one thing. However, if in the process of persuading a girl that your science kit is not for her you are also persuading her that science is not for her, that’s a harm it would be good to address.

Even girls who perform acceptable femininity without breaking a sweat may prefer a non-gendered science kit.

I have a confession to make: My youngest child, currently ten years old, is a pretty pink princess. She will wear make-up whenever she can get away with it, and embraces skirts and heels and pantyhose.

However, she would be insulted to get a “science for girls” kit rather than one with more intellectual heft. For at least a couple years, one of her favorite “toys” has been a big set of Snap Circuits, which come in a box that is blissfully ungendered. And, she does plenty of chemistry with us at home, regardless of the fact that to date exactly none of it has been aimed at creating cosmetics.

A pretty pink princess has facets.

Tying a girl’s interest in science to acceptable femininity may be a bad strategy if she outgrows acceptable femininity.

I reckon there are some girls whose pretty-pink-princess adherence to the norms of acceptable femininity is so strong that a “science for girls” kit might seem like the only way to get them to even give science a chance. And, in the process of getting groomed, perfumed, and made-up with the things they make with such a kit, they may build their understanding of some scientific principles.

However, if you’ve gotten such a girl to see science as of instrumental value (in achieving a particular sort of femininity), what happens to her interest in science if she decides that achieving that sort of femininity isn’t worth the time or effort? Can we count on that interest in science being robust?

My hunch is that tying science to a broader range of features of our world and of our everyday lives — features which are not necessarily of interest to just one gender — would be a better strategy for cultivating a robust interest in science.

Then again, I’m not trying to market thirteen different girls’ science kits this holiday shopping season, so what do I know?

Science kits … for girls.

Via a tweet from Ed Yong, I discovered this weekend (not that I couldn’t have guessed) that purveyors of science kits for kids are still gendering the heck out of them. That is to say, there are science kits, and there are science kits for girls.

For all I know, putting science kits in pink boxes is an excellent strategy to get them to fly off the shelves, but I am not convinced that it is a good strategy when it comes to getting girls interested in science. Indeed, I worry that whatever interest in science kits like these might cultivate might come with baggage that could actually make it harder for girls (and the women they become) to pursue scientific education and careers.

I’ll try to spell out the shape of these worries in my next post. In this post, I offer for your consideration, three “science” kits targeted at girls that appeared in toy catalogues that crossed my desk five years ago. Then, I’ll take a quick look at this year’s offerings.

Archimedes got scientific insight from a bathtub, but he wasn't required to wear eye-makeup to do it.

Spa Science

The kit offers itself as a way “to cultivate a girl’s interest in science” through the making of “beauty products like an oatmeal mask, rose bath balm, and aromatherapy oils”. Besides the “natural and organic materials” to concoct said products, the kit includes “a booklet that explores how scents affect moods and memories.”

Don’t get me wrong — there is science worth discussing in this neighborhood.

But, the packaging here strikes me as selling the need for beauty product more emphatically than any underlying scientific explanations of how they work. Does a ten-year-old need an oatmeal mask? (If so, why only ten-year-old girls? Do not ten-year-old boys have pores and sebaceous glands?) Also, I’m nervous that the exploration of scents and “aromatherapy” may be setting kids up as easy marks for health food grocers and metaphysical bookstores who will sell them all manner of high-priced, over-hyped, essential-oil-containing stuff.

Maybe the Barbie-licious artwork is intended to convey that even very “girly” girls can find some element of science that is important to their concerns, but it seems also to convey that being overtly feminine is a concern that all girls have (or ought to have) — and, that such “girly” girls couldn’t possibly take an interest in science except as a way to cultivate their femininity.

Our exposed shoulders tell you that you can do these activities without being a tomboy!


Aimed at a slightly younger audience (of “young ladies-in-training”) than the last kit, this one promises to teach girls “the chemistry behind” perfumes. Setting aside my skepticism about how much real engagement with chemistry one is likely to get from a kit like this, notice that the catalogue blurb starts with the claim that “Everyone should have a ‘signature scent’!” (I beg to differ. My ten-year-old’s signature scent is soap, thank you very much.) Does the benefit of teaching a kid a little bit of chemistry outweigh the cost of convincing a little girl that she ought to smell like something other than a young human? Where might this lead?

