Actual scientists might know the answer here

The British astrophysicist was a PhD student when she discovered repeating pulses of radio waves after studying months of radio telescope data. These became known as pulsars – spinning neutron stars which weigh more than the sun. Burnell’s supervisor, Antony Hewish, was credited with the discovery and awarded a Nobel in 1974.

It is normal, or not, that the PhD supervisor is credited with the student’s discovery?

42 thoughts on “Actual scientists might know the answer here”

  1. They certainly like to try. It is common for them to insist on being first named author on papers, claiming that their status will help the paper be accepted. I eventually put my foot and told my supervisor that I wouldn’t write any more papers unless I was the first named author, if he wanted to be first named author he could write the paper. I got to be first named author on all future papers.

    My experience of academia is that it is a very competitive, cut throat business with many academics taking credit for other people’s work, which is why I left once I got my PhD and have turned down all subsequent attempts to attract me back.

  2. I thought the Nobel was for the work in the development of this area of physics rather than the discovery of pulsars themselves.

  3. That’s a can of worms. I’ve been out of academia for several decades but my niece has recently been a postdoc. The usual convention for scientific papers is first author did the work, last author brought the money in (the Principal Investigator). Second author can mean something, I forget what.

    Beyond that it’s all down to personalities. Some notorious PIs will take all the credit for everything done by their postgrads and postdocs while doing sod all lab time, others will gladly emphasize the team members who did the work even if the PI helped out. Since the research ratings scheme was brought in it’s increasingly dog eat dog, which is why my niece got out – she loved the work but couldn’t stand the politics.

    In the case of Jocelyn Bell not getting the recognition for pulsars, you’re talking the 60s and a female student. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

  4. He was probably lead author on the definitive paper: different disciplines have different conventions for this. He probably sought and obtained the grant that supported his PhD student, and thus had some inkling of what was worth looking at – but the PhD student did all the legwork, as the supervisor (a) had other things to do – occasionally, perhaps some teaching and admin; (b) had other PhD students; (c) was involved with a Learned Society or two, Conferences, and writing papers, perhaps in reviewing papers or being on an Editorial Panel for a scientific journal; (d) was doing External Examining at other Universities; and (e) was carrying out a set of simultaneous vendettas in his own department and across the University.

  5. Nobel gongs are rarely anything to do with the science. It’s a slightly more rarified Oscar!

  6. I don’t know what the normal protocol is (or the actual who did what of the research in question) but the grauniad are pretty blatant in implying that Jocelyn Bell didn’t share the 1974 Nobel prize solely because of her sex.

    A quick Google on “Jocelyn Bell” and the results that come up would suggest that this is a pretty well the accepted belief today.

    Maybe this is the case, but I don’t think she can be retrospectively awarded 40 odd years later. People being passed over? What about Fred Hoyle.

    Unfortunately, in the context of 2019, it’s not about a possibly deserving researcher being overlooked. It’s all about identity politics.

    Look at what the peace prize has become over the last decade or two. Essentially a woke politics prize (Al Gore! Obama!! The EU!!!!!!!……..!!!!!!!!!)

    I wonder how long it will be before the lefty scum turn up at the prize ceremony demanding it be “decolonialised” or that the physics prize belongs to the oppressed of Wakanda from whom it had obviously been stolen.

    I wish this was a joke but given the Alice in wonderland world we live in.

  7. I expect this was common practice, regardless of sex, but it will be spun as The Patriarchy, regardless.

  8. When I was young, in my discipline the idea of “first author” was pretty weak. My first two papers were Supervisor then me, and Me then supervisor. (Or was it vice versa?)

    One of my research students said he wanted the supervisor’s name first because it made it far easier for a research student (say) who saw a citation of a paper to know which research group had produced it.

    I’m sure that some supervisors do steal students work: my first supervisor did. He published some of my results without crediting me as an author even though the paper was solely about those results. But he was such a crook that he was eventually sacked. This is perhaps unusual: some scientific crooks flourish, judging by FRS appointments, gongs from Her Majesty, Headships of prestigious departments, and Oxbridge college Masterships.

    The best idea in my own PhD thesis was more my supervisor’s than mine. The best ideas in many of my own students’ theses were often more mine than theirs. But since the ideas emerge from working together it can be rather arbitrary to assign the bulk of an idea to one or the other, so a generalisation based on this experience would be rather fuzzy.

    If I took on a student to work on an idea that I’d already had it would probably be fair to say it was mine. If a student asked to work for me to pursue an idea he’d already had, then it would be his idea. What if I took on a student to work on an idea that had been developed as I worked with an earlier student? What if that second student went on to modify the idea?

