Tag Archives: authorship

Too many authors

Last year, I was moved to write this post by my amazement at the length of the author list of a paper in Science. Soon after that, I came across a different article with over 100 authors, and suddenly that list of 56 didn’t seem quite so impressive. But as I recently learned, the distinction between 50 and 100 authors turns out to be completely meaningless—the folks at CERN have destroyed the competition.

Maybe destroyed isn’t a strong enough word. Let’s say they murdered the competition, and then blew up the playing field. This paper (currently in press and open-source from Nuclear Physics B) has over 3000 authors. I didn’t get an exact count; I opened the list as a comma-delimited spreadsheet and started to calculate the number of names, but then I remembered that I have a job.

To understand this situation, you have to know a little bit about CERN and the LHC. CERN  is a massive laboratory in Geneva, with thousands of employees devoted to various high-energy physics experiments that take place inside particle accelerators. The most noteworthy of these particle accelerators is the Large Hadron Collider, which began successfully smashing two 3.5 TeV proton beams together in March 2010. Each proton travels at nearly light speed, and when two of them encounter each other in a head-on collision (which happens a few hundred million times per second) they release a debris trail of elementary particles that can be detected and analyzed.
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Gaming for good: human thought beats computer algorithms at solving protein structures

Considering my fascination of late with unusual author lists in science papers, you can guess how excited I was to see an article in Nature that credited online gamers. I was especially amused to see that citation services like PubMed abbreviate “Foldit players” as “Players F.”

Now on the the actual story. We all know that playing video games can require serious problem-solving skills. Gamers sometimes spend hours each day solving puzzles and honing their spatial reasoning abilities. Did you ever wonder if those efforts could be applied directly to real-world problems?
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Success from the Neanderthal Genome Project

When my labmate first showed me this paper, we marveled at the sheer number of authors. By my count, this work is credited to 56 scientists with 21 different affiliations (including UC Berkeley) in 7 countries. I don’t even know how to count the number of PI’s here; clearly it was a huge undertaking.

But now, knowing what they actually accomplished, I’m almost surprised that it took only 56 people. They sequenced over 4 billion base pairs, using three samples of bone from Neanderthals that have been dead for about 40,000 years. Most of the bones used were found in the Vindija cave site in northern Croatia.

The results tell us about the relationship between humans and Neanderthals during the late Pleistocene era: between the time when they split into two separate species (400,000 years ago) and when Neanderthals disappeared (30,000 years ago). Human subjects with European or East Asian ancestry had significantly more genes in common with the Neanderthals, compared to people from South or West Africa. This means that about 80,000 years ago, sometime after humans migrated out of Africa, they must have come into close contact with Neanderthals—close enough to interbreed and leave Neanderthal genes in the DNA of non-African modern humans.