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Minimizing Trust in Co-authorship

Having elaborated on ways to increase personal epistemic trust and to complement it with impersonal trust, I will now discuss ways in which the need for epistemic trust can be minimized. In research group collaboration, epistemic trust can be minimized by reducing the number of trust relations that a collaboration involves. As I have observed, this can be achieved through adopting hierarchical co-authorship, making a “first author" the center of group collaboration.

In research groups that implement a hierarchy between first author and contributing authors, the number of relevant trust relations is significantly smaller than in groups where every member is accountable to everyone else. When first authors take the lead in collaborative co-authoring practices, what matters are the trust relations between first author and contributing authors. The first author will have to trust the contributing authors for the contributions they make; and contributing authors will trust the first author for his or her judgment of others’ contributions and the way in which he or she integrates them into a coherent whole.

As interview data suggests, hierarchical co-authorship is the form of authorship that members of the planetary science group typically engage in. One or two first authors, “usually the driving force in the experiments" (Adam, senior scientist, groupl), are accountable for creating a publishable text that is acceptable to all co-authors. Under their supervision, the paper to be written is split up into sections for which responsibility is distributed among co-authors. Each co-author is assigned particular sections, sub-sections or single important paragraphs. A co-author then either writes pieces of text him or herself or provides the first author with the information necessary to compose the respective section:

[S]omebody writes the main part and then also comes with some ideas how the rest should look like and then he will send it to the different co-authors and they add and criticize and make adjustments, additions and so on. So, it’s a collective type of work, but there is one person who has to come up with the major input. (Victor, senior scientist, groupl)

As a first author you start by typing up what you know and what you want in there and when you get to parts where you don’t know, where you’re unsure, you don’t know how to conclude this, then you send what you have to other people and say: Hey, we’d like to talk something about this or that, and you ask them questions to this problem. So what do you think? Do you have an opinion on this? What should we write, what should we say? What do you think? Ahm, and they’ll come with suggestions, and you’ll use that. (Laura, post-doc, groupl)

Normally scientific papers are, can be split up quite easily into—in that you have ah you describe the experiment, so that’s a section or different sections with a different experimental techniques. And then the results, there are different results from the different, different techniques. (Adam, senior scientist, group1)

When Victor calls co-authoring a “collective type of work," he stresses the involvement of authors beyond the contribution that they, individually, are able to make. Note that Adam and Laura, in contrast, emphasize the “modularity" of jointly authored publications, describing how one or two first authors solicit material from contributing authors who engage with the paper at large to a rather limited degree. When I ask Adam about cross-section commentaries, he replies that such commentaries can be “tricky" and he usually does not invite them.

A recurrent theme in interviewees’ reflections upon the role of first authors was the necessity to “make things fit" when integrating different contributions—a first author is the “person responsible for making sure that everything fits together" (Laura, post-doc, groupl). First authors include additional contributions that “can be shown to be consistent" with the core of their experimental data (Rasmus, senior scientists, groupl). When during the writing process “something inconsistent comes up" (Victor, senior scientist, group1), it is the first author’s responsibility to clear such inconsistencies. Put differently, first authorship comes with the task of checking for coherence across individual contributions.

Coherence-checking, as Sperber and collaborators (2010) point out, is a way to exert epistemic vigilance; it is similar to formal reasoning and is a strategy available to epistemically dependent scientists to complement and bolster epistemic trust. The fact that a contribution is coherent with other contributions of a jointly authored paper does not in itself provide sufficient reason to justify it epistemically. Coherence alone is generally not considered to provide sufficient first-order reasons for the justification of a belief (Haack, 2009, p. 66; see also Angere 2008; Haack 2004; Meijs 2005). But the fact that a contribution is coherent with other contributions reflects positively upon the contributor and increases his or her trustworthiness.

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