One Tiny Particle Inspires Scientific Paper With More Than 5,000 Authors

06/01/2015 03:07 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015
G. Aad et al., Physical Review Letters

We're not sure how many scientists it takes to screw in a light bulb, but in one recent case it took more than 5,000 scientists to write a single scientific paper.

The paper, published recently in the journal Physical Review Letters, is believed to have set a new record for the greatest number of co-authors for one piece of research. Its list of authors -- 5,154 in total -- takes up 24 out of the total of 33 pages for the entire document, and there are more authors than there are words in the paper.

Though its epic roster has some asking whether scientific publishing has jumped the shark, many scientists at least say the broad authorship makes perfect sense.

The paper, which offers the most precise measurement yet of the Higgs boson's mass, is the product of a massive collaboration between two teams at CERN, the Geneva-based research organization that operates the world's largest particle accelerator.

"Big science requires big collaborations," Dr. Tiziano Camporesi, director of CERN's CMS experiment, told The Huffington Post in an email. "This does not change the facts that the individual contributions (which can be at many different and equally fundamental levels) remain at the base of our achievements. If we were less people, we probably would produce results much slower and probably of lesser quality."

Slimming down the author list might cause many important contributions made early on in the "research 'food-chain'" to go unrecognized, Camporesi said. Even worse, he added, it "might induce very pernicious consequences, like people wanting to concentrate only on the last steps of the analysis and not contributing to guarantee the exceptional quality of the underlying raw data."

But other experts argue it may be time to rethink how scientists get credited for their work -- and even how new research gets published -- as new technology and giant collaborations like those at CERN usher in a new era.

"Our prizes, criteria for academic promotion, lines of authority, and expectations of responsibility were set in a time when one or two or a dozen or two people could do an experiment," Dr. Peter Galison, a science historian at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., told The Huffington Post in an email. "We simply have to adapt and change our view about credit, and learn to recognize that the large-scale experiment of today is not the analogue of an experiment in 1850 or 1950."

In a post on his "In the Dark" blog, Prof. Peter Coles, a theoretical astrophysics professor at 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 distinguishes between different research contributions -- and instead of writing papers, researchers could create online documents that can be continually updated.

"It seems quite clear to me that the academic journal is an anachronism," he wrote. "Digital technology enables us to communicate ideas far more rapidly than in the past and allows much greater levels of interaction between researchers."

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