The Death of the Academic Author: why we should focus less on the writer

A recent article exploring the relationship between exercise and mental health (Chekroud et al., 2018) has stirred a lot debate. It was an interesting study and gained a lot of traction, with over 2500 retweets of the original summary thread by Adam Chekroud and multiple articles by various news outlets e.g. the BBC, Time. There was some level-headed criticism that I believe furthered the discussion and our understanding of the topic. But I also feel there was some unhelpful points raised which did not. These points also reveal a broader problem in the way we view the academic author and discuss science.

Disclaimer: THIS IS NOT A TONE DEBATE

At no point in this discussion will I comment on how people voiced their criticisms. There has been more than enough debate already. I also don’t believe I have anything valuable to add beyond what Tal Yarkoni and others have written previously. I’m merely going to examine the content and focus of the points raised.

The Author is dead

The Death of the Author (Barthes, 1967) argues the idea of a single author delivering their “theological meaning” to its audience is folly. The work is the result of so many different factors acting upon it that to think the text has one interpretation from an “Author-God” is nonsense. The meaning comes from the reading of the text by the audience. When it comes to the domain of literature (which this essay focused on) I largely agree with it. Whilst applying it literally to science would be a step too far, I think it has something useful to teach us. The general principle of not trying to divine something’s “true meaning” based on what the author(s) intended and studiously examining their behaviour is a good one. To elucidate this point, I want to contrast useful criticism to less so.

Divining retweets

The most well-known set of criticisms comes from a tweet thread by Anne Scheel. I think it’s an excellent example of critiquing a study[note]Her, and others, highlighting the potential conflict of interest is especially relevant.[/note] and agree with almost all of it (other cogent arguments come from Brendon Stubbs and Anita). But there is one point of disagreement: when Anne discusses the tweeting behaviour of some accounts (see here for one example, the others are below in the thread). I do not believe trying to interpret the meaning of the authors behaviour gives us any new or useful information[note]Though that shouldn’t stop you if you do, of course.[/note] as there are so many factors affecting that decision, with so many possible intentions. However, Zad Chow has argued it is a meaningful enterprise and I can see what he is arguing for, so perhaps I’m wrong.

Who are you? I really wanna know!

The main point of disagreement I have is with the utility of examining the differences in titles by one of the authors. This was raised by Idan Blank[note]Idan offers an explanation for his interest here[/note]. This is, in my opinion, a misguided interest. Who the author is should largely be irrelevant. Baring known frauds or a few other exceptions[note]Conflicts of interest etc.[/note], their identity is largely superfluous. Collectively putting less stock by who the author is would have wide-ranging benefits. It will help us move away from valuing eminence. It will hinder the ability of prestigious names to dominate discussions. And will curtail the advantage they show when it comes to publications in high-profile journals. It might also encourage us to think of the broader groups people work in, rather than rewarding one person and implying it was down to them.

The Death of the Author?

Though I believe we put too much emphasis on the author(s), I’m not arguing for totally disregarding that information. If it is highly relevant (like in the instances mentioned above) then factor that information into your evaluation of the piece. But a move towards less weight being assigned to their identity will be a positive one.

Note

Thanks to Ioana Cristea for sparking the initial idea for this blog post and for granting her imprimatur to use it.

References

Barthes, R. (1967). The Death of the Author. Available at: http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf

BBC. (2018). Regular exercise ‘best for mental health’. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-45116607

Chekroud, S.R.; Gueorguieva, R.; Zheutlin, A.B.; Paulus, M.; Krumholz, H.K.; Krystal, J.H.; Chekroud, A.M. (2018). Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1·2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study. The Lancet, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30227-X

Time. (2018). Exercise Is Good For Your Mental Health—But Only To A Point. Available at: http://time.com/5360195/exercise-mental-health/?utm_campaign=time&utm_medium=social&xid=time_socialflow_twitter&utm_source=twitter.com

Yarkoni, T. (2016). There is no “tone” problem in psychology Available at: https://www.talyarkoni.org/blog/2016/10/01/there-is-no-tone-problem-in-psychology/

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