A scientific paper with 5000 authors is absurd, but does science need “papers” at all?

Nature News has reported on what appears to be the paper with the longest author list on record. This article has so many authors – 5,154 altogether – that 24 pages (out of a total of 33 in the paper) are devoted just to listing them, and only 9 to the actual science. Not, surprisingly the field concerned is experimental particle physics and the paper emanates from the Large Hadron Collider; it involves combining data from the CMS and ATLAS detectors to estimate the mass of the Higgs Boson. In my own fields of astronomy and cosmology, large consortia such as the Planck collaboration are becoming the exception rather than the rule for observational work. Large ollaborations  have achieved great things not only in physics and astronomy but also in other fields. A for  paper in genomics with over a thousand authors has recently been published and the trend for ever-increasing size of collaboration seems set to continue.

I’ve got nothing at all against large collaborative projects. Quite the opposite, in fact. They’re enormously valuable not only because frontier research can often only be done that way, but also because of the wider message they send out about the benefits of international cooperation.

Having said that, one thing these large collaborations do is expose the absurdity of the current system of scientific publishing. The existence of a paper with 5000 authors is a reductio ad absurdum proof  that the system is broken. Papers simply do not have 5000  “authors”. In fact, I would bet that no more than a handful of the “authors” listed on the record-breaking paper have even read the article, never mind written any of it. Despite this, scientists continue insisting that constributions to scientific research can only be measured by co-authorship of  a paper. The LHC collaboration that kicked off this piece includes all kinds of scientists: technicians, engineers, physicists, programmers at all kinds of levels, from PhD students to full Professors. Why should we insist that the huge range of contributions can only be recognized by shoe-horning the individuals concerned into the author list? The idea of a 100-author paper is palpably absurd, never mind one with fifty times that number.

So how can we assign credit to individuals who belong to large teams of researchers working in collaboration?

For the time being let us assume that we are stuck with authorship as the means of indicating a contribution to the project. Significant issues then arise about how to apportion credit in bibliometric analyses, e.g. through citations. Here is an example of one of the difficulties: (i) if paper A is cited 100 times and has 100 authors should each author get the same credit? and (ii) if paper B is also cited 100 times but only has one author, should this author get the same credit as each of the authors of paper A?

An interesting suggestion over on the e-astronomer a while ago addressed the first question by suggesting that authors be assigned weights depending on their position in the author list. If there are N authors the lead author gets weight N, the next N-1, and so on to the last author who gets a weight 1. If there are 4 authors, the lead gets 4 times as much weight as the last one.

This proposal has some merit but it does not take account of the possibility that the author list is merely alphabetical which actually was the case in all the Planck publications, for example. Still, it’s less draconian than another suggestion I have heard which is that the first author gets all the credit and the rest get nothing. At the other extreme there’s the suggestion of using normalized citations, i.e. just dividing the citations equally among the authors and giving them a fraction 1/N each. I think I prefer this last one, in fact, as it seems more democratic and also more rational. I don’t have many publications with large numbers of authors so it doesn’t make that much difference to me which you measure happen to pick. I come out as mediocre on all of them.

No suggestion is ever going to be perfect, however, because the attempt to compress all information about the different contributions and roles within a large collaboration into a single number, which clearly can’t be done algorithmically. For example, the way things work in astronomy is that instrument builders – essential to all observational work and all work based on analysing observations – usually get appended onto the author lists even if they play no role in analysing the final data. This is one of the reasons the resulting papers have such long author lists and why the bibliometric issues are so complex in the first place.

Having thousands of authors who didn’t write a single word of the paper seems absurd, but it’s the only way our current system can acknowledge the contributions made by instrumentalists, technical assistants and all the rest. Without doing this, what can such people have on their CV that shows the value of the work they have done?

What is really needed is a system of credits more like that used in the television or film. Writer credits are assigned quite separately from those given to the “director” (of the project, who may or may not have written the final papers), as are those to the people who got the funding together and helped with the logistics (production credits). Sundry smaller but still vital technical roles could also be credited, such as special effects (i.e. simulations) or lighting (photometic calibration). There might even be a best boy. Many theoretical papers would be classified as “shorts” so they would often be written and directed by one person and with no technical credits.

The point I’m trying to make is that we seem to want to use citations to measure everything all at once but often we want different things. If you want to use citations to judge the suitability of an applicant for a position as a research leader you want someone with lots of directorial credits. If you want a good postdoc you want someone with a proven track-record of technical credits. But I don’t think it makes sense to appoint a research leader on the grounds that they reduced the data for umpteen large surveys. Imagine what would happen if you made someone director of a Hollywood blockbuster on the grounds that they had made the crew’s tea for over a hundred other films.

