Publishing folly in academia

  • Letters
  • Friday, 04 May 2018

I REFER to the letter “Value of knowing our DNA” (The Star, April 27). Interestingly, the writers ended the letter stating that Dr Watson and Dr Crick “had discovered the secret of life”. This is not surprising as our Biology textbooks are flooded with stories of James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for their discovery of the DNA structure.

Ask any student and they will tell you that the Watson-Crick duo are the fathers of DNA.

However, I would like to highlight the contribution of an unsung heroine in this field. An article from the journal Nature titled “The Double Helix And The ‘Wronged Heroine’” disclosed that Rosalind Franklin’s crucial contribution towards the discovery of the double helix DNA structure was not recognised as her “premature death” and “misogynist treatment by male scientific establishments” had “overshadowed her intellectual strength”.

In his book The Double Helix, Watson admitted to attending but not paying full attention to Franklin’s data presentation in a lecture at King’s College, London in 1951. Then, without the knowledge and consent of Franklin, Watson and Crick took possession of “Photo 51”, the X-ray diffraction photograph taken by Franklin and her PhD student, Gosling.

An online science platform, Scitable, powered by Nature Publishing Group, reported that the photograph was shared with the duo by Franklin’s colleague, Wilkins, who was said to be having work-related misunderstandings with her.

Wilkins assumed that Franklin would be his assistant, but Franklin’s presence as a “formidable researcher” in her own right did not augur well at a time when sexism and male chauvinism took centre stage (nothing much has changed to date when it comes to women). This resulted in Wilkins and Franklin working separately.

“Photo 51” provided the much-needed evidence for the Watson-Crick duo to conclude that the DNA is a double helix structure.

The climax of this drama was the publication of the paper by Watson-Crick in Nature on April 25, 1953 titled “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid”. Two other papers immediately accompanied this article, one by Wilkins, Stokes and Wilson, and the other by Franklin and Gosling in the same issue of the journal.

This was re-affirmed in an editorial review titled “Due Credit” in Nature in 2013, 60 years after the publication of the three papers. Gosling’s work as a PhD student was also not given due credit.

Franklin died in 1958 from ovarian cancer possibly because of her work involving X-ray techniques. Her other notable works include her research on the tobacco mosaic virus.

Till today, many of us would only be able to associate DNA with the Watson-Crick duo, and Rosalind Franklin is unheard of.

Research has no value if it is not published, and the race to get one’s paper published first carries tremendous impact in academia.

History is full of academic dishonesty. The movie Something the Lord Made tells the story of Vivien Thomas, an African-American surgical technician who developed the procedures used to treat blue baby syndrome in the 1940s with white surgeon Alfred Blalock.

Due to the prevailing racism, Thomas was not mentioned nor given credit for his contribution until decades later by Johns Hopkins University.

This is the sad reality in the academic world, and the typical situation faced by researchers, particularly early stage researchers, in research institutions.

Continuous bullying, sexism, mobbing and ganging up by superiors, head of departments, administrators and male colleagues are rampant to date, causing many to suffer in silence. This could possibly be one of the main reasons for under-representation of women particularly in Science and STEM.

In the race to get their names in publications in their “publish or perish” world, some academics tend to falter and bend the rules along the way. Their methods include exerting pressure on their team members, junior researchers and PhD students to put their names in publications which they did not work for, or to be named as principal investigators and corresponding authors for research projects, failing which the graduation of students and career enhancement of the researchers would be delayed.

Fragmentation and salami-slicing of data is also common in the attempt to increase the number of publications.

Some academics are also unethical to the extent of not returning the students’ theses which they have been assigned to examine.

Juniors are often subjected to non-academic workload, forcing them to give in to the pressure and unwritten rules of their peers and seniors, thus compromising their own research time.

These all give rise to the practice of “free riders” where one has to comply with unreasonable demands in order to survive and be accepted in the academic world.

In our continuous effort to intensify research, we must not compromise in upholding ethics, integrity and honesty in the workplace.

What is even more important is for seniors to facilitate a smooth transition and render support to the young researchers to help them progress instead of ridiculing, bullying or harassing them in the name of their own career progression.


Puchong, Selangor

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