About the Abbott et al. papper in Physical Review Letters announcing the detection of gravitational waves. I was looking at the very long author list, and the list appears to be alphabetical - including the first author. Is “B.P. Abbott” the PI for the project and he also just happens to be the 1st alphabetically, of 1000+ co-authors? Or is he some lucky guy who is now immortalized because his name happens to start with AB?
Alphabetical (so yes, BP Abbott got lucky). Not my field, but I believe that alphabetical author listing is the norm in Physics (in my field senior author/PI is almost always last).
I can’t make out who is the senior/corresponding author on that paper, if its even listed.
Also noted 3 dead guys.
See also the Higgs boson detection paper, for which the first author was one G. Aad.
Speaking as a physicist, I think that alphabetical listing of authors is not universal, but it’s pretty common. For smaller author lists, it can be relatively easy to determine an order of priority that everyone can agree on; but for 1000+ authors, it would be well-nigh impossible. Better to just go alphabetical and avoid opening that can of worms.
Interesting, thank you. Is the concept of “first author” not as strong as in other fields? Or is this a special case for large collaborations where it’s politically impossible or unwise to pick one author as the primary author?
It’s mostly for large collaborations. Most papers are by two or three people, who end up getting ordered in whatever way makes most sense given who did what work. Probably the most common situation is an advisor and a graduate student, where the advisor guided the project and provided helpful feedback, and the graduate student did most of the actual work.
It really does vary from field to field. Experimental particle physics pioneered the whole giant-collaboration-author-list and those big ones have all certainly been in alphabetical order since at least the early-Eighties. LIGO was presumably following their example.
It’s a sufficiently well established long-standing tradition for such large collaborations in physics that I was mildly surprised to discover, even knowing the very different traditions for “smaller” physics and biology papers, that, on checking just now, that the big Human Genome Project papers back in 2001 didn’t use the convention.
Meanwhile, the seminal paper on Big Bang nucleosynthesis, despite having only two authors, nonetheless had all three of them in alpherbethecal order.
Is there a convention for citing papers with alphabetical author lists? It seems inappropriate to refer to this as Abbott et al. 2016.
But that is exactly the convention. On the entirely defensible grounds that if that’s how they’ve chosen to describe themselves, then …
IIRC, the Nobel prize for discovery of insulin was due to experiments performed by Banting and Best. However, the Nobel prize went to… Banting and J. McLeod. Best didn’t count because he was a student. McLeod got credit because he was in charge of the labs and permitted Banting the space to do this experiments. Neither Best nor James Collip, who helped them perfect the purification process, got Nobel credit.
So it’s more than just citations, and for almost a century.
It makes sense, after all: There’s an excited field surrounding any potential research paper, generating some number of researchers to interact with the paper, which has implications for the distinguishability of physicists.
Also, I remember talking to a friend of my mother’s, who was still doing research at CERN about 15 years ago, and he mentioned the same thing back then. Most papers pull together observations from dozens of other people’s experiments to be analyzed for results, plus everyone who had a hand in contributions as trivial as providing resources like lab space or being consulted; plus all the people helping with the CERN establishment itself. So he said the list of “authors” of a paper could fill much of a page.
flashback, a staff room somewhere at CalTech…
… Curse you Raymond Abbott, i’m getting BP in as a collaborator…
That makes me wonder: Presuming this discovery is worthy of a Nobel prize, which seems likely, who among those 1000 authors should get it?
Little known fact. Higgs was a sideler of first order.
Just for a data point, if I were to read a biology paper which had, say, three authors, I would assume that the first author was the student who did all of the actual work, the last author was the PI/head of the lab/guy who came up with the money and supervised, and the middle author would be someone else who helped out with an experiment or two along the way.
Co-first author papers usually have a footnote on the first two names stating “these authors contributed equally to this work”.
In mathematics, the order is virtually always just alphabetical. I do know one counter-example, but there was a special situation and the editor of the journal agreed to the reversal. I did not know this and in the first joint paper I ever wrote, I put my coauthor first as a friendly gesture when I drafted it. The editor reversed the names without asking us.
Biology is very different. There was a grad student I knew in biochem who wanted to use a machine (a refrigerated ultra-centrifuge which even lab would now have one or more of, but this happened 60 years ago) in another lab. She got permission but the director of the other lab insisted his name go on the resultant paper and first, despite that he had contributed nothing to it.
Even in such large collaborations, there are usually obvious leaders who are known to have originated the whole idea/project and who drove it through. In the case of LIGO, the three names that are usually being mentioned are Rainer Weiss, Ronald Drever and Kip Thorne.
Incidentally, the famous case in physics of people falling out over the ordering of names is Lee and Yang, who shared the 1957 Nobel Prize for Physics for joint work that they’d published together using that alphabetic ordering. Yang supposedly subsequently tried to insist that, as the older of the two, his name should go first. Lee refused and there was a rupture between them. I’m not even sure if they’ve even spoken to each other in the half-century since.
Is there any reason why the Nobel couldn’t be awarded to “the LIGO collaboration” as a whole? It would be rather unusual for a science prize, of course, but it’s not uncommon for an entire organization to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
I’m pretty sure that “rather unusual” should be replaced by “unprecedented” in the above sentence (though I welcome correction.)
That said, the statutes of the Nobel Foundation state the following:
So, if I’m reading that correctly, the Royal Swedish Academy could decide to start awarding prizes to organizations rather than to individuals (as the Norwegian Nobel Committee already does for the Peace Prizes.) Why they don’t already do so is unclear, though “tradition” is almost certainly a large part of the answer.