And where are the boys here? Aren’t they supposed to be grooming boys to want to buy fragrances, too? Here’s a conjecture for the field operatives to explore further: Males are sold fragrances as a way to render females helpless to the males’ sexual magnetism, whereas females are sold fragrances as a way to smell acceptable. Plus, boys just naturally dig science, whereas girls just naturally dig laboring under the weight of gender roles.

Would these products make me feel as pretty without those little tubes and pots?

Creative Cosmetics

Here’s another — substantially pricier kit — aiming to teach a little science through the mixing and application of “customized skin care items”, although again the assumption seems to be that only girls have skin that requires care, or that only girls need to be suckered into caring about science. Cynic that I am, I cannot help but wonder how much of the “important skin care and wellness facts” included with the essential oils, packaging, and instructions is devoted to actual science as opposed to cultivating an unnecessary beauty regimen.

Given that this kit “teaches them to make shampoos and shower gels, makeup, creams and lotions from common household items” — which, presumably, one’s household may already have — what could explain the high price of this kit ($60)? My bet is on the little pots and tubes and squeeze bottles — which is to say, on the part that has nothing at all to do with the quality of the skin care product, and everything to do with making you want to buy it when you see it in the store.
But surely, this kit really is intended to cultivate an interest in science rather than train new generations of consumers, right?

Casting an eye to the recent crop of girls’ science kits, I get the feeling that consumerism is the intended goal.

We see thirteen distinct kits (collect them all!), four of which are centered on growing crystals. (To be fair, one of these is advertised as combining the experiments of two of the other three.) Three of the kits are focused on perfumes, although each involves different activities (making incense, or cards and “dazzling cloth hangings,” or scented gel crystals and perfumed slime). There is a “Luxury Soap Lab” kit as well as a “Beauty Spa Lab” kit with which you can make … fancy soaps. I’m guessing that these kits are separate not to keep the retail prices down, but to encourage kids (or the people purchasing gifts for them) to buy more of them.

Plus, the description of the “Beauty Spa Lab” notes that you can make “scrub soaps for dad, or exfoliating soaps for mum.” Which is to say, the gendering is pretty thoroughgoing here.

Perhaps it’s a tiny step in the right direction that one of the girls’ kits is “Beautiful Blob Slime”. Non-Newtonian semi-solids are cool and don’t in themselves cram gendered expectations down a girl’s throat. Still, the assumption is that a girl must be reassured of the beauty of the slime before she’ll play.

Honestly, I can’t think of a better way to make a girl in grade school question whether she’ll have any interest in or aptitude for science than to present her with a “science for girls” kit. The message seems to be, “Look, there’s a bit of science that will interest even you. (And go put on some lipstick!)” Heaven knows, we couldn’t even get girls interested in building Rube Goldberg machines, or launching water-rockets, or studying the growth of plants or the behaviors of animals, or blowing stuff up … except, these are just the sort of things that the girls I know would want to do, even the pretty pink princesses.

Moreover, it seems to me a kid could explore some of this same scientific territory without coughing up $60, or even $25.

As a place to start, check out the American Chemical Society’s kids’ website.

The hands-on activities include nine fun experiments with soap and detergent, three with crystals, six with polymers, and eleven with food, just for starters. These activities can be done with materials you probably already have in the house (or can find easily in a grocery store). And, as an added bonus, none of them are labeled as experiments for girls or experiments for boys. They are experiments for whatever kid (or grown-up) want to do them.

Up next, I’ll explain why I think bundling kids’ science kids with gendered stereotypes is a bad idea both in the short term and in the long run.

Why does Thanksgiving dinner make you sleepy?

Thanksgiving DessertsFor years, you’ve heard the tremendous fatigue experienced after an American Thanksgiving dinner laid at the feet of the turkey — or more precisely, blamed upon the tryptophan in that turkey. Trytophan, apparently, is the go-to amino acid for those who want to get sleepy.

