The paradoxical virtues of primacy in science

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The question of “Who found it first?” in science is deceptively straightforward. It is largely due to the rewards reserved by those who administer science – funding the ‘right’ people working in the ‘right’ areas at the ‘right’ time to ensure the field’s progress along paths deemed desirable by the state – that primacy in science has become valuable. Otherwise, and in an ideal world (in which rewards are distributed more equitably, such that the quality of research is rewarded a certain amount that is lower than the inordinate rewards that accrue to some privileged scientists today but greater than that which scholars working on ‘neglected’ topics/ideas receive, without regard for gender, race, ethnicity or caste), discovering something first wouldn’t matter to the enterprise of science, just as it doesn’t mean anything to the object of the discovery itself.

Primacy is a false virtue imposed by the structures of modern science. There is today privilege in being cited as “Subramaniam 2021” or “Srinivasan 2022” in papers, so much so that there is reason to believe many scientific papers are published only so they may cite the work of others and keep expanding this “citation circus”. The more citations there are, the likelier the corresponding scientist is to receive a promotion or a grant, or whatever, at their institute.

Across history, the use of such citations has also served to obscure the work of ‘other’ scientists and to attribute a particular finding to a single individual or a group. This typically manifests in one of two forms: by flattening the evolution of a complex discovery by multiple groups of people working around the world, sometimes sharing information with each other, to a single paper authored by one of these groups; or by reinforcing the association of one or some names with particular ideas in the scientific literature, thus overlooking important contributions by less well-known scientists.

The former is a complex phenomenon that is often motivated by ‘prestigious’ awards, including the Nobel Prizes, limiting themselves to a small group of laureates at a time, as well as by the meagre availability of grants for advanced research. Scientists and, especially, the institutes at which they work engage as a result in vociferous media campaigns when an important discovery is at hand, to ensure that opportunities for profit that may arise out of the finding may rest with them alone. This said, it can also be the product of lazy citations, in which scientists cite their friends or peers they like or wish to impress, or collections of papers over the appropriate individual ones, instead of conducting a more exhaustive literature review to cite everyone involved everywhere.

The second variety of improper citations is of course one that has dogged India – and one with which anyone working with or alongside science in India must be familiar. It has also been most famously illustrated by instances of women scientists who were subsequently overlooked for Nobel Prizes that were awarded to the men who worked with them, often against them. (The Nobel Prizes are false gods and we must tear them down; but for their flaws, they remain good, if also absurdly selective, markers of notable scientific work: that is, no prize has thus far been awarded to work that didn’t deserve it.) The stories of Chien-Shiung Wu, Rosalind Franklin and Jocelyn Bell Burnell come to mind.

But also consider the Indian example of Meghnad Saha’s paper about selective radiation pressure (in the field of stellar astrophysics), which predated Irving Langmuir’s paper on the same topic by three years. Saha lost out on the laurels by not being able to afford having his paper published in a more popular journal and had to settle for one with “no circulation worth mentioning” (source). An equation in this theory is today known as the Saha-Langmuir equation, but even this wouldn’t be so without the conscious effort of some scholars to highlight Saha’s work and unravel the circumstances that forced him into the shadows.

I discovered recently that comparable, yet not similar, circumstances had befallen Bibhas De, when the journal Icarus rejected a paper he had submitted twice. The first time, his paper presented his calculations predicting that the planet Uranus had rings; the second time was five years later, shortly after astronomers had found that Uranus indeed had rings. Stephen Brush and Ariel Segal wrote in their 2015 book, “Although he did succeed in getting his paper published in another journal, he rarely gets any credit for this achievement.”

In both these examples, and many others like them, scientists’ attempts to formalise their successes by having their claims detailed in the literature were mediated by scientific journals – whose editors’ descisions had nothing to do with science (costs in the former case and who-knows-what in the latter).

At the same time, because of these two issues, flattening and reinforcing, attribution for primacy is paradoxically more relevant: if used right, it can help reverse these problems, these imprints of colonialism and imperialism in the scientific literature. ‘Right’ here means, to me at least, that everyone is credited or none at all, as an honest reflection of the fact that good science has never been vouchsafed to the Americans or the Europeans. But then this requires more problems to be solved, such as, say, replacing profit-based scientific publishing (and the consequent valorisation of sensational results) with a ‘global scientific record’ managed by the world’s governments through an international treaty.

Axiomatically, perhaps the biggest problem with primacy today is its entrenchment. I’m certain humanities and social science scholars have debated this thoroughly – the choice for the oppressed and the marginalised between beating their oppressors at their own game or transcending the game itself. Obviously the latter seems more englightened, but it is also more labour-intensive, labour that can’t be asked freely of them – our scientists and students who are already fighting to find or keep their places in the community of their peers. Then again, beating them at their own game may not be so easy either.

I was prompted to write this post, in fact, after I stumbled on four seemingly innocuous words in a Wikipedia article about stellarators. (I wrote about these nuclear-fusion devices yesterday in the context of a study about solving an overheating problem.) The article reads that when a solenoid – a coiled wire – is bent around to form a loop, the inner perimeter of the loop has a higher density of wire than the outer perimeter. Surely this is obvious, yet the Wikpedia article phrases it thus (emphasis added):

But, as Fermi pointed out, when the solenoid is bent into a ring, the electrical windings would be closer together on the inside than the outside.

Why does a common-sensical claim, which should strike anyone who can visualise or even see a solenoid made into a loop, be attributed to the celebrated Italian physicist Enrico Fermi? The rest of the paragraph to which this sentence belongs goes on to describe how this winding density affects nuclear fusion reactors; it is an arguably straightforward effect, far removed from the singularity and the sophistication of other claims whose origins continue to be mis- or dis-attributed. Wikipedia articles are also not scientific papers. But taken together, the attribution to Fermi contains the footprints of the fact that he, as part of the Knabenphysik of quantum mechanics, worked on many areas of physics, allowing him to attach his name to a variety of concepts at a time when studies on the same topics were only just catching on in other parts of the world – a body of work enabled, as is usual, by war, conquest and the quest for hegemony.

Maybe fighting over primacy is the tax we must pay today for allowing this to happen.