    As for the original point, isn’t the crucial question whether Hewish was an honourable man? I don’t know. I have a friend, a pure mathematician, who contrasts his own immediate colleagues – a thoroughly decent lot – with mathematical physicists, who are at best a bunch of pushy spivs.

    Are cosmologists a sub-variety of mathematical physicists? Dunno. As for astronomers, I’ve known two well enough to judge – one decent, one a thug I wouldn’t trust an inch.

    My conclusion is that it all turns on “Is X an honourable man?”. See Shakespeare, Julius Caesar.

  9. And, allow me to dribble on, there are two more points.

    (i) In some countries it is, apparently, normal for the supervisor, or even the Head of Department, to claim all the credit. Italy, for example.

    (ii) There are countries, and disciplines, where the Head of a department might demand that he be an author of every paper published from his lab. But – would you believe it? – the same cove will deny all responsibility if the work turns out to be wrong or faked.

  10. And another anecdote. I once helped out a research student in another department who was going distinctly under-supervised.

    For his big-deal paper, I read his draft, suggested some mods, pointed out some strengths of his work that he hadn’t yet appreciated, and offered encouragement, especially on the necessity of submitting it to the top journal in the field.

    When it appeared I saw he’d thanked me by giving me a handsome acknowledgement. Excellent. Consider my tummy tickled.

    However I later discovered that at least one reader had decided that the work must actually have been mine and that I’d let the lad claim it as an act of generosity to help him out of tricky situation.

  11. And from the above we’re supposed to take “97% of scientists agree that…” as definitive. Right.

  12. ‘And from the above we’re supposed to take “97% of scientists agree that…” as definitive’

    Nah, that was a perfectly ordinary lie – nothing to do with scientific customs at all.

  13. Dunno, and quite possibly the Nobel committee are a bunch of heteropatriarchal cislords. But it’s absolute ladybollocks to describe Jocelyn Bell as “unsung”. Everyone with more than a passing interest in astronomy has heard of her and she’s been credited in textbooks with her remarkable discovery for decades now.

    (And how many other recently living astronomers are almost household names – apart from that wheelchair guy and Russell Grant?)

    Wikipedo lists seven major awards she’s received since the 1970’s, though I had to chuckle at this bit:

    In 2018, she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. Following the announcement of the award, she decided to give the whole of the £2.3 million prize money to help female, minority, and refugee students seeking to become physics researchers

    When this ends up with the predictable results, we should call it the Jocelyn Bell Curve.

  14. Perhaps I have met the wrong women but I can`t recall ever meeting any woman who found the idea of space exciting or read science fiction or liked brain burstingly huge numbers. Women don`t usually find P G Wodehouse funny or wish to hear that the Arian schism is not the same Aryan as the Aryans of the Indo European language group(for example )
    I`m sure there are exceptions but when I try to fascinate my wife with some thrilling notion of this sort I get the pointed use of the pause button plus the look.

  15. I can`t recall ever meeting any woman who found the idea of space exciting or read science fiction or liked brain burstingly huge numbers.

    I have, but – just like the blokes – they’re outliers, and tend to be on the spectrum.

    Actually, there’s probably a Nobel prize waiting to be picked up by someone who can explain the role of high-functioning autism in the success of technological civilisation. It was probably some spotty Stone Age geek who invented fire.

  16. DocBud said:
    “My experience of academia is that it is a very competitive, cut throat business with many academics taking credit for other people’s work”

    Agreed. Having moved from a big City law firm to a university, one of the biggest cultural changes was the almost complete lack of co-operation and collegiality in the university; a huge contrast to the regular teamwork in the law firm.

  17. dearieme,

    I have externally supervised young PhD students because I do enjoy mentoring young people. On more than one occasion, I’ve sown the seed of an idea for a PhD project, but I’m more than happy for the student to run with it, with occasional guidance, and do the work that establishes whether or not the idea was valid or not.

    My post PhD original ideas are in peer reviewed papers, sadly not always mine, I’m a little too trusting at times.

  18. When I started off working in a university, I was told that the first named author would just be a senior person who had muscled in, the second would be the actual author, and the third would have done the work to get the data on which it was based.

    Think it’s a lot more variable than that though (and in my field joint authorship is much less common). Pity, because it would be useful to have a fixed convention so that we could know who had actually done what (if anything).

  19. For those who aren’t aware, one of the primary reasons why first author is so important is that for papers with three or more authors, within the text of a manuscript, the paper will be cited as First Author et al. Often for seminal papers in a field, the paper becomes known as First Author et al rather than by its actual titles. For two authored papers, seminal papers tend to be known by First Author and Second Author.

    I once had a young engineer put up his hand in a workshop and ask “excuse me, are you x of x and y”. I have to confess to feeling a certain amount of pride that x and y was still a significant paper over 20 years after publication.