Let me note, before we go on, that for all its association with tryptophan, turkey doesn’t even crack the top 50 in this list of tryptophan-rich foods. (Number one: stellar sea lion kidney.)

In any case, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times, that appeared in time for Thanksgiving 2008, the real story may be more complicated than that:

Continue reading

More on #Womanspace: common suggestions and patient responses.

A few things people have suggested in the discussion of “Womanspace” on multiple blogs and social networking platforms:

  1. That the story does not advance any gendered stereotypes (or, it it does, that these are not negative stereotypes, or that they reflect most poorly upon the hapless men in the story rather than upon the highly competent woman).
  2. That, if the story does rely on gendered stereotypes, these are surely not harmful to women because the author did not intend them to be harmful to women.
  3. That there is something untoward (or vicious, or slanderous) in pointing out that a story comes across to a number of readers (or just to oneself) as sexist — because, again, clearly that was not the intent of the author, and here you’ve gone and sullied his good name!
  4. That if one woman who reads a story does not find it sexist, no other women are within their rights to find it sexist. (A corollary to this is that those women who do find it sexist are actively looking for something to be angry about.)
  5. Peripherally, that a woman whose mode of dress is judged “provocative” will have her credibility to identify, or object to, gendered stereotypes questioned.
  6. That if there is any more pressing problem facing the planet or its denizens, someone will take you to task for “wasting time” pointing out gendered stereotypes and their potential negative effects
  7. That whether or not this particular attempt at humor in short fiction succeeded, the situation for women in scientific education, careers, and publishing is so much better than it used to be that there is no good reason for women to complain — verily, that they should show some appreciation for the golden age of gender equity in which we live.

It’s worth noting that many of these are familiar (so much so that there are bingo cards which collect them), and that many of us have tried patiently to respond to them many, many times (which may explain why we seem less-than-patient explaining the problem on the Nth time we hear these chestnuts, since N is by now a very large number). Indeed, one can’t help but wonder if the need to re-answer familiar objections over and over and over indicates a problem some have with listening to the answers.

But I’m sure that does not describe you, gentle reader. So, some responses:

  1. Here, let us turn to the source material:

    In any general shopping situation, men hunt: that is, they go into a complex environment with a few clear objectives, achieve those, and leave. Women, on the other hand, gather: such that any mission to buy just bread and milk could turn into an extended foraging expedition that also snares a to-die-for pair of discounted shoes; a useful new mop; three sorts of new cook-in sauces; and possibly a selection of frozen fish.

    And the interesting thing is — and this is what sparked the discovery — that any male would be very hard pressed to say where she got some of these things, even if he accompanied her.

    Is this not a generalization about gendered differences around shopping? Does it not play into stereotypes of women as shoppers — either always up for the next mall-crawl, or at least clearly in charge of spending the family’s money to procure necessary goods and services, including food, clothing, and cleaning supplies? Even if this is a stereotype that makes men, as a group, look less competent, that does not make it less of a stereotype. Sexist stereotypes hurt men, too.

  2. There is nothing magical about intent. If I accidentally step on your toe, it may hurt just as much as if I had intentionally stepped on it. Regardless of the intent of one’s actions, the effects of those actions may properly matter to the people affected by them. Pretending this is not so is magical thinking.
  3. Following upon #3, having the harmful effects of your actions pointed out to you and taking that as an attack on your character either reflects an inability to separate intent from effects, or an unwillingness to assume any responsibility for those effects (even if they were not intended), or an unwillingness to change in such a way as to avoid those effects in the future. The last of these options starts to look an awful lot like intent, or at least willful negligence — since if you’re listening, you have information that could help you avoid having the same harmful effects in the future.

    One might object that gendered stereotypes don’t actually have significant harmful effects — that at most they are annoying. Christie’s discussion of stereotype threat describes just one of the actual harms.

    If it makes you feel bad to have people point out the harmful effect of your action (even if that harmful effect is not intentional), think of how it must feel to actually experience the harmful effect that you feel bad having someone point out was caused by your action. If you feel bad being connected with sexist impacts, presumably it is because you recognize that sexist impacts are bad. Right?

