Individualists, Working Together

An article titled “Individualism: The legacy of great physicists,” by Ricardo Heras. crossed my various social media feeds a half-dozen times on Tuesday, so I finally broke down and read it, and I’m puzzled. The argument is very straightforward– single-author publications used to be common, now they’re not, this might indicate a lack of truly independent work, that would be bad– but a lot of it is at odds with my reading of the relevant history.

The most jarring thing about the article is the “Individualistic Team” graphic above, including a bunch of pictures of famous physicists who are supposed to have been great individualists: Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Erwin Schrödinger, Paul Dirac, Henri Poincaré, Lev Landau, and Richard Feynman. But almost half of that list– Fermi, Bohr, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger– were part of an extremely active and closely connected community of physicists working on the development of quantum theory in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Reading the history of the period, it’s a little amazing that they managed to accomplish as much as they did, given all the time they spent writing letters to each other.

Einstein arguably belongs in there as well, though he wasn’t that big a part of the quantum correspondence after about 1930 (he and Schrödinger both drifted away because of philosophical problems with the theory). Dirac worked at the same time as that community– he worked briefly with Bohr, and went on a world lecture tour with Heisenberg– but hardly ever spoke, so maybe you could count him as not really part of it. Planck and Poincaré really belong (at least) a generation earlier, so I have less of a sense of where they fit in the community of their time. Feynman was a generation later, but an important and engaged part of the post-war physics community. Landau was both a bit later and on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, so I don’t know that much about him.

In terms of style, you could probably argue that Feynman and Dirac were true individualists, in that they did their own thing with little obvious input from others. I don’t think there’s really any way to call Bohr a true individualist in that sense, though– he was always working with others, and arguably his most important role was as a catalyst bringing others together to argue about foundational issues. Heisenberg worked closely with Bohr during the pivotal period, and at other times with Pauli. Fermi worked with Pauli and a bunch of others. Even Einstein, famously a patent clerk when he did his key work, relied heavily on discussions with others, most importantly Michele Besso and Marcel Grossmann, for shaping and refining his ideas.

But if these people all worked together, why were there so many single-author papers in the past, and so few now? The answer is that standards have changed. This is most clear in one of the references Heras cites, a Physics Today piece by Phillip Wyatt from 2012, who writes

It has long been evident that some professors established groups of graduate students whose main activities were often focused on publishing research results. Authorship of such articles expanded to include all members of the group despite only the peripheral or negligible contributions by some, historically referenced in an acknowledgements section.

I agree with the facts, but not the get-offa-my-lawn spin: reading historical accounts and old papers makes clear that while old papers may have had only a single name at the top, the work was never done alone. The classic single-author experimental papers are chock full of footnotes and acknowledgement sections thanking this technician or that one for invaluable assistance in making the crucial parts and recording the crucial data. As recently as 1960, that Monte Carlo simulation thesis I blogged includes a thank-you to “M. S. Ketchum” for, basically, typing his program in and debugging it.

I suppose you could concoct some standard by which the contributions of those people were “peripheral or negligible,” but I suspect their relegating to acknowledgements and footnotes had a lot more to do with barriers of class, race, and gender (M. S. Ketchum is a “she” later in the paragraph explaining her contribution) than genuine merit. The extension of full authorship to those people strikes me less as a lowering of standards than a righting of wrongs.

The same sort of thing happens a bit on the theory side. Some accounts of classic work make it sound like there was a level of give-and-take that today would rate more than a “the author thanks Prof. Firstname Lastname for helpful discussion” note at the end. We’ve gotten more honest about acknowledging the inherently collaborative nature of science, and that’s a good thing.

There are problems with the way papers are generated and published these days, to be sure, starting with the fact that there’s just so much of it. But I don’t think that the trend toward giving (slightly more) credit to everyone who contributes to the progress of science reflects a genuine problem with the way things are done.

6 thoughts on “Individualists, Working Together

  1. There are problems with the way papers are generated and published these days, to be sure, starting with the fact that there’s just so much of it.

    I suspect that the volume of scientific publications is part of the reason why so few single author papers (even theory papers) are published these days. Once upon a time, Grad Student Jones could publish a paper and have some hope of being noticed, particularly once Prof. Bigshot made it known that G. S. Jones was his advisee. Today, however, there is such a volume of publications that scientists need to filter the material, and one way of signaling a paper’s reliability is to attach Prof. Bigshot’s name to the G. S. Jones et al. paper, regardless of whether Prof. Bigshot contributed anything more than funding for the research. (This issue seems particularly acute in biomedical research, where it is customary to list the authority figure last–this is the reason why Science and Nature encourage you to look for other papers by I. M. Lastauthor, whether or not he is an authority figure.) In my experience, it is far more common for senior figures like Prof. Bigshot to get undeserved co-authorship than for people like G. S. Jones or P. Y. Postdoc.

  2. True. Of course, it’s always been that way– the experiment that discovered the nucleus of the atom was actually done by Marsden and Geiger (and even published under just their names), but everyone still credits Rutherford with it. Partly because he came up with the correct interpretation of their scattering events two years later, but mostly because he was the one who paid the bills for that experiment, even if he was doing the Nobel World Tour during much of the period when the work was done. These days, he’d be an author, as the PI for the lab.

  3. I remember the Wyatt piece from Physics Today. I thought the table of the distribution of the number of coauthors in past decades vs. recent was fascinating. But where that article really went off the rails was when Wyatt tried to use the data to conclude that physicists these days were morons when compared to smart, single-author-paper-writing dudes like himself.

    The article culminated in a bit of delicious irony when Wyatt gave an example of how ignorant and lazy kids were these days: a recent PhD who thought helium formed diatomic molecules! Ha ha! What a rube that recent PhD was! Except, of course, that the PhD was correct: the existence of the helium dimer was experimentally demonstrated by Peter Tonnies and collaborators over a decade before Wyatt wrote his letter to Physics Today.

  4. Is Philip Anderson the last of the individualists? He has published three papers in PRL as sole author since 2006.

  5. Something y’all are missing so far: The article is an ideological hit-piece to promote right-wing libertarianism, based on a false dichotomy between “individualism” and “collectivism.” It reads as if it could have been written by someone in the PR department at the Cato Institute or the Heritage Foundation.

    You can be quite sure that the reason the article has been so visible in “social media” is that it’s being touted to the max by ideological right-wingers right here in the USA to bolster their broader cause.

    The stuff about authorship of papers is just a red herring. The central issue in play is not that, or even the preferences and life/work histories of various physicists, who have been cleverly and posthumously recruited to the author’s cause in much the same way as theists and atheists recruit them to their own respective causes.

    The central issue is the “ISMs”, and that’s the level on which this article should be dealt with. Go ask the people who are posting it all over the place, about their own political beliefs, and you will find right-wing libertarians in large numbers. (Fortunately you probably won’t find much of the religious right wing on board with this, since they are at war with science itself.) Once you find out what you’re dealing with, you can ask them if they also want to get Big Government out of Medicare.

    Lastly, someone needs to ask the author and his social media supporters, if they are willing to pledge to never accept government money, and always insist on sole authorship. After all, it’s one thing to write or promote a manifesto, quite another to live by it.

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