By Any Other Author Would Smell as Sweet

I was chatting with someone about this paper (which probably deserves a post in its own right, once I figure out an angle that isn’t just me geeking out about how much I could do with their new setup), and I referred to it as “Claude’s paper”. This got me chided a bit: the paper has five authors, experts on Feynman diagrams and elliptic integrals. It’s not just “Claude’s paper”. So why do I think of it that way?

Part of it, I think, comes from the experience of reading a paper. We want to think of a paper as a speech act: someone talking to us, explaining something, leading us through a calculation. Our brain models that as a conversation with a single person, so we naturally try to put a single face to a paper. With a collaborative paper, this is almost never how it was written: different sections are usually written by different people, who then edit each other’s work. But unless you know the collaborators well, you aren’t going to know who wrote which section, so it’s easier to just picture one author for the whole thing.

Another element comes from how I think about the field. Just as it’s easier to think of a paper as the speech of one person, it’s easier to think of new developments as continuations of a story. I at least tend to think about the field in terms of specific programs: these people worked on this, which is a continuation of that. You can follow those kinds of threads though the field, but in reality they’re tangled together: collaborations are an opportunity for two programs to meet. In other fields you might have a “first author” to default to, but in theoretical physics we normally write authors alphabetically. For “Claude’s paper”, it just feels like the sort of thing I’d expect Claude Duhr to write, like a continuation of the other things he’s known for, even if it couldn’t have existed without the other four authors.

You’d worry that associating papers with people like this takes away deserved credit. I don’t think it’s quite that simple, though. In an older post I described this paper as the work of Anastasia Volovich and Mark Spradlin. On some level, that’s still how I think about it. Nevertheless, when I heard that Cristian Vergu was going to be at the Niels Bohr Institute next year, I was excited: we’re hiring one of the authors of GSVV! Even if I don’t think of him immediately when I think of the paper, I think of the paper when I think of him.

That, I think, is more important for credit. If you’re a hiring committee, you’ll start out by seeing names of applicants. It’s important, at that point, that you know what they did, that the authors of important papers stand out, that you assign credit where it’s due. It’s less necessary on the other end, when you’re reading a paper and casually classify it in your head.

Nevertheless, I should be more careful about credit. It’s important to remember that “Claude Duhr’s paper” is also “Johannes Broedel’s paper” and “Falko Dulat’s paper”, “Brenda Penante’s paper” and “Lorenzo Tancredi’s paper”. It gives me more of an appreciation of where it comes from, so I can get back to having fun applying it.


9 thoughts on “By Any Other Author Would Smell as Sweet

    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      I don’t have too much to add to the comments you got there. It’s a topic I’ve heard murmurs about for a while: there are a lot of people who think that anything KKLT-like won’t work, and even the most seriously pro-string people seem to think of “maybe string theory has no dS vacua” as one of the few legitimate worries on the topic.

      I don’t have a lot of background on the compactification literature, so I don’t know how much to trust the paper’s claims (I’d been hoping another blogger would cover it). The way the paper presents it is kind of weird: they start out with some very boilerplate pro-string-pheno arguments that are kind of irrelevant to their main point, and despite taking an optimistic tone they don’t really make it clear what conclusion they’re drawing. They do seem to be suggesting that string theory might be totally allergic to dS vacua, but I think more as a future subject of research: a few intriguing hints and some paths to proving parts of it. In general their recommendations that the field try to get a simple compactification in AdS working in full detail sounds sensible, but I don’t know enough about the field to know whether that’s actually the right way to go.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. pete1187

        Sounds good, appreciate the comments. I guess I’m still pretty strongly invested in the entire string/m-theory research program being on the right track towards the truth of things. It just feels like there are some pretty amazing things that the theory hints at and the connections between all parts of mathematics and physics (like moonshine) kind of have a “that’s just gotta lead somewhere important” feel to it. And I always like keeping in mind that it could be way off track as a research program, but I’m rooting hard for that shit to be right…

        Liked by 1 person

  1. ohwilleke

    It simply isn’t workable to mentally or orally recount a long list of names of anything. Buildings on college campuses with more than a one word name inevitably get shortened to one word, even if that is ambiguous without context. Law firms and accounting firms with many names in their official designation are routinely reduced to the first two or in rare cases where it comes trippingly off the tongue, the first three names. How many people in conversation give both Newton and Leibniz credit for inventing calculus (even though Leibniz’s notation is much more recognizable).