    Here, the right thing to do is not to holler, “I didn’t mean it!” but rather to say, “I’m sorry I caused you harm; I’ll do my best to avoid doing it again.”

    For more assistance in distinguishing between the “what you did” and the “what you are”, see Jay Smooth.

  4. Women are not, as it turns out, a monolithic group. Among other things, this means some women will be more bothered by particular instances of sexism than others. This does not mean that the women who are bothered are wrong, or that they are not actually harmed. And, if you care about whether your piece of short fiction, or your workplace policy, or whatever, might have the specific effect of alienating women, you should probably take account of women who report actually being alienated rather than deciding that the existence of one woman who is not proves that no woman should be.

    Of course, if you don’t care whether your piece of short fiction, or your workplace policy, or whatever, might have the specific effect of alienating women, proceed accordingly.

  5. One sort of gendered stereotype that women have to deal with is the assumption that we choose our manner of dress to attract men — or, if we do not dress in a conventionally feminine manner, that we object to gendered stereotypes because we are unable to perform femininity (and thus cannot score the approval points available to those women who can). Let me suggest that the very fact that women’s appearance and “what it means” are taken to be relevant in evaluating substantive points those women may be trying to make is part of how women come to learn about sexism and its negative effects.
  6. “Surely being unfairly labeled a sexist is not nearly as bad a problem as children starving, so why are you wasting time complaining about this!” See how that works?

    More generally, caring about (and taking action to address) problem X does not necessitate not caring about (or not taking action to address) problem Y. People can tackle many problems simultaneously (and develop their own best strategies for successfully addressing all the injustices, even if they take them in a different order than you do).

  7. There is likely less overt sexism in scientific education, careers, and publishing than there one was. Research cited in a Nature news item suggests overt discrimination against women in scientific careers is “largely a thing of the past”. However, the same story notes that this research “contrasts with reports that suggest overt discrimination remains a significant problem”. And, the same study identified still-existing societal barriers to women’s success in science.

    Which is to say, things may be better for women in science than they once were, but women still have to grapple with gender-based impediments if they want to be scientists.

    If one thinks that success in science should not be subject to unfair impediments on the basis of gender, perhaps this means one has a responsibility not to introduce or reinforce such impediments, even unintentionally.

More generally, if you care about the situation for women in science, it may be useful to listen to women when they describe their experiences in science. These experiences may have given them some relevant insight.

In which I form the suspicion that I am not Nature’s intended audience.

Without the benefit of lots of time for reflection or analysis, my off-the-cuff reactions to Ed Rybicki’s piece “Womanspace” in the “Futures” section of Nature:

  1. It suggests (incorrectly) that I, as a middle-aged woman, might not be so interested in electronic gadgets or classic rock.
  2. And that I, as a woman, have some innate (or socially conditioned) “gatherer” approach to shopping, which I don’t; I’m more of the “hunter” Rybicki describes, which I suppose makes me masculine.
  3. As well, being a “hunter”-style shopper does not get me out of primary responsibility for acquiring clothes for my children. (Indeed, while I have been lectured by a teacher about how worn-out knees and art-related stains on my child’s clothes might erode that child’s self esteem, no teacher has ever taken up this issue with the male parent of that child. It’s clear whose job the teachers think it is to clothe the children properly.)
  4. Also, “a to-die-for pair of discounted shoes” is so far off my shopping radar as to be in some other universe within the multiverse. Again, does this mean I’m not a proper member of the category “women”?
  5. With regards to Rybicki’s question, “Have you never had the experience of talking to your significant female other as you wend your way through the complexity of a supermarket — only to suddenly find her 20 metres away with her back to you?”, my mind is drawn not to gendered differences (whether innate or learned) in movement through space-time but rather to differences (likely learned, likely variable within members of genders) in how people engage (or don’t) with those with whom they are trying to have a conversation.
  6. Even given my fairly low level of shopping-fu, I would never expect to find underwear (“knickers”) in a supermarket. Perhaps this is because I have been responsible for buying my own clothing (and food) for my whole adult life, which has given me at least a passing familiarity with what items are stocked in a supermarket and what items are stocked in a clothing store.
  7. If presenting as male in society would mean that someone else would take on responsibility for buying my clothing, I would seriously consider it. Even though I can’t grow facial hair worth a damn.
  8. Demonstrating incompetence once again is demonstrated to be an excellent strategy to avoid being asked to take on a task a second time — unless, of course, it is a task that is deemed a “natural” area of competence for members of your gender, in which case you’re pretty much out of luck weaseling out of it. (This is why I have to buy my own damn clothes.)
  9. Once again, I am frustrated that science fiction seems focused mainly on rethinking our technologies and the physical structure of our reality, rather than on imagining new social structures, relations, and expectations about human diversity.