  20. Bloke no Longer in Austria

    When I did my MA recently, we were sent a questionnaire by the Uni about our views on the course. I told them the truth and said that it was very poorly thought through and probably not value for money ( I paid cash). The professor refused to talk to me for the whole of the last term. Tsk Academics can be so vain….

    Anyway the point i wanted to make was that in a BBC docu recently some twat was discussing Hedy Lamarr’s patent for randomly changing wireless signals that could be used to steer rockets and torpedoes without being intercepted. The patent lapsed and was later picked up by the US Dept of Defense and became the basis of modern digital cellphone technology. This idiot proclaimed that Ms Lamarr’s patent was never acted upon because she was a woman and thus not to be taken seriously by the patriarchy. Obviously the absence of transistors and silicon chips in the 1940s escaped him.

  21. The whole story is very bad form.

    I would rather cut my own throat than be known to or suspected of having stolen others work.

    Then again, I’m a failed wannabe academic so that tells you something.

  22. @Ken, she’s very graceful about it, bless her. If the prize was shared by Hewish and Ryle there was room for a third.

    As a generalisation, research students are vulnerable to being treated shittily – far more vulnerable than undergraduates – so I wouldn’t be surprised if she had been hard done by. I would be more surprised, though, if it had much to do with her being a woman, but you never can tell. The oddest people turn out to be misogynists.

  23. Aha, I snorted at this: “it is generally accepted that when Crick and Watson were awarded a Nobel in 1962, had Franklin been alive, she ought to have been included.”

    What, give Franklin the prize for a photo that was actually taken by a research student? A male research student. And anyway, which of the three awarded the prize does the Grauniad think should have been excluded to make way for her? And anyway anyway, she wasn’t sodding alive, was she?

  24. Surely the hypothesiser along with the person (if different) planning, giving forethought, ‘recruiting in’ the right people, negotiating funding, coordinating what is probably a lengthy project leads to an individual being in the right place, at the right time to make a discovery.

    I mean, we don’t say that Fred Bloggs, who did the final tap a a chisel knocking down the final bit of rock creating the link that we call the channel tunnel, didn’t ‘create’ or build the Channel Tunnel, do we? But he might be a footnote in the story of that project.

    I’m not saying the person uncovering those definitive bits of data shouldn’t be acknowledged, more that the ‘discovery’ is weighted prob towards the designer, coordinator etc.

    Unless, of course, searching for pulsars was outside of the scope of the project. In which case more ‘weight’ to that individual who uncovered those crucial bits of data.

    I bet Nobel Committees take that all into account (but, I don’t know).

  25. @Lockers
    No-one was looking for pulsars. Jocelyn Bell noticed a strange signal that repeated every 1.33s (‘little green men’) from a very primitive radio telescope that she’d played a large part in building. In the paper (Hewish, Bell, …) they suggested it could be a compact pulsating object (white dwarf or neutron star). It was Thomas Gold who suggested it was coming from a rapidly rotating neutron star.

  26. Not my subject but it appears that while Fred Hoyle wanted Jocelyn Bell to share the credits, she disagreed with him.

    Her role was spotting anomalies in data records – the breakthrough was matching these up with the (at-the-time unsunstantiated) theories of Gold et al about neutron stars.

  27. @ dearieme
    “it is generally accepted” = “we hold these truths to be self-evident” = there is no evidence for this outlandish suggestion so we’re going to talk bollocks to avoid anyone pointing it out

  28. Lamarr was told by some bigwigs: don’t worry your little head about his stuff, just keep looking pretty for the troops. And her techniques didn’t need post-WW2 electronics, she demonstrated the principles with the guts from a player-piano, which is why the description of the technique used 88 frequencies. Specialisation would easily have miniturised that, think of clockwork music boxes.

  29. Newmania – My wife is a trekkie and Dr Who fan. Likes some scifi books.
    We used to be in a star trek fan club – around 150 people regularly turned up, around 75% female.
    For hardcore trekkies forget the male nerds, the females have them beat for sheer trivia.

  30. Newmania: maybe you’re conversationally challenged. I was raised on my father’s Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars books and HG Wells, graduated to 60s scifi golden age from the public library, shared with my father, before pursuing my own favourites of the seventies and eighties ; gave up after Douglas Adams in favour of the alternative world views of history books. Definitely a minority interest among girl friends but so is Roman and Byzantine history.

  31. @DocBud June 17, 2019 at 9:15 am

    It is common for them to insist on being first named author on papers, claiming that their status will help the paper be accepted.

