Under The Microscope: When creation is collective

Unlike Artists, Scientists Vanish into Anonymity
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The Independent Culture
I have spent much of the last five years writing a textbook. I would like to think of it as an artistic creation and the finished product is indeed very beautiful. And if art is, as the sculptor Rodin said, 90 per cent perspiration and 10 per cent inspiration then it certainly would qualify. But it is very far from an artistic creation and illustrates how different science is from art, particularly literature. Writing a textbook is part of the process of consigning creative reports to oblivion because science is a collective enterprise and individual achievements are assimilated.

Consider how it was written. I have five non-writing co-authors, all leading scientists in their own speciality but also with a deep and broad knowledge of the field as a whole. They do not write but advise me and correct my errors, and also stop me trying to be too fashionable. So I would write a chapter after extensive reading of the literature, and send the draft to each of them; they would send back their comments. I then rewrote the chapter and sent it to my editor. Now I had always regarded myself as an editor's dream since I respond very well to editorial suggestions. But when the chapters came back, it seemed that all that remained of my writing was the occasional "but" and "that". I was on the first occasion quite upset but was saved by the advice of another experienced editor, who said that I should not look at my original script and see how it had been changed, but just read the new text and if I did not like it try to understand what my editor had in mind.

What my editor had in mind was that this was a book for undergraduates; the questions we had to ask all the time were what did we want those undergraduates to know, and whether it was clear and easy to understand. She was against what she called factoids - unnecessary information that did not illustrate some principle. The book was, after all, called Principles of Development though some referees wondered where the principles were.

Referees? Each rewritten chapter - I made my own changes - was then sent to five specialists in the area relating to the chapter. These referees were critical, occasionally complimentary, but always helpful in pointing out errors. There followed another rewrite in the light of their comments, and so back to the editor and the whole process repeated. It might seem that the end was near - alas, not yet. For now the chief editor and editor went through it in minute detail, the latter repeatedly complaining that I had not paid sufficient attention to her comments at earlier stages. "Lewis," she would scrawl across the page, "if you would look at the figure when you are describing it you wouldn't make such silly mistakes."

The illustrations are the core of the book and absolutely essential for understanding how embryos develop. I had a marvellous illustrator who did it all on computer. The way we were supposed to work was that I would think of a illustration, he would execute it, and I would then write the text around it. But I am not visual and only think in terms of words. I would write page after page without a figure near my mind. It did lead to problems but he was very patient.

At the end of each chapter is a list of references that can lead the student to original sources. Here I feel both guilty and uncomfortable, for one of the important rewards for scientists is for their work to be recognised and praised by their peers. But the papers of many who made significant discoveries are not in those lists and have been displaced by more recent reviews. Moreover, no names of scientists are in the text. Their work has become assimilated and they, like almost all scientists who have made major contributions, are consigned to honourable anonymity. Oh lucky artists.

! Lewis Wolpert lectures at University College London His textbook 'Principles of Development' is published by OUP, priced pounds 25.95