The Wall Street Journal has run an article by Robert Lee Hotz that gently ridicules scientists for including thousands of people as co-authors of some scientific publications. Sure, a list of 2,000 co-authors is risible. But the article misses some of the reasons why it’s not.
As Robert Lee points out, “experiments have gotten more complicated.” But not just by a little. How many people did it take to find the Higgs Boson particle? In fact, as Michael Nielsen (author of the excellent Reinventing Discovery) says, how many people does it take to know that it’s been found? That knowledge depends on deep knowledge in multiple fields, spread across many institutions and countries.
In 2012 I liveblogged a fantastic talk by Peter Galison on this topic. He pointed to an additional reason: it used to be that engineers were looked upon as mere technicians, an attitude mirrored in The Big Bang (the comedy show, not the creation of the universe—so easy to get those two confused!). Over time, the role of engineers has been increasingly appreciated. They are now often listed as co-authors.
In an age in which knowledge quite visibly is too big to be known by individuals, sharing credit widely more accurate reflects its structure.
In fact, it becomes an interesting challenge to figure out how to structure metadata about co-authors so that it captures more than name and institution and does so in ways that make it interoperable. This is something that my friend Amy Brand has been working on. Amy, recently named head of the MIT University Press is going to be a Berkman Fellow this year, so I hope this topic will be a subject of discussion at the Center.