Maybe all this shows is that Rybicki, in his piece, was not talking to me. If so, I hope that Nature is consciously adopting the strategy of being a “lad mag” (albeit a geeky one), else they are unwittingly alienating a good portion of their potential audience accidentally, which seems foolish.

* * * * *

For a bigger-picture response, read Christie.

Scientific authorship: guests, courtesy, contributions, and harms.

DrugMonkey asks, where’s the harm in adding a “courtesy author” (also known as a “guest author”) to the author line of a scientific paper?

I think this question has interesting ethical dimensions, but before we get into those, we need to say a little bit about what’s going on with authorship of scientific papers.

I suppose there are possible worlds in which who is responsible for what in a scientific paper might not matter. In the world we live in now, however, it’s useful to know who designed the experimental apparatus and got the reaction to work (so you can email that person your questions when you want to set up a similar system), who did the data analysis (so you can share your concerns about the methodology), who made the figures (so you can raise concerns about digital fudging of the images), etc. Part of the reason people put their names on scientific papers is so we know who stands behind the research — who is willing to stake their reputation on it.

The other reason people put their names on scientific papers is to claim credit for their hard work and their insights, their contribution to the larger project of scientific knowledge-building. If you made a contribution, the scientific community ought to know about it so they can give you props (and funding, and tenure, and the occasional Nobel Prize).

But, we aren’t in a possition to make accurate assignments of credit or responsibility if we have no good information about what an author’s actual involvement in the project may have been. We don’t know who’s really in a position to vouch for the data, or who really did heavy intellectual lifting in bringing the project to fruition. We may understand, literally, the claim, “Joe Schmoe is second author of this paper,” but we don’t know what that means, exactly.

I should note that there is not one universally recognized authorship standard for all of the Tribe of Science. Rather, different scientific disciplines (and subdisciplines) have different practices as far as what kind of contribution is recognized as worthy of inclusion as an author on a paper, and as far as what the order in which the authors are listed is supposed to communicate about the magnitude of each contribution. In some fields, authors are always listed alphabetically, no matter what they contributed. In others, being first in the list means you made the biggest contribution, followed by the second author (who made the second-biggest contribution), and so forth. It is usually the case that the principal investigator (PI) is identified as the “corresponding author” (i.e., the person to whom questions about the work should be directed), and often (but not always) the PI takes the last slot in the author line. Sometimes this is an acknowledgement that while the PI is the brains of the lab’s scientific empire, particular underlings made more immediately important intellectual contributions to the particular piece of research the paper is communicating. But authorship practices can be surprisingly local. Not only do different fields do it differently, but different research groups in the same field — at the same university — do it differently. What this means is it’s not obvious at all, from the fact that your name appears as one of the authors of a paper, what your contribution to the project was.

There have been attempts to nail down explicit standards for what kinds of contributions should count for authorship, with the ICMJE definition of authorship being one widely cited effort in this direction. Not everyone in the Tribe of Science, or even in the subset of the tribe that publishes in biomedical journals, thinks this definition draws the lines in the right places, but the fact that journal editors grapple with formulating such standards suggests at least the perception that scientists need a clear way to figure out who is responsible for the scientific work in the literature. We can have a discussion about how to make that clearer, but we have to acknowledge that at the present moment, just noting that someone is an author without some definition of what that entails doesn’t do the job.

