I thought of another one of those euphemistic phrases they use in obituaries, last week.  You know the ones – ‘he did not always uphold the highest ethical standards of the city’ means he was a thief, ‘she was a tireless campaigner for free speech’, means she was a crashing bore, ‘he did not always see eye-to-eye with the prevailing political orthodoxy of the time’, means he was a fascist.  The pleonasm I thought of was for an ex-colleague of mine, an academic of sorts: ‘S/he had an unorthodox approach to authorship’.  Authorship, in this case, refers to the process of apportioning credit for work done for scientific publications – journal articles, patents and books.
The Structure of Turnip Yellow Mosaic Virus: X-Ray Diffraction Studies, Aaron Klug, J. T. Finch, Rosalind E. Franklin. 
In case you are not familiar with it, typically, the first author is the Ph.D. or Master’s student who does the lab work and who writes the first draft of the paper.  The last author is the supervisor and the person who wrote the grant proposal that funded the project.  The second author is perhaps the post-doc who re-wrote the paper or the one who was the go-to person in the lab when the student needed to learn a new technique or problem-solve.  The second-to-last author is often a second supervisor, who also helped write the grant and helped out with the supervision occasionally.  Mid-author positions are people who made the smallest contributions, they may have acquired and analysed some data that was included in the paper but does not make-or-break it.

I must admit I thought of the euphuism ‘unorthodox approach to authorship’ only when I was on the negative receiving end of it; I was not included in the list of authors of a publication, where I should have had a reasonably prominent position.  This is not as upsetting or as frustrating as it may sound, it just means I have one fewer publication to add to my list.  In any case, it is far from the only example as virtually every academic I know has been left off a list of authors unfairly at some point.  Some have even written about it and the whole process, including Sylvia McLain.

In this particular case, the euphemism goes a bit further than covering up for someone’s political correctness.  The ex-colleague in question also likes to take first authorship in a paper every couple of years, without having done any lab work or writing much of the manuscript.  This person also likes to include people (sorry, “authors”), who have made no contribution at all to a given publication, as a way of shoring up their perhaps weak, position.   So, it may be an hyperbole of sorts, but it is not too unfair itself.

The argument against this gripe I raise is that these things are really convention.  There is no set rule, they differ between disciplines (authorship in engineering and science are in the reverse order with respect to one another), and there is no one to arbitrate claims of it going wrong.  Authorship therefore has a political and even subjective slant—and so getting what you deserve really requires more effort that just being in the lab and working hard.  You must be memorable to the person who presses the submit button that sends the manuscript to whoever publishes it.

This political element to publishing science leaves everyone open to equally subjective judgement about the decisions made, or the names forgotten.  In other words, I am aware that someone may therefore think of an obituary euphemism for me at some point.  I wonder what it might be.  In a literal sense and by my own admission, I do not suffer fools gladly.  I do not like having my time wasted, less still by people who are stupid or have no idea they have done it.  According to Stephen Fry, where this pleonasm is used, the real meaning is that this person is “a howling shit” (on Youtube, from 10’40”).  I hope I am not that, but I cannot deny that it is not a million miles away from finding stupid people boring.