Another question I’d like to raise is one that has been bothering me for some time. When did it happen that everyone participating in an observational programme expected to be an author of a paper? It certainly hasn’t always been like that.

For example, go back about 90 years to one of the most famous astronomical studies of all time, Eddington‘s measurement of the bending of light by the gravitational field of the Sun. The paper that came out from this was this one

A Determination of the Deflection of Light by the Sun’s Gravitational Field, from Observations made at the Total Eclipse of May 29, 1919.

Sir F.W. Dyson, F.R.S, Astronomer Royal, Prof. A.S. Eddington, F.R.S., and Mr C. Davidson.

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series A., Volume 220, pp. 291-333, 1920.

This particular result didn’t involve a collaboration on the same scale as many of today’s but it did entail two expeditions (one to Sobral, in Brazil, and another to the Island of Principe, off the West African coast). Over a dozen people took part in the planning,  in the preparation of of calibration plates, taking the eclipse measurements themselves, and so on.  And that’s not counting all the people who helped locally in Sobral and Principe.

But notice that the final paper – one of the most important scientific papers of all time – has only 3 authors: Dyson did a great deal of background work getting the funds and organizing the show, but didn’t go on either expedition; Eddington led the Principe expedition and was central to much of the analysis;  Davidson was one of the observers at Sobral. Andrew Crommelin, something of an eclipse expert who played a big part in the Sobral measurements received no credit and neither did Eddington’s main assistant at Principe.

I don’t know if there was a lot of conflict behind the scenes at arriving at this authorship policy but, as far as I know, it was normal policy at the time to do things this way. It’s an interesting socio-historical question why and when it changed.

I’ve rambled off a bit so I’ll return to the point that I was trying to get to, which is that in my view the real problem is not so much the question of authorship but the idea of the paper itself. It seems quite clear to me that the academic journal is an anachronism. Digital technology enables us to communicate ideas far more rapidly than in the past and allows much greater levels of interaction between researchers. I agree with Daniel Shanahan that the future for many fields will be defined not in terms of “papers” which purport to represent “final” research outcomes, but by living documents continuously updated in response to open scrutiny by the community of researchers. I’ve long argued that the modern academic publishing industry is not facilitating but hindering the communication of research. The arXiv has already made academic journals virtually redundant in many of branches of  physics and astronomy; other disciplines will inevitably follow. The age of the academic journal is drawing to a close. Now to rethink the concept of “the paper”…

38 Responses to “A scientific paper with 5000 authors is absurd, but does science need “papers” at all?”

  1. The reason for long author lists, and in fac apers, comes down to one thing: money. Back in Eddington’s day most of the peopke working for him woukd have had secure employment, not dependent on the vagaries of funding agencies (though maybe dependent on the vagaries of Eddington). There easn’t a preponderance of postdocs and students on these projects trying to justify their continued existence in the field through a list of publcations, which are pretty much the only thing looked at by potential employers and funding agencies.

    More permanent conracts, a less publication fixated funding environment, and more money in the field, reducing the level of cut-throat competition, would help, but can you realistically see any of that happening?

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      “More permanent conracts, a less publication fixated funding environment, and more money in the field, reducing the level of cut-throat competition, would help”

      What is the secular equivalent of “Amen, brother!”?

  2. A quick fix would be for these papers to partition the personnel into: true PIs and authors of the paper; technical support staff; postdocs; doctoral students. The first category, PIs and genuine authors would be printed. The rest would reside as lists on a website. I occasionally work with Thomson Reuters writing features on highly cited physicists. This has become much more difficult for authors who are in massive collaborations

    • I think that would produce revolution among the postdocs whose time spent on such a project would not be reflected in the authorships they need for their careers to progress (or even continue) the way things are currently run.

      Arguably postdocs and students need authorships more than PIs.

      • If they want their FEC… then the PIs need authorships too (preferably a first-author one every so often too).

      • so perhaps this indicates that Universities need to change their mindset as to how to evaluate useful contributions? Especially in large collaborations, like CMS/ATLAS/LHCB, lots of people are in charge of major projects within those collaborations that don’t result in a paper. Yet still many Universities only recognise a paper (or research grant to hire someone) as a valid output of work. Delivering a major software project within such a collaboration on time, is not recognised (at least in my experience).

  3. Peter:

    It is possible to encode some of the information about relative contributions to a publication in the ordering of the author list. I have never understood why certain fields stick to alphabetic listings as it seems intended purely to disguise those who have not contributed significantly to a specific publication.

