On April 25, 1953, Nature published the discovery of the double helix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). James Watson and Francis Crick deciphered the genetic material of living beings from photograph 51 taken by X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin.
Authorship in literature presents aspects of undoubted ethical content. Confining ourselves to scientific articles, in which multi-authorship is becoming more frequent – it is not uncommon to find articles in high-impact journals co-authored by more than 40 or 50 authors – one obvious question is: has everyone really contributed to conducting the research in any of its phases?
On 4 November, the Spanish Research Ethics Committee published a “Report on Authorship and Affiliations of Scientific and Technical Papers”. With respect to the authorship of publications, only the following brief statement was made: “Authorship identifies the participants who have made the work possible, constituting inalienable rights regardless of the presentation format (journals, books, communications to congresses, technical reports, etc.).
As far as publications are concerned, Codes of good practice in research must take into account that there is a tradition and unwritten rules in the different scientific fields and groups”. Unfortunately, the brief statement fails to clarify the criteria with which “the participants who have made the work possible” should be determined.
This year, we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the publication of the seminal article by Francis Crick and James Watson, in which they proposed a double-helix model for the structure of DNA. Although the article occupied only a single page in the journal Nature (1), its importance was such that there was no hesitation in rating it as the most important finding in biology of the 20th century. Moreover, specifically, this article goes fully into the ethical implications of authorship with which our essay begins. In this case, it is not about one of the two authors; both had ample merit to explain an issue that had been debated unsuccessfully for many years by many researchers: the three-dimensional structure of DNA, the carrier of genetic information. Among many other things, Watson and Crick were right to ask the question inherent in the relationships between the structure of biological materials and their function: what functional implications does this structure have?
Both Watson and Crick, each from their personal experience and perspective, were instrumental in seeing what many others had not seen. Neither of them was superfluous. The issue, which was raised a long time ago and which has been reconsidered on the occasion of the anniversary of the publication, is: was anyone missing from among the authors?
To answer this question, we need to bear in mind that neither Crick nor Watson had carried out experimental work in relation to the structure of DNA. They knew, of course, the chemical structure of DNA, determined by Alexander Todd, as a polymer formed by repeating units of 4 deoxyribonucleotides — consisting, in turn, of deoxyribose, phosphate and a nitrogenous base (which could be adenine, guanine, thymine or cytosine) — linked together by phosphates that establish a bridge (a phosphodiester bond) between the deoxyribose rings of adjacent deoxyribonucleotides. They also knew what was called Chargaff’s rules: when studying the composition of human DNA, it was found that the proportion of adenine was approximately equal to that of thymine and that of guanine equal to that of cytosine (2). Chargaff himself had discussed his findings with Crick, but only fruitless proposals had been put forward about the three-dimensional organization of DNA molecules.
Watson and Crick, who worked at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, learned that, at King’s College London, John Randall, the director of the institution, and his deputy, Maurice Wilkins, were working on the study of DNA structure using X-ray diffraction. Rosalind Franklin, who had studied Physical Chemistry at Cambridge and had worked in France with this diffraction technique, joined King’s College in 1951 at the age of 31. At Randall’s direction, she joined the investigation into the structure of DNA, supervising the thesis work of Raymond Gosling. Shortly after her incorporation, she obtained diffraction images that allowed her to see that there were two structural forms of DNA, A and B, with helical organization, of which she was able to determine some parameters, proposing that the phosphates were on the outside of the structure. This is recorded in Rosalind Franklin’s laboratory notebooks, according to the testimony of Aaron Klug (3). Moreover, Franklin gave a seminar in November 1951, attended by James Watson, at which she talked about these findings.
