Mohamed Noor profiled in The Scientist, and a note on authorship

May 9, 2012 • 12:12 pm

My second Ph.D. student, Mohamed Noor, is the subject of a long profile in The Scientist, “Burgers and flies.” (The name refers to his legendary penchant for eating at McDonald’s.)  It’s a good profile: Mohamed, who’s now a chaired professor at Duke, is immensely energetic and accomplished; I’m quite proud of him.  He was sent to me by my own undergraduate adviser at William and Mary, the inspiring Bruce Grant, who also mentored a fair few evolutionary biologists, including Allen Orr (my first student) and Walt Eanes, a professor at Stony Brook.

Noor’s science is the centerpiece of the article, and I won’t reiterate that since you can read it for yourself. But here are a few other tidbits:

Stress relief. “For a while, my lab had pretty regular water-gun fights. I have a ton of huge water guns, so we’d go to my house, go into the backyard, and spray each other. It’s a good time to have a little fun and vent the frustrations of the day.”

In my lab, we used water balloons, which made far more of a mess.  Often we’d go out on the roof armed with them, ready to pelt Allen Orr, who arrived at the lab the same time every day by the same route.

Find a Bruce Grant. “The single biggest piece of advice I give undergraduate biology students is to get into a close mentoring relationship with somebody. Nothing can have a bigger impact on your future than that. Work in their lab. Do research with them.”

There’s no substitute for a charismatic, enthusiastic, and empathic undergraduate mentor.  Neither Noor, Orr, nor I would be scientists without Bruce’s help and inspiration.

I’m lovin’ it. “There’s a rumor on the street that I go to McDonald’s every day. I used to go once or twice a week, but lately it hasn’t been that often. I just disproportionally enjoy it every time I go. I also used to have an acknowledgement slide at the end of my seminars saying I acknowledge McDonald’s for caloric support. And I loved the Big N’ Tasty, but they canceled it. Now I get the third-pound Angus burger. That’s good too, but I still miss the Big N’ Tasty.”

Chez Noor. “I regularly post on, maybe once every couple of weeks. I like almost any kind of ethnic food. I love Greek and Thai, and Durham is amazing for Mexican food.” Noor has been designated an “elite” Yelp reviewer for the last three years, having posted more than 172 reviews, submitted 321 restaurant photos, and even hosted Yelp events in his home and at Duke. “In addition to reviews, it’s a social thing. Two years ago I hosted a ‘Tour de Taco’ at my house. We got tacos from a bunch of local restaurants, cut them up, and did a blind taste test.”

Like father, like daughter. “My kids are also foodies. When we would go out to eat, my daughter would always order crazy fancy things. Finally, I was like, ‘All right, you need to restrain yourself!’ So I raised her allowance a lot, but said, ‘Now, when we go out to eat, you’re paying your own way.’ So now she saves.”

And like father, like son!

Finally, this about his work in my lab:

By analyzing the breeding rates of the two Drosophila species, with individuals of their own species and with each other, Noor determined that natural selection does enhance the reproductive isolation of one species from another—the first experimental evidence of reinforcement contributing to species formation. He published the results in Nature in 1995, a year before he completed his PhD, and was the sole author on the paper. “My advisor, Jerry, had a general policy to let students be sole authors on papers. He said, ‘My job is to give advice. You have to come up with the project, you have to execute it, and you have to write it up. You’ve done all the work, so there’s no reason for my name to be on it.’ That’s uncommon in academia.”

He didn’t mention that I actually discouraged this work, figuring that the chances were slim that he’d find reinforcement. (“Reinforcement” is the evolution, via natural selection, of higher mating isolation between species in areas where their ranges overlap. When hybrids are inviable or intfertile, selection will act to impede their formation in areas where members of different species coexist). My policy of not putting my name on students’ papers is getting ever rarer as increasing competition for jobs and grants makes people put their names on papers to which they often make virtually no contribution.  But I’ve found that it hasn’t impeded my own career: granting agencies such as the NSF and NIH fund you based not on the papers that sport your name, but on the number and quality of papers that come out of your lab, regardless of who’s an author.

I learned this authorship protocol from my own adviser Dick Lewontin, who learned it from his adviser, Theodosius Dobzhansky, who learned it from his mentor, Thomas Hunt Morgan (the doyen of 20th century Mendelian genetics). It thus has a long and honorable pedigree. (Dobzhansky sometimes designed the research, told his technician how to do it, analyzed the data, and wrote the paper—and yet the sole author was his technician! I remember meeting Dobzhansky the first time at Rockefeller University: he was,at the age of 72, sitting at the microscope scoring chromosome inversions in Drosophila pseudoobscura.  He kept his hand in to the end.)

