Back when I was in grad school, and paper copies of journals were delivered to the lab by a happy mailman riding a brontosaurus, I used to play a little game when the new copy of Physical Review Letters arrived: I would flip through the papers in the high energy and nuclear physics sections, and see if I could find one where the author list included at least one surname for every letter of the alphabet. There wasn’t one every week, but it wasn’t that hard (particularly with large numbers of physicists from China, where family names beginning with “X” are more common).
Every so often, somebody from outside physics stumbles on one of these, and the rest of the story follows with depressing predictability. such as, for example, this Times higher Education article:
When Gavin Fairbairn, professor of ethics and language at Leeds Metropolitan University, came across an article titled “The Sloan Digital Sky Survey: Technical summary” in The Astronomical Journal, in many ways it seemed “pretty ordinary”.
It was 5,230 words long, including the text of its 39 footnotes, and had 45 references.
Yet it was also an article with “more authors than any other publication I have ever come across in any of the areas in which I have worked”, Professor Fairbairn said.
A total of 144 authors were listed – equating to a mean contribution of 36.3 words each.
Professor Fairbairn added: “No doubt all those named contributed to the research. However, I find it difficult to understand how 144 individuals, however close their working relationship, could be involved in writing it.”
Honestly, my first reaction is that if 144 authors is the longest list he’s ever run across, he can’t have been trying all that hard. The one real exception to PRL’s “everything must fit in four pages” rule is for collaborations whose author lists are long enough to require an entire journal page of their own. And I’ve seen cases where the collaboration was so large that they just put “ACRONYM Collaboration” as the author, and expected people to go elsewhere to find the names written out.
This is nothing new– modern science is a highly collaborative enterprise, and there are well established policies regarding the way these papers are written, and who gets to be an author. This has been going on for decades, and nobody in the relevant fields has a problem with it.
Of course, it’s always new and troubling to scholars in irrelevant fields, for the noblest of reasons. The quote above is followed immediately by:
“I find it even more difficult to imagine how any assessment at all could be made of their contribution when it comes to awarding academic brownie points.”
Ah, yes. It all comes down to CV padding, and the burning ethical question of whether one person is getting more credit than they deserve for their scholarly activity.
Look, if we want to talk about the counting of papers for academic merit and promotion, by all means, we can do that. But let’s also talk about books, while we’re at it. Specifically, the fact that scientists don’t write them.
OK, in a strict sense, scientists do write books– many scientists in academia write textbooks, and some of us write popular audience books with a talking dog. But when an academic in the humanities says “book: in a professional context, they mean a scholarly monograph of the sort published by an academic press. And scientists don’t write those books, generally speaking, especially not early in their careers.
Scholarly monographs of this sort are the gold standard of scholarship in the humanities, though. If you want to get tenure at a good school, you need to have at least one book in press by the time you come up for review. Journal articles are nice, but a book is essential.
As a result, many academic merit systems are set up to reward scholarly books at a disproportionate level, at least from the point of view of a scientist. The only sure way to reach the highest tier of our previous merit system was to have a book published. It was kinda-sorta possible to get there with a cluster of journal articles in a single year, but that wasn’t a sure thing.
And it’s not a question of level of effort, either– the work required to get a couple of scientific papers into top journals is basically equivalent to the work required to get a book contract, as far as I can tell. The real work of my Ph.D. thesis was in the 30-odd pages of journal articles I published. The hundred-plus pages of the thesis itself were icing on the cake.
You’ll have a hard time convincing a lot of academics outside science of that, though. Two papers in Science or Nature can represent a couple of years worth of hard labor in the lab, but they’ll come to maybe ten pages of text and figures. That just doesn’t look as impressive as a hundred-page book from Directional State University Press.
So, yeah, scientists who work in large collaborations generate large numbers of papers with large numbers of co-authors, which makes it difficult to assess their productivity by mere paper-counting. They also have essentially no opportunity to generate books, which knocks out a whole category of academic productivity that is available to people like Prof. Fairbairn.
So, while I agree with the final comment attributed to him in the article (“Where competition for internal promotions cuts across disciplines, he said, there were dangers in using publication records as a major criterion.”), I don’t think it’s as one-sided an issue as the article implies. Measuring academic productivity is hard, and only really makes sense relative to the standards of a discipline (or sub-discipline– I don’t have any opportunity to write papers as part of a hundred-strong collaboration, either, despite being a physicist). Applying the standards of one discipline to work in another just doesn’t work, in any direction.