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Wall Street Journal front page mildly mocks physics scholarly practice

12 August 2015
How should huge experiment collaborations handle author lists? (And what do dogs have to do with it?)

Online, an 8 August Wall Street Journal headline joshed “How many scientists does it take to write a paper? Apparently, thousands.” The text reported, mostly seriously, on physicists’ challenges in managing professional credit for thousand-contributor papers, but it explicitly reinforced the headline’s allusion to the ol’ screw-in-a-lightbulb gag.

On paper, the front-page article’s subhead telegraphed the mild mockery and widened it beyond physics: “Research papers name thousands of contributors; immunologist credits her dog.” The text detoured to enjoy isolated anecdotes about wry prankster scientists listing pets as coauthors.

Because only USA Today tops the WSJ in national circulation, the article will be seen widely. It occupies the below-the-fold slot for the paper’s daily traditional “A-hed” piece. The name derives from WSJ shop talk. “Anyone serious enough about life” to read the WSJ, said staff writer Barry Newman in a 2010 piece explaining A-heds, “should also be wise enough to step back and consider life’s absurdities.” He began producing A-heds in 1970. “Being silly,” he reported, “is hard work.” He advised, “So lighten up. Relax. Don’t take everything so seriously.”

Well, harrumph. In the era of Large Hadron Collider science, apportioning credit for important research is serious business—as WSJ science writer Robert Lee Hotz himself shows in the main content, even if not the tone, of the physics-focused A-hed in question. He cites “an accelerating trend in science—the growth in the number of people who get credits.” He continues:

In fact, there has been a notable spike since 2009 in the number of technical reports whose author counts exceeded 1,000 people, according to the Thomson Reuters Web of Science, which analyzed citation data. In the ever-expanding universe of credit where credit is apparently due, the practice has become so widespread that some scientists now joke that they measure their collaborators in bulk—by the “kilo-author.”

Earlier this year, a paper on rare particle decay published in Nature listed so many co-authors—about 2,700—that the journal announced it wouldn’t have room for them all in its print editions. And it isn’t just physics. In 2003, it took 272 scientists to write up the findings of the first complete human genome—a milestone in biology—but this past June, it took 1,014 co-authors to document a minor gene sequence called the Muller F element in the fruit fly.

Hotz reports that “researchers are developing computer software to decipher the taxonomy of scientific credit.” He quotes Science magazine editor in chief Marcia McNutt, who will become president of the National Academy of Sciences next July: “The challenges are quite substantial. The average number of authors even on a typical paper has doubled.” Hotz includes a graph captioned “Credit inflation” showing that multiple authorship has risen substantially since 1990, particularly for papers with a thousand or more coauthors.

One physicist, when queried for this media report, emphasized “a Nobel Prize dimension to the issue.” He explained: “Carlo Rubbia and Simon van der Meer were awarded the 1984 physics prize for discovering the W and Z bosons, yet they hardly made the discoveries single-handedly. Rather, they led large teams at CERN.” He also mused, “That precedent could be why two theorists—François Englert and Peter Higgs—were awarded the 2013 physics Nobel for predicting the existence of a particle, the Higgs, that was discovered by huge teams at CERN. It also might be why no one has been awarded a Nobel for the Human Genome Project.”


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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