So while I have the chance here, let me repeat my mantra to professors and graduate students: If you’re a student, your advisor isn’t automatically entitled to put his/her name on your paper.  Providing funding and advice is not sufficient reason.  And if you’re a faculty member, don’t slap your name on your students’ papers if all you’ve done is given them advice and money.  They lose by it, for the work will often be attributed more to you rather than the student (this is known as “the Matthew Effect“). I deplore the proliferation of gratuitious multiple authorships as a strategy for scientists padding their c.v.s.


On the other hand, the student does need to remember who’s boss:

Noor about to pull his boss in Trudy Mackay’s buggy.  North Carolina, May, 2006

32 thoughts on “Mohamed Noor profiled in The Scientist, and a note on authorship

  1. What a continual delight it is to have discovered your blog – and you. Thanks so very much for all your words, photographs, humor, learning, standards, ethics and and more.

  2. My advisor, Jerry, had a general policy to let students be sole authors on papers.

    Absolutely as it should be. Unless, of course, it really is a joint paper — and, even then, it doesn’t hurt to step aside and let the kids get a bit of the spotlight themselves.

    I’ll be a lot more impressed with a researcher with a few important papers and a lot of students with important papers of their own than with a researcher with a lot of mediocre papers coauthored with a bunch of amateurs.


    1. Unfortunately the ideal seems to be long dead and as Jerry says even he had to succumb to the system. I worked with some very generous people who put my name on papers even though I said I hardly did anything significant; they were the same people who didn’t insist that their names be on a paper if I so much as said ‘hello’ to them when saw them. Then there were the ones who wanted their names on papers even though they made no contributions whatsoever – my response had always been “get bent” but colleagues have wagged their heads and told me that’s not the right response because these people were well-known. I think it’s a dishonest game so I left academia.

    2. Well, there are a lot of sociological factors involved and it really depends on which field you are in. In evolution, it is actually a bit easier to have sole-author papers than in some other fields (cancer biology comes to mind). However, even in evolution, a lot of STUDENTS fear that their papers will be ignored if not for the hook of their recognized advisor. There may be some truth to this, though I have no empirical evidence. Anecdotally however, I suspect many people (professional editors especially) take the attitude that, if they haven’t heard of any of the authors on a paper, it isn’t worth their time to read (or in the case of editors, review). In any event, I agree with Jerry, that a PI out to feel no need to put their name on a paper that they funded if they didn’t contribute significantly to. As long as their grant is acknowledged and the PI’s is acknowledged as the place where the work was done, that oughta be sufficient. I have no idea how this works in practice, not being a PI myself.

      Here’s an only tangentially related anecdote (Jerry might be able to confirm the veracity of this anecdote). At a meeting or a seminar of some sort, one professor was chatting with Dick Lewontin and made a comment along the lines of “I liked that paper of yours that came out recently in Nature.” In fact, the professor was referencing a paper by Marty Kreitman, who admittedly was in Dick’s lab. However, the paper didn’t actually bear Dick’s name in the author list. (According to this anecdote, this would be Kreitman 1983, Nature: ).

        1. Mulling over this, I’m dubious about this practice. Suppose someone applies for a faculty position, and the balance over the 2nd-ranked candidate is tipped by the committee thinking “Wow, this person is sole-author of a highly cited Nature paper”, when in practice most of the ideas and intellectual content came from someone else — isn’t the 2nd-ranked candidate then wronged?

          In my field it is common to promote junior people to be first-named author, but omitting senior people who have genuinely contributed is not done.

          Does the credit then all flow to the senior authors? To some extent yes, but my advice to students is simply to publish lots of such papers — people will notice.

          I say that as someone who first-authored 10 papers that had my PhD advisor as a co-author (deservedly), and I don’t think this hampered my career at all.

          Having said that, I do agree that automatic authorships to PIs, advisors, lab heads, or anyone else is wrong — all authors should have been a genuine part of the work leading up to the final paper version.

  3. I think the sole authorship is a wonderful idea (and quite rare, b/c of the reasons you mentioned), but I’m afraid this could only apply to top-level programs and/or schools. A sole author of the EXACT same paper from a lower-tier school probably wouldn’t even have it go out for review at a top journal, much less Nature. I could be wrong, but that’s how the politics in the current world of scientific publication seem to be playing out.

  4. Providing funding and advice is not sufficient reason.

    If the advice is extensive, and results in a much different and better paper, then surely that is sufficient reason? Intellectual input into a paper is as much an “authorship” contribution as working at a lab bench or tapping into a word-processing program.

    To me, a scenario such as Dobzhansky’s writing a paper and then omitting his name is not being straight with the reader.