    As light entertainment, I recently calculated the median ranking in the author lists of some of those listed as highly cited “astronomers/astrophysicist/cosmologists” (a small number of particle physicists seem to creep in) on the google scholar website – its clear that indeed a fair number are there for the reasons that Jacqueline/Simon suggest (if your median placement in the author lists of your papers is >10, can you really claim to be influencing the content of most of them?)

    Ian

  4. Moons R us Says:

    Another way is what was done with the MACHO project
    in the 90’s where the PI was first author on all papers
    and I think the rest of the author list was fixed. When a co-author was applying for a job, the PI would write a letter detailing
    exactly what she or he did. This could then be used by the
    job candidate.

    Wow 5,000 authors, this shows that experimentalists are Bosons
    and theoreticians are Fermions at least when referring to their
    “paper” state properties.

  5. Do the number of citations increase with number of authors? One would expect so, since at least the number of self citation should scale with number of authors (people are after all more familiar with their own work).

    Citations are a rather blunt instrument. It works, but don’t expect clear-cut answers.

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    The feeding of the five thousand?

  7. There’s a weak correlation, as you expect (but not enough to make being a member of a large collaboration worth it).

  8. Chris Chaloner Says:

    Using just one measure (i.e. papers in refereed journals) has always seemed to me to be a very blunt instrument. It’s use as the only measure has, I’m sure, been responsible for the explosion in publications over the past few decades – and I am absolutely certain that the content of value has not increased proportionately. It would be nice to get back to the days when people published only when they had something useful to say (and brevity was encouraged by the absence of computers and the need to negotiate with typists and graphic artists)…

    • telescoper Says:

      I think it was Feynmann who joked that the rate at which pages were being published in Physical Review would soon mean that it was expanding along library shelves faster than the speed of light. This wouldn’t contradict relativity, however, because no information was being transmitted….

  9. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “When did it happen that everyone participating in an observational programme expected to be an author of a paper?”

    Maybe when it stopped being possible to have a permanent position at an observatory based on one’s ability to do the job? Given the choice of more papers/authorships/citations or a job as civil servant for life, doing the same work, I would choose the latter.

  10. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “The arXiv has already made academic journals virtually redundant in many of branchesof physics and astronomy”

    With regard to distribution, yes; with regard to quality control, no. A paper on arXiv is worth more if it has been accepted by a prestigious journal.

  11. Phillip Helbig Says:

    the future for many fields will be defined not in terms of “papers” which purport to represent “final” research outcomes, but by living documents continuously updated in response to open scrutiny by the community of researchers

    There is already Living Reviews in Relativity. A problem with this concept, though, is that it is difficult to keep up with ever-changing documents. An RSS feed for journal articles? Not a good idea. It is already difficult to keep up with the literature in one’s own field, let alone others. Without “milestones”, it would be too difficult.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      We don’t want our valuable research time wasted by continual update notifications. 🙂

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Furthermore what if you cite something and it subsequently changes?

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        Right. People should get it right the first time. If a mistake slips in, publish an erratum. (And the bibliometrists should probably count the citations to the erratum as negative!)

        arXiv has a versioning system, so one can cite a specific version, and one can view older versions. It is good to have such changes documented, but I think there should be a point where the author says “OK, this is it”, and people cite that.

        There is also no way to easily see what has changed from one version to the next.

        Yes, some changes should be made to the system, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  12. […] the University of Sussex in England, called the paper a “reductio ad absurdum proof that the system is broken.” He suggests the solution may be to move toward creating a new credit system that […]

  13. […] the University of Sussex in England, called the paper a “reductio ad absurdum proof that the system is broken.” He suggests the solution may be to move toward creating a new credit system that […]

  14. […] the University of Sussex in England, called the paper a “reductio ad absurdum proof that the system is broken .” He suggests the solution may be to move toward creating a new credit system that […]

  15. […] Of course we all know that the main reason for increasing the LHC’s energy is not to detect supersymmetric particles, or indeed any other evidence of physics beyond the standard model that had previous been accessible. It’s to generate papers with even longer author lists… […]

  16. John Conway Says:

    It is odd that none of the commenters here, nor the article itself, discusses what the paper was actually about, and how it came to have 5000 authors. This paper was a grand combination of many, many analyses of data on the Higgs boson. Each of those analyses required anywhere from five to fifty people to carry out, because they are so complex and painstaking. It is not even remotely possible to pick out just a handful of people who were the “main contributors” to the work. And in our field we have decided that the people who are dedicated to designing, building, operating, maintaining, and calibrating the detector, and providing the enormous software infrastructure needed to reconstruct the collision events from the raw detector information, should also be included in the author list.

