Buying academic collaboration

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on an Ebay auction conducted by a certain William A. Tozier of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Mr. Tozier, a consultant who specializes in artificial intelligence research, auctioned off an opportunity to co-author a scientific paper. The winner of the auction would get 40 hours of Mr. Tozier’s time and if the work produced an interesting scientific finding, the auction winner and Mr. Tozier would submit a paper to a scientific journal. The benefit to the winner? Aside from producing some science, the winner would have an Erdos number of 5 (click here for an explanation of the Erdos number).

Unsurprisingly, this event has lead to some outrage. The winner of the auction, a mathematician named Jose Burillio, refused to employ Mr. Tozier because he thought Tozier was auctioning off a paper he had already written. If that were the case, then the auction winner was simply buying the opportunity to put his name on work he had no hand in producing – a form of dishonesty. Even when Mr. Burillo found out the truth, he still opposed the auction on the principle that collaboration should not be induced with pay. Mr. Tozier then declared a new winner – the second highest bidder, the owner of a company that makes online course materials.

This incident raises an interesting question – why can’t someone pay for an academic collaborator? In other walks of life, we often pay for crucial knowledge in a field we don’t have expertise in. In the consulting world, research reports are routinely written with individuals who have been paid for their services. It seems that pay for collaboration should be prohibited only when it threatens the integrity of the work. For example, it should be prohibited when the work has already been produced and wealthy individuals are seeking only to attach their name to scientific work in an attempt to buy prestige. This seems to have been the case for the calculus theorem known as L’Hopital’s rule, which some believe to have been discovered by Johann Bernoulli, who might have been paid by the wealthy aristocrat Guillaume de L’Hopital (click here for the story).

But if there is no conflict of interest, or damage to the integrity of the work, then it might be worth considering. It is often common for a researcher to realize they have no knowledge in an area which is crucial to completing their research. One option is to completely master a new field. Another is to hope that a specialist in that area will collaborate out of the goodness of their heart. While these are desirable and preferable outcomes, they are also difficult to obtain. It might also be useful to simply hire someone to help solve a particular problem. As long as the payment is acknowledged at the beginning of a scientific paper (“Professor X has been compensated for his assistance in this work…”), collaboration for pay might be a form of scientific cooperation worth considering. Readers are invited to email me pros and cons of scientific collaboration for pay. Summary of the discussions will be posted later this week.