Thursday, August 13, 2015

The paper with 5,154 coauthors

A Frenchman named Georges Aad may have the most prominent name in particle physics.

In less than a decade, Dr. Aad, who lives in Marseilles, France, has appeared as the lead author on 458 scientific papers. Nobody knows just how many scientists it may take to screw in a light bulb, but it took 5,154 researchers to write one physics paper earlier this year—likely a record—and Dr. Aad led the list.

His scientific renown is a tribute to alphabetical order.

Almost every paper by “G. Aad et al.” involves so many researchers that they decided to always list themselves in alphabetical order. Their recent paper, published in the journal Physical Review Letters, features 24 pages of alphabetized co-authors led by Dr. Aad. There is no way to tell how important each contributor might be. ...

From Aad to Zoccoli, these physicists, who conduct experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, are a measure of an accelerating trend in science—the growth in the number of people who get credits.

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.” ...

In fact, some scientists speculate that “Aad” isn't a real person. He is listed among a group of thousands of researchers from 38 countries who use the ATLAS particle detector at the Large Hadron Collider. Some speculate that the ATLAS group picked the name to avoid disputes over who most deserves to be named first author on each new research paper.

Aad would always appear first in their alphabetical listing.

Google searches turn up little information about someone so well published. In a field notable for seeking the “God particle,” the pronunciation of the name as it usually appears in technical citations—G. Aad—has stoked suspicions.

“People ask me,” said Dr. Aad. “Do you exist?”
--Robert Lee Hotz, WSJ, on winning the alphabetical lottery. HT: Chris Blattman