What’s in a Name?
September 13, 2017
By Jenny Crick
In science there are always icons, household names. Some are ubiquitous; most people could quote Einstein’s most famous formula, even if they couldn’t tell you what it actually means. Others are more niche; the name Barbara McClintock, who first recognized that genes could "jump" into new positions within a genome, would be instantly familiar to a geneticist, though maybe not to the world at large. Within each field of science, certain names take the credit for the fundamental concepts they discovered.
Within genetics, my own corner of biology, Crick is one of those big names, and it’s my name too. Crick and his partner Watson are acclaimed for their discovery of DNA’s double helix structure. What isn’t spoken as often, however, is the name Rosalind Franklin, who created the images that revealed that structure. It was her expertly produced Photo 51 that first captured the twisted ladder of molecules that make up DNA. Photo51 was then shared without Franklin’s permission.
Soon after, Watson and Crick published their hallmark "discovery" in Nature. In the original paper, Franklin is cited only in a footnote thanking her for the “general knowledge” of her unpublished work. Her contribution was never properly recognized in her lifetime, and she’s not alone in this, many hidden figures are only now being linked to their discoveries.
Luckily, biographers and authors have retroactively worked to give credit to overlooked figures. "The Life of Benjamin Banneker: The First African American Man of Science" highlights how the mathematician was the first to create a striking clock, which continued to sound every hour even after its maker had died. Franklin’s own tribute, "The Dark Lady of DNA," seeks to ensure the woman at the heart of that pivotal finding is no longer just a footnote.
While Franklin’s shortchanging was, at its core, an issue of civil rights, other scientists missing their credit simply adds up to bad timing. Though Darwin is considered the father of evolution, a colleague named Alfred Wallace shared the identical idea of evolution by natural selection with Darwin in a letter, and actually was the first to publish an essay on it. In all disciplines of science, big names enjoy a snowball effect that can leave deserving researchers in its wake.
Once in a while a professor will comment on my name, usually only to say that it’s an odd but fitting coincidence given what I study. But, for me, it becomes a reminder of that precarious balance between competitive edge and cooperation. Even the discoveries that are leaps for all mankind still have individuals behind them.
Things have changed a lot since Rosalind Franklin captured the infamous photo of DNA. For one thing, science and its institutions have become less systematically exclusive. That said, stories of more subtle inequities sustain the debate as to whether science is truly fair. In many fields the foundation has been laid with those first and famous discoveries, and new progress is often more incremental, built by steps of many different researchers rather than the leaps of a few.
Now more than ever, credit is shared, promoting researchers to collaborate, rather than compete. Articles are often published with expansive author lists, and acknowledgements can even recognize the value of personal correspondence between peers. Though cases of stolen ideas still come up, there is the threat of harsh consequences and swift retractions. Blatant examples of stolen ideas such as plagiarism have become one of the science world’s most deadly sins.
Publishers can play a role in assigning credit for new discoveries. Movements towards open access content do even more to encourage the sharing of ideas rather than guarding them. As well, new systems such as ORCiD and CRediT register and track the different roles of each contributing author. For each author, the details of their contribution to the research can be declared at the outset of publishing a work. Established publishers like PLOS ONE and Wiley have committed to using these types of systems for all papers going forward.
The future looks collaborative, and as for those names lost in history, all we can do is repeat them. When someone tells me Crick is a good name to have in genetics, I tell them I hope to do my science like a Franklin.
Jenny Crick is a student of Biology and English from Ottawa. Her love of genetics and literature drive her to find the place where science and storytelling intersect. She hopes to keep putting pipette to petri and pen to paper.