    PS: Off topic, but recently I find that the “notify me of follow-up comments via email” box is permanently ticked, and won’t stay unticked even when I untick it. Is it me doing something wrong, or something else? Personally I don’t want comment emails (since there are lots of comments on Jerry’s blog), yet if I have to untick it every time I sometimes forget. This must have changed recently since it didn’t used to happen.

    1. Not just you. It’s been happening to me lately, too. When I forget and keep the box ticked, I get one email immediately after posting, but that’s it. You’d have to click a link in the email to activate the comment notifications, I think.

      1. That’s funny. I usually keep the box ticked, but have never, ever received a follow-up email.

        Of course, I’m usually several days behind the action and rarely get replies, but sometimes I do. It simply doesn’t work (yes, I’ve checked the spam folder).

  5. The medical sciences may be the worst when it c omes to (mainly) gratuitous authorship credits on papers. I’ve seen fifty names attached to some clinical trial papers, perhaps justified on occasion; however, fifteen names attached to a case report, department chief included, is simply ridiculous.

      1. 756 additional authors not shown … hahaha. The first thing that comes to mind of course is the “million monkeys banging away at (typewriter) keyboards”. Did everyone contribute just a word or two? How many janitors were authors? My former workplace started counting authorship differently – if you weren’t the first or second author or the ‘corresponding author’ then you weren’t an author. Of course that penalized people who were maybe fourth author but really did do work.

  6. I like your authorship philosophy, Jerry, especially given recent events in my career. I will have to do a lot more thinking about it (coelsblog above makes a valid point, I think). At this point, though, I’m still on the student end of things, which means my own authorship philosophy is pretty much irrelevant.

    1. “especially given recent events in my career” – Ah, that sounds familiar. I must admit, I have been author on most of my students’ papers, but I hope I have fulfilled the requirements to be fairly considered an author, if only because I remember the struggles I had with certain people expecting co authorship on some research of mine. The PhDs ALL have at least one single authored paper though and that makes them and me happy. It also encourages futher collaboration once they fledge and disperse.

      1. Thankfully, most of my experiences have been positive, and the advisor has (in my opinion) provided sufficient “intellectual contribution” to warrant last-authorship. My biggest grief so far has come with coauthor(s) other than the last-author advisor, and I have since raised the bar for work that merits authorship much, much higher.

      2. Nevertheless, I still think the philosophy of sole-authorship of the student is an interesting one, and one I will have to think more deeply about in the near future. My opinions won’t make a difference now, but it will be something to consider when I have a real job and real grad students of my own.

  7. Dr. Coyne, since this article touches on the concept of success in science, I’m curious what you think about work/life balance in science, and whether there are things that could be done differently. (I’d love to hear anyone else’s opinion too!)

    1. The short answer is that there MAY be a huge price to pay. It is a matter that has affected me deeply, including the death of a 19 year-old son, the near-alienation of another, because of the tremendous demands of a clinical training program in neurosurgery. But one survives. It is too complex an issue for a short post, but if Jerry likes, I’ll do it as a guest post some time, at his convenience.

  8. “If you’re a student, your advisor isn’t automatically entitled to put his/her name on your paper. Providing funding and advice is not sufficient reason”.
    If you are a student in the lab of an advisor with a less generous attidude than Jerry’s it would not necessarily be easy to stand up to the person who holds so much influence on how your career will progress in terms of post doc awards, academic tenure etc.

  9. Not being an author on student papers is great for those in a position like yours Jerry. However, some of us are at smaller institutions without the resources of the University of Chicago. We don’t have the time or resources to have a pile of sole authored research left over after student mentoring. Also, some of us in fields like mine (paleontology) have to spend much of our limited research time on getting access to land and collecting the specimens we need in addition to just doing the analyses, wether performed my ourselves and/or our students. I admire you and your blog immensely Jerry, but your elitism is often too obvious.

    1. I wouldn’t call it “elitism”, but certainly there’s some privilege in being able to completely give up any authorship. Personally I encourage my students to publish single-author papers, but the truth is they won’t publish at all unless pushed by me, and even when pushed their authorship skills leave much to be desired. I end up having to put a lot of work in to get them a publishable paper.

      I don’t like to see authorship framed as a moral issue, since (a) the realities of the process of science mean that authorship is never completely objective, and (b) the whole point of authorship is distributing credit—if we were really concerned about the moral purity of it all we should just publish all papers without any author information at all. It’s part of the careerism of science, not the process of science; those two things are not always in harmony but the careerism aspect is necessary if science is to be truly egalitarian.

  10. Apropos of nothing, but that’s not a buggy. It’s a marathon carriage, used for the sport of combined driving.

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