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Zachary Marshall | USLHC | USA

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I Wrote That!

This is one of the things most confusing to folks outside of high energy particle physics. Our papers have 3000 authors. The ATLAS author list is about 17 pages long, depending on the formatting. Sometimes there are even fewer than 3000 words in the paper – surely we aren’t suggesting that different people cross t’s and dot i’s?

Well, what does it mean to be an “author” of a paper? In our case, it means that you made a contribution to the work described in the paper. Of course, if you built part of the detector, and that part of the detector is used in the analysis, then you should be a co-author on the paper! And if you were responsible for running that part of the detector during one of the critical times, or calibrating it so it would work, then you should be a co-author! And if you wrote some of the software (ATLAS software, at least) that was used during the analysis, then you should be a co-author on the paper! And if you derived some of the numbers that they used, even though you haven’t written a paper on your numbers yet, you should be a co-author on the paper! ….. The list grows pretty fast! In practice, it’d be almost impossible to try to select the correct several hundred people for an authors list. So instead, ATLAS keeps a running list of all the people who have contributed substantially to the experiment (roughly the list of people who have been members for more than one year) and uses that as our authors list. There are some stickier points to this – trying to draw a line between software we “develop” and software we “use,” for example.

Here I should add one category that is, perhaps, less obvious: graduate student advisors. As a graduate student, you don’t have a reputation in the field yet. Your advisor’s signature asserts that they vouch for the correctness and appeal of the work you’ve done. So I would say an advisor should always sign their students’ work – even if they have not been deeply involved in the paper.

This mess can lead to all kinds of confusing conversations. You keep a list of papers on which you were listed as an author and another list of papers to which you “significantly contributed.” And if you show those lists to anyone outside physics, they’ll say, “Wait, you didn’t contribute to these papers, but you’re an author????” I must admit that I have not read every word of all the papers that I’m a “co-author” of!

Because there are different practices in different fields (or even different experiments!), we can get into tough spots as well. Some fields list “major authors” first. Or they list graduate students first. Or they rotate the authors’ list alphabetically, so that one person is the “first author” on every paper. We don’t tend to do that in ATLAS, so it’s tough to tell who really wrote the paper.

It can be frustrating when you’re applying for a job – imagine having to explain which of the papers that you “co-authored” you actually wrote! – but I confess it’s kinda fun to have a list of publications as long as your arm…

One other note. Everyone has probably heard of the “six degrees of separation” game. You can play the same game with paper co-authors, and thanks to this notion of authorship the connections spread fast! In mathematics, it’s called the Erdos number after Paul Erdos. With physicists, there’s some debate over who should be the Erdos equivalent (my nominee is John Ellis). You can also play the game with academic genealogy. In fact, I can trace the Italian side of my academic genealogy further back (1860′s) than the Italian side of my family genealogy (1880′s), and they both go though Pisa! I leave you with the XKCD take:



5 Responses to “I Wrote That!”

  1. paolo says:

    ok, i really appreciate all the info stuff you provide with a minor exception: where is all that i/we (lhc followers)am/are interested in the most? i mean:
    lhc results, new physics hints, tech data like current integrated lumi., insights into the nearest colider future.
    For now i know You have a great time (including funny “red alert”) one of You is almost a PhD, You celebrate Mom’s day and some more. But why beams are not stable, why still not at 1e11 intensity, why still not over 2000 bunches, and why every day lhc encounters cryo problems, when will the physisc start? And assuming it will operate at 3,5Tev, what is the value of the second most important factor – integrated luminosity or just luminosity ? When will it reach 0,1 fb-1? what are the prospects of increasing the lumi to fev hundreds inv. micro b/s?

  2. Anne says:

    “corresponding author ‘Et al’” has never had more meaning than in a scientific paper with 3,000 authors! :-)

  3. Good to read about how the authors are selected in those huge collaborations. This is one of the reasons why I am happy to be a theorist. People will have a clear idea about my individual contribution.

    In one of the particle physics seminars recently, the speaker mentioned some (a few months) old results and I brought him to his notice the latest results published only a couple of days ago in PRL. Many in the audience (and the speaker) were surprised to know about the interesting results. Only later I found that many in the audience were the authors of that paper! I could not stop laughing.

  4. Stefan Piperov says:

    I like very much the idea of a “Hollywood Style” authors-lists in our big collaborations (I write on behalf of CMS here). In fact there has been some informal discussion about this at FermiLab some time ago, but people generally take the movie industry not-so-seriously, and they think society might start taking science less seriously too, if we used that style.

    Still, I think the following will look adequate, at least as a conference presentation, if not as a refereed-journal article:

    The CMS Collaboration

    an E-Gamma Group Analysis
    “Higgs to Gamma Gamma beyond the Standard Model”

    Leading contributions by:
    Me Myself and He Did Too

    Event Selection algorithm developed by:

    Estimations of Background done by:
    ….. …….. ……

    et., etc.,

  5. Mutuelle says:

    nice picture.But real “LOL”
    “dead walk the earth” do you think it is possible!!

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