Here’s where the issue of “guest authorship” comes up. A “guest author” is someone whose name appears in a scientific paper’s author line even though she has not made a contribution that is enough (under whatever set of standards one recognizes for proper authorship) to qualify her as an author of the paper.

A guest is someone who is visiting. She doesn’t really live here, but stays because of the courtesy and forebearance of the host. She eats your food, sleeps under your roof, uses your hot water, watches your TV — in short, she avails herself of the amenities the host provides. She doesn’t pay the rent or the water bill, though; that would transform her from a guest to a tenant.

To my way of thinking, a guest author is someone who is “just visiting” the project being written up. Rather than doing the heavy lifting in that project, she is availing herself of the amenities offered by association (in print) with that project, and doing so because of the courtesy and forebearance of the “host” author.

The people who are actually a part of the project will generally be able to recognize the guest author as a “guest” (as opposed to an actual participant). The people receiving the manuscript will not. In other words, the main amenity the guest author partakes in is credit for the labors of the actual participants. Even if all the participants agreed to this (and didn’t feel the least bit put out at the free-rider whose “authorship” might be diluting his or her own share of credit), this makes it impossible for those outside the group to determine what the guest author’s actual contribution was (or, in this case, was not). Indeed, if people outside the arrangement could tell that the guest author was a free-rider, there wouldn’t be any point in guest authorship.

Science strives to be a fact-based enterprise. Truthful communication is essential, and the ability to connect bits of knowledge to the people who contributed is part of how the community does quality control on that knowledge base. Ambiguity about who made the knowledge may lead to ambiguity about what we know. Also, developing too casual a relationship with the truth seems like a dangerous habit for a scientist to get into.

Coming back to DrugMonkey’s question about whether courtesy authorship is a problem, it looks to me like maybe we can draw a line between two kinds of “guests,” one that contributes nothing at all to the actual design, execution, evaluation, or communication of the research, and one who contributes something here, just less than what the conventions require for proper authorship. If these characters were listed as authors on a paper, I’d be inclined to call the first one a “guest author” and the second a “courtesy author” in an attempt to keep them straight; the cases with which DrugMonkey seems most concerned are the “courtesy authors” in my taxonomy. In actual usage, however, the two labels seem to be more or less interchangeable. Naturally, this makes it harder to distinguish who actually did what — but it strikes me that this is just the kind of ambiguity people are counting on when they include a “guest author” or “courtesy author” in the first place.

What’s the harm?

Consider a case where the PI of a research group insists on giving authorship of a paper to a postdoc who hasn’t gotten his experimental system to work at all and is almost out of funding. The PI gives the justification that “He needs some first-author papers or his time here will have been a total waste.” As it happens, giving this postdoc authorship bumps the graduate student who did all the experimental work (and the conceptual work, and data analysis, and drafting of the manuscript) out of first author slot — maybe even off the paper entirely.

There is real harm here, to multiple parties. In this case, someone got robbed of appropriate credit, and the person identified as most responsible for the published work will be a not-very-useful person to contact with deeper questions about the work (since he didn’t do any of it or at best participated on the periphery of the project).

Consider another kind of case, where authorship is given to a well-known scientist with a lot of credibility in his field, but who didn’t make a significant intellectual contribution to work (at least, not one that rises to the level of meriting authorship under the recognized standards). This is the kind of courtesy authorship that was extended to Gerald Schatten in a 2005 paper in Science another of whose authors was Hwang Woo Suk. This paper had 25 authors listed, with Schatten identified as the senior author. Ultimately, the paper was revealed to be fraudulent, at which point Schatten claimed mostly to have participated in writing the paper in good English — a contribution recognized as less than what one would expect from an author (especially the senior author).

Here, including Schatten as an author seemed calculated to give the appearance (to the journal editors while considering the manuscript, and to the larger scientific community consuming the published work)that the work was more important and/or credible, because of the big name associated with it. But this would only work because listing that big name in the author line amounts to claiming the big name was actually involved in the work. When the paper fell apart, Schatten swiftly disavowed responsibility — but such a disavowal was only necessary because of what was communicated by the author line, and I think it’s naïve to imagine that this “ambiguity” or “miscommunication” was accidental.