At the end of January 1953, Watson visited King’s College again and Wilkins, perhaps with a certain lack of caution, showed him the best of the images obtained by Rosalind Franklin, which later went down in history as “Photograph 51”. In a rather unorthodox manner, Watson managed to obtain a copy of the image, as he himself relates in his well-known story of the discovery of the double helix, in which he adds: “Rosy, of course, did not directly give us her data. For that matter, no one at King’s realized they were in our hands” (4). In that same book, Watson makes a seemingly unfounded assumption: that Rosalind Franklin, who had a lot of experience in X-ray diffraction, had not understood her own results, while he, who was a neophyte in the field of crystallography, grasped them immediately. In fact, in an article published in Nature on the occasion of the aforementioned anniversary, Cobb and Comfort call this idea an “absurd presumption” (5). In addition to “Photograph 51”, Watson and Crick had access through Max Perutz to a copy of a report by the Medical Research Council summarizing the work of its main researchers, including Rosalind Franklin. That data was essential for them to develop their famous double-helix model for the structure of the B-form of DNA. In fact, in a later publication, Crick and Watson stated — albeit in a footnote — that without this data [from the King’s College group], “the formulation of our structure would have been most unlikely, if not impossible” (6). However, in the original article, which the entire scientific community cites, Rosalind Franklin’s name did not appear either as an author or in the acknowledgments section.
Life went on. Rosalind Franklin did not get along with Maurice Wilkins — it was an open secret — and soon left King’s College to study the structure of viruses at Birkbeck College in London. Nevertheless, it seems she held no grudge against Crick or Watson. Indeed, as Brenda Maddox, her biographer, states, from 1954 to 1958 she corresponded with both on friendly terms and, for example, in the spring of 1956, Rosalind toured Spain together with Francis Crick and his wife Odile (7). Unfortunately, the story ended badly for Franklin, as she died of cancer in 1958, without her merits being publicly recognized. Even the obituary published in Nature stated that “in this close collaboration between the Cambridge and London schools it is difficult to disentangle all the contributions of individuals” (8). Four years after her death, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to “Francis Harry Compton Crick, James Dewey Watson, and Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material”. At the award presentation ceremony, Professor A. Engström, on behalf of the committee that decided the award, referred to how Wilkins’ crystallographic studies indicated that the long DNA molecules were arranged in a helical fashion. Not a word of mention about Rosalind Franklin.
What were the reasons for omitting Franklin’s name in the most important milestones of the discovery of the double helix? Brenda Maddox points out that Rosalind was Jewish and that the anti-Semitism of the Cambridge researchers and the prevailing sexism among the scientists of the time were key to Rosalind’s rejection (7), and in a similar vein is a recent editorial in Nature, bearing the harsh title “How Rosalind Franklin was let down by DNA’s dysfunctional team”.
Whatever the reason for pushing aside Rosalind Franklin, the case forces us to strongly consider the ethical aspects of the authorship of scientific articles. It is serious that people who, at most, have contributed some idea about the writing of the manuscript without having participated in its execution are included as authors. It is also serious that researchers are listed as authors for the simple fact of belonging to a certain laboratory or for having obtained funding without participating in the research. More serious is that, in order to return a favor, those who have carried out work include as a co-author someone who has not participated in it, or include them in the hope of receiving some support in the future. But even more serious, in my opinion, is that, as in the case of Rosalind Franklin, someone is omitted who has contributed something without which the culmination of the research would have been impossible. It is obvious that the criteria for this identification of “the participants who have made the work possible”, which is included in the report with which these lines began, must be developed extensively.
Spanish Royal Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences
Royal Academy of Medicine of the Valencia Community
- Watson JD, Crick FH. Molecular structure of nucleic acids; a structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid. Nature. 1953;171:737–8.
- Chargaff E, Zamenhof S, Green C. Human desoxypentose nucleic acid: Composition of human desoxypentose nucleic acid. Nature. 1950;165:756–757.
- Klug A. Rosalind Franklin and the discovery of the structure of DNA. Nature. 1968;219:808–10; 843–4.
- Watson JD. La doble hélice. Barcelona: Plaza y Janés; 1978.
- Cobb M, Comfort N. What Watson and Crick really took from Franklin. Nature. 2023;616:657–60.
- Crick FH, Watson JD. The complementary structure of deoxyribonucleic acid. Proc R Soc Lond A. 1954;223:80–96.
- Maddox B. The double helix and the “wronged heroine.” Nature. 2003;421:407–8.
- Bernal JD. Dr. Rosalind E. Franklin. Nature. 1958;182:154.