The researcher is a confounding variable

I can’t help but wonder… 

Who is the author? 

Are they writing at night while their child is nursing at their chest? Are they on the train, commuting? Are they in a war zone or in their office? Perhaps they are writing on a Sunday while the buzz of homelife keeps them slightly distracted, or late at night, while longing to be elsewhere, sharing a laugh or a drink. 

And why do I wonder about that?

The author is the impersonal voice of science. The author is the vernacular of a field, the researched minus the researcher, the results minus the reasons, the numbers, the numbers. 

Research has been conducted. Conclusions were made. 

I was instructed to write so that I disappear as an author. The countless research and academic skills courses teach the passive voice as the voice of reason – at least in the UG programs I have followed (psychology and behavioral and cognitive neurosciences). An academic education sometimes instills in learners the idea that one must engage in an act of ongoing self-negation. The researcher is a confounding variable. 

Yet research (and common sense) suggests that the author, the researcher, will always be there, if often implicitly, and that will shape the results of the investigation. This may be more obvious when talking about the social sciences, but physics is not an exception. 

I must confess, I often assumed the author to be a white man. And I must confess, I often pretended to be a white man

I have had the pleasure to hear Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical physicist and a science and society scholar, talk about the effects of the author’s identity on the content of science, in this case, physics. She does so by introducing the term ‘white empiricism’, the phenomenon through which only white people (particularly white men) are perceived as having a fundamental capacity for objectivity.

Some of the examples she discussed (also in her book The Disordered Cosmos) include the prestige asymmetry in physics – where fields dominated by white men are valued more – and the dismissal of Black women’s experiences and expertise, reinforcing barriers to their full participation and recognition in physics.

White empiricism allowed me to understand my unease about invisible authors. 

Invisibility is a social phenomenon. The author is constructed as invisible and, thus, objective. And objectivity is most easily attributed to those who have historically dominated the fields of science.

The data were collected. The findings show.

I must confess, I often assumed the author to be a white man. And I must confess, I often pretended to be a white man. 

Science is fundamentally a human endeavor and our exclusion from it is as achievable as a photon trying to stay still. Normalizing an absent author is not merely a distortion, it is also a hazard. 

Echoing Marina Abramović, I want us to say: ‘The author is present.’ 

Positionality statements, even in fields like physics, can offer a reflection of the researcher’s background, saying ‘Here’s my viewpoint, influenced by everything from my love of quantum mechanics to my inexplicable fear of rubber ducks’, while research diaries can provide a detailed account of how personal experiences and reflections intertwine with the scientific process. 

Behind every scientific paper there’s a person with a story, quirks, and perhaps a secret penchant for puns about atoms – they make up everything, after all. And I can’t help but wonder who they are. 

VALERIA CERNEI

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