In cases like this, I think it’s fair to say courtesy authorship does harm, undermining the baseline of trust in the scientific community. It’s hard to engage in efficient knowledge-building with people you think are trying to put one over on you.

The cases where DrugMonkey suggests courtesy authorship might be innocuous strike me as interestingly different. They are cases where someone has actually made a real contribution of some sort to the work, but where that contribution may be judged (under whatever you take to be the accepted standards of your scientific discipline) as not quite rising to the level of authorship. Here, courtesy authorship could be viewed as inflating the value of the actual contribution (by listing the person who made it in the author line, rather than the acknowledgements), or alternatively as challenging where the accepted standards of your discipline draw the line between a contribution that qualifies you as an author and one that does not. For example, DrugMonkey writes:

First, the exclusion of those who “merely” collect data is stupid to me. I’m not going to go into the chapter and verse but in my lab, anyway, there is a LOT of ongoing trouble shooting and refining of the methods in any study. It is very rare that I would have a paper’s worth of data generated by my techs or trainees and that they would have zero intellectual contribution. Given this, the asymmetry in the BMJ position is unfair. In essence it permits a lab head to be an author using data which s/he did not collect and maybe could not collect but excludes the technician who didn’t happen to contribute to the drafting of the manuscript. That doesn’t make sense to me. The paper wouldn’t have happened without both of the contributions.

I agree with DrugMonkey that there’s often a serious intellectual contribution involved in conducting the experiments, not just in designing them (and that without the data, all we have are interesting hunches, not actual scientific knowledge, to report). Existing authorship standards like those from ICMJE or BMJ can unfairly exclude those who do the experimental labor from authorship by failing to recognize this as an intellectual contribution. Pushing to have these real contributions recognized with appropriate career credit is important. As well, being explicit about who made these contributions to the research being reported in the paper makes it much easier for other scientists following up on the published work (e.g., comparing it to their own results in related experiments, or trying to use some of the techniques described in the paper to set up new experiments) to actually get in touch with the people most likely to be able to answer their questions.

Changing how might weight experimental prowess is given in the career scorekeeping may be an uphill battle, especially when the folks distributing the rewards for the top scores are administrators (focused on the money the people they’re scoring can bring to an institution) and PIs (who frequently have more working hours devoted to conception and design of project for their underlings rather than to the intellectual labor of making those projects work, and to writing the proposals that bring in the grant money and the manuscripts that report the happy conclusion of the projects funded by such grants). That doesn’t mean it’s not a fight worth having.

But, I worry that using courtesy authorship as a way around this unfair setting of the authorship bar actually amounts to avoiding the fight rather than addressing these issues and changing accepted practices.

DrugMonkey also writes:

Assuming that we are not talking about pushing someone else meaningfully* out of deserved credit, where lies the harm even if it is a total gift?

Who is hurt? How are they damaged?
*by pushing them off the paper entirely or out of first-author or last-author position. Adding a 7th in the middle of the authorship list doesn’t affect jack squat folks.

Here, I wonder: if dropping in a courtesy author as the seventh author of a paper can’t hurt, how either can we expect it to help the person to whom this “courtesy” is extended?

Is it the case that no one actually expects that the seventh author made anything like a significant contribution, so no one is being misled in judging the guest in the number seven slot as having made a comparable contribution to the scientist who earned her seventh-author position in another paper? If listing your seventh-author paper on your CV is automatically viewed as not contributing any points in your career scorekeeping, why even list it? And why doesn’t it count for anything? Is it because the seventh author never makes a contribution worth career points … or is it because, for all we know, the seventh author may be a courtesy author, there for other reasons entirely?

If a seventh-author paper is actually meaningless for career credit, wouldn’t it be more help to the person to whom you might extend such a “courtesy” if you actually engaged her in the project in such a way that she could make an intellectual contribution recognized as worthy of career credit?

In other words, maybe the real problem with such courtesy authorship is that it gives the appearance of help without actually being helpful.