    Yep. That trick was pulled on me too. I did all the work, he rewrote my paper and used “we” anywhere I’d used “I”
    eg I believe, I conclude…

  32. Actually, there’s probably a Nobel prize waiting to be picked up by someone who can explain the role of high-functioning autism in the success of technological civilisation.

    He (boo!) will find out it is nearly always white men (boo) and he will be buried for his own personal safety.

  33. @ Steve & Rob
    It was certainly the stone age geek who discovered flint-tapping (fire could have been observed as a side-effect of lightning so although that is probable it is less certain) that enabled Early Man to use custom-made tools. Stone Age Paintings: definitely the Neanderthal nerd.
    I read last year an impressive book on the contribution of the neuro-diverse to technological civilisation (sorry I’ve forgotten the title).
    There is a saying “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” and high boredom threshold of those on the spectrum has been vital to scientific discovery through the ages.
    There isn’t a snowflake’s chance in Gehenna of a Nobel Prize for someone explaining such an anti-PC fact.
    Not *always* white men, overwhelmingly men, but including a substantial minority of yellow men which helps to explain why China was ahead of western civilisations 2500 years ago (fewer destructive invasions also helped).

  34. It may have been common practice at the time, but, whether or not the student’s sex was significant, the incident was sufficiently remarked upon that when the occasion arose for a potential repetition in the same field of radio pulsar astronomy only a few years later, Russell Hulse was accorded fully equal recognition with his supervisor, Joseph Taylor, for the discovery of the first binary pulsar. Ultimately that was a Nobel Prize award too.

  35. @ Newmania
    You need to meet a better class of girl. My mother and sisters all took Maths ‘A’ level (HNC in my mother’s case) and my wife (the only member of the family not to take Maths at ‘A’/HNC level) is a “Star Trek” and “Babylon 5” fan. This is from a self-selectedly diverse group as it was better to have different specialities.

  36. Bloke in North Dorset


    The Wiki entry is slightly misleading, frequency hopping is just one form of spread spectrum technologies, but that is being pendantic.

    I’m not convinced they could have successfully miniaturised it enough to fit the receiver in to the torpedo and maintain synchronisation. Transmitter and receiver would have to be given the same hopping code and would need to switch at exactly the same time.

    The hopping codes would have to be pseudo-random and with different starting points for torpedos, probably by boat, otherwise the enemy would quickly figure it out. That would have been a major drag on manufacturing resources as they’d have to be hard coded.

    Even if they could have done it, it would have been a major investment with high risks and the benefits may not have been worth it. Was a major problem in the first place? Jamming isn’t that easy it requires a lot of power and highly directional antennas.

    The main reason FH and other spread spectrum technologies could be used in modern mobile phone systems is that they can use GPS for synchronisation. The main benefit of these technologies isn’t to avoid jamming but to increase S:N in a cellular network.

  37. BinD, yes, we have the disadvantage of looking back from today and comparing with things that were done. But in wartime all sorts of technological advances rush through. Goddard demonstrated that rockets were feasible, accelerated wartime development advanced that to the point that things the size of a house were being dropped on London. The first proof of concept transistor was the size of a fist.

  38. Bloke in North Dorset


    I agree, war is the mother of invention cf radar, but was it worth the trade off? Hence my question about how bad the problem was and whether it was worth the risks of diverting resources.

    On the point of radar, they didn’t have to throw a lot of money at miniaturisation to get in on to the plane, that came much later.

  39. I couldn’t find how to submit this to ContiGraph, so I’ll stick it here.
    You would think that engineering is the very definition of a profession where being able to add up is the fundamental skill needed. Yet, Eindhoven University seems to be insisting that it is not.

    In response to only having 16% of their engineering academics being female, they have decided to limit future job vacancies to female applicants.

    My first thought is “Is this legal?”. Discrimination is still discrimination whatever the intentions. They brush this away by mentioning they have EU permission to do this.

    Rapidly galloping ahead of this thought, though, is: what’s the diversity of the pool they’re fishing from? If 50% of their applicants are female but they’re only appointing 16%, then there is something to look into.

    However, a quick web search shows that the proportion of female engineering graduates in the EU is between 12% and 20%. So, within a margin of error of probably a single person, their staff exactly reflects the pool they are fishing from, yet they decry this and institute action to ignore it.

    They finish off by saying “engineering is a discipline that is all about brainpower, regardless of gender”. However, by their very action they *are* discriminating on gender and ignoring brainpower.

  40. @ jgh
    Well done! We need hard facts like that to respond to the brain-dead MSM campaigns.
    Nobody complains when I am excluded from consideration for “people-centric” roles, but innumerates complain if they do not get equal numbers in jobs requiring numeracy. [Not all innumerates are female, some are male sociology lecturers]

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