    It’s not about money, it’s about scientific credit, and recognition for dedicated and crucial work leading to the result. What would be absurd is to just have a few people listed as authors when this reflects the work of so many.

    • telescoper Says:

      My point is not that there weren’t 5000 contributors to the work, but that there has to be a better to recognise their contributions than making them “Authors” of a paper most of them have probably not even read.

  17. Kevin Black Says:

    I disagree that it is “absurd” to have a paper with 5000 authors. The problem is that you are trying to apply a one rule fits all rule to papers. Yes – it is absolutely true that not all 5000 people did the analysis that the paper describes. However, it took the work of 5000 people to make that analysis possible. From the people who designed the detectors, those who built them, developed the electronics, those who operated them, those who did the detector calibrations, and those who did the many many analysis which are combined. I absolutely agree that it is not the ideal way to recognize the contributions of others – but I really really disagree that you can only give credit to the person who manipulated the final 4-vectors while not giving authorship to the person who designed, built, and calibrated the instrument.

    It just doesn’t mean the same thing as it does in a table top experiment. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve authorship.

    • telescoper Says:

      See previous reply.

      It is palpably absurd for a paper to have 5000 authors. That doesn’t mean 5000 people didn’t contribute, just that authorship is an inappropriate way to recognise it.

  18. Kevin Black Says:

    the argument comes down to – “I don’t understand what this means so it must be absurd”. It is absolutely true that authorship of papers like these doesn’t mean the same thing as authorship of a 2 person paper.
    That is neither a constructive nor a particularly insightful argument. Different fields operate in different ways. I really wish people would spend more time working on their own and stop denigrating the hard work of others. Regardless if you mean it or not that is what you are doing..

    • telescoper Says:

      Have you actually read the post?

      I am in no way denigrating particle physicists or their work. I am denigrating the palpably absurd method of acknowledging contributions through meaningless lists of authors who are not authors…

      ps. I understand exactly what author lists in particle physics papers mean. That’s why I wrote the post.

      • Kevin Black Says:

        Yes of course I did. Perhaps I will elaborate. In 2012 we discovered the Higgs Boson. This was a huge amount of work by a huge number of people. I was very excited and about this and very glad to make my contribution to it. Then I started hearing the various snickers in the halls. “Oh that doesn’t really count as a discovery”. “You have to divide the importance of that work by the number of authors on the paper”, “who knows what so and so REALLY DID”, etc etc. It is relentless and never ending..

        Perhaps you are honestly trying to suggest a way in which one could publicly acknowledge the specific contributions. Perhaps there is a better method which you could suggest? Because people in the field have tried and suggested many methods all of which have various failings. I don’t see any concrete suggestions in the post that haven’t been tried before and don’t have serious problems themselves.

        So I apologize If I misunderstood you – but I am very very very tired of people constantly trying to insist that we are all mindless drones who don’t contribute anything of real merritt . It is really really REALLY tiring..

      • telescoper Says:

        And here’s me thinking the Higgs wasn’t discovered until 2014…

  19. […] the University of Sussex in England, called the paper a “reductio ad absurdum proof that the system is broken.” He suggests the solution may be to move toward creating a new credit system that […]

  20. […] already posted about the absurdity of scientific papers with ridiculously long author lists but this issue has recently come alive again with the revelation that the compilers of the Times […]

  21. mattmayernik Says:

    I agree that “author” is a misleading term to apply to the people listed on papers like this, and that finer grained lists would make the differences in contribution more visible. But making these contribution differences more visible may also have mixed effects. For example, your post drew an analog between people who “reduced the data” with people who serve tea on film lots. I don’t work in high-energy physics, but I’m guessing that getting data reduction right is a pretty important task, even if it isn’t of high acclaim. If the people doing that task, however, can be dismissed as tea servers, it’s hard to imagine them moving to any position that might not be dismissed as such. I know your point was to say that data reducers should not be jumped to being directors of experiments due to being listed as coauthors on these papers, which makes sense, if a very unlikely scenario.
    “Authorship” in any circumstance is a political negotiation, which, like any other political negotiation, solves some problems while leading to others, and can result in uneven benefits.

    • Kevin Black Says:

      agreed. To dismiss authorship of the thousands and thousands of people who put years actually decades of their lives to these experiments as simply “tea servers” that is entirely false. I guess it is also fair for me to assume that when a 2 author paper or book comes out that one of them must have just made the coffee and brought cookies for the other one..

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