    One of the innovations that I like in how papers are credited in Big Physics is to credit a collaboration by the collaboration’s name (e.g. ATLAS) rather than the individuals other than the corresponding author, who are a part of it, which gives everyone immediate credit every time you mention the collaboration’s name without actually having to rattle off a list of five or twenty or two hundreds collaboration physicists who were involved (this also makes footnotes shorter).

    Maybe physicists should emulate the music and movie industries and come up with a new collaboration name for every combination of authors that publishes more than one or two papers together.

    So, when three authors at a Brazilian University and two authors at an Australian one write a series of papers on primordial gravitational waves together they could publish as “The Wombat Sloth Collaboration”.

    If a couple sets of regular sets of co-authors get together, the respective collaborations could be listed as authors rather than the individuals much as you do in major motion pictures and omnipresent collaborative song releases: “This paper is a publication of the ATLAS and Wombat Sloth Collaborations. Dr. Sandra Woo is the corresponding author.”

    Physics insiders would have Wiki pages tracking the members of the different collaborations that could shift somewhat over time when, e.g., a post-doc leaves the project to work for someone else in a change too small to merit changing the collaboration’s name, and physicists could have bios listing the many collaborations that they are a part of.

    This would also elevate inside physics gossip to a new level of hip sounding nerdiness. “Did you hear that the Wombat Sloths broke up? I heard that Professor Dundee was just insufferable and stormed off in a rage at Neutrinos 2018 in Bonn.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      This is another thing that works pretty well for more stable collaborations and less well for more volatile ones. To keep with the music analogy, some collaborations are more like a bunch of jazz musicians getting together to jam. It might be roughly the same people each time, but it’s mostly determined by who’s around and interested when the project starts, so having stable names would be awkward.

      I also think that when this is viable, people do it informally anyway. In amplitudes people might mention the “hexagon function people” or “ambitwistor people”. And the media is happy to coin these things, like when the NBI people who objected to LIGO were called the “Danish group”. Doing it informally helps keep things flexible when the field needs it.


  2. ohwilleke

    Collaboration based citation and authorship could also help address the citation problem. Collaboration’s would have citation histories just the same way that individuals do, and collaborations with lots of citations would have more prestige.

    Then, on your CV you would note that you are or were a member of two high ranked collaborations and explain your involvement in each one: “Chief instrumentation officer in the ATLAS Collaboration. Responsible for estimating systemic errors for the Wombat Sloth Collaboration.”

    This would derail efforts to fully automate the ranking process with citations which is appropriate because you can’t tell on the face of an author list in a collaborative paper who did what and so who should get credit.

    This would be especially welcome for senior figures in large collaborations who too often get lumped together with the grunts in the operation in a long list of authors.

    For example, in genetics, which is also has big collaborations, lots of people talk about the latest work from “David Reich’s lab.”, which by default assigns all credit to the leader of the collaboration. But, if the author is listed as the “International Ancient DNA Collaboration” and your CV notes that you were in charge of day to day operations and site management in Kiev with the collaboration, the credit doesn’t automatically default to Reich alone, and people who need to know are more prone to give you full and accurate credit for the significance of your contribution to the collaboration, while in a long list of authors, everyone but the lead author is typically stereotyped as a flunky of the main author with less consideration given to the difference between a person who was in charge of proofreading, formatting and running chi-square tests, and a person who helped frame the issues that would be investigated and made the discretionary choices regarding how the work would be done and explained.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ohwilleke

      If this seems cumbersome, read the credits page of a music album sometime. Typically, it lists not just the members of the band, but assigns credits for music composition, lyric writing and sometimes playing specific instruments on a song by song basis. Similarly, movie credits often identify which collaboration worked on each set of scenes and the leading figures by title within each collaboration (storyboard director, best boy, chief grip).


    2. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      This kind of thing sounds sensible for big experimental collaborations, where there are pretty much always well-defined roles. (I think it even happens to some extent, but less visibly than the first-author thing and thus contributes less to credit than it ought to.) It’s less useful for theoretical collaborations, where there’s a lot of overlap in what people do and usually no real chain of command. In those cases you could try to list the parts each person did, but it would be a long list that would need different categories for each paper so it wouldn’t be very readable.



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