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Policy and funding

Individual recognition

08 Oct 2015
Taken from the October 2015 issue of Physics World

With publications in particle physics containing thousands of authors, Sahal Yacoob describes how that can pose a problem when a “target culture” is applied to academia

On and on

In May the two largest collaborations at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider – ATLAS and CMS – broke the record for the number of authors on a single scientific publication. With more than 5000 people, the paper pinned down the mass of the Higgs boson, the discovery of which was announced in July 2012. These two collaborations are not new to having such a huge number of authors, as the papers that ATLAS and CMS publish regularly have thousands of authors.

The scale of scientific output worldwide has steadily grown thanks to the difficulty involved with achieving milestones, the cost involved in building and operating big facilities, as well as the increased mobility and virtual nature of collaborative work. I have been working in particle physics since 2002 and I believe the sizes of such author lists are necessary as they are the correct way to acknowledge the work done by people who have been involved with the design, construction and operation of the detector, as well as the analyses of data.

Yet large authorships also come with difficulties. How, for example, can one acknowledge noteworthy individual contributions or recognize candidates who deserve career advancement or an award? Differentiating between candidates when hiring in these fields has to be mostly based on recommendation letters and details of the work carried out by an individual. While that work may be understood within the community, it is incredibly difficult to gauge when that person is competing for a job that is also open to candidates from other disciplines. Even the Times Higher Education‘s World University Ranking now excludes papers that have more than 1000 authors from its evaluations.

Hitting targets

The issue of multiple authorship has been of a particular concern to me. South Africa has just reached 20 years as a democracy and, while the country has struggled to improve the education provided to most people, the scientific community has continued to grow. Convinced that forging a productive relationship with CERN would benefit the nation, in 2008 South Africa signed an agreement with the lab allowing its scientists to be closely involved with the ATLAS and ALICE collaborations.

This move was great as it let me fulfil one of my main career aspirations and start an ATLAS group in South Africa at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2010. However, I was hired based on a CV populated almost entirely by papers with 600 to 3000 co-authors and shortly after arriving at KwaZulu-Natal, I was faced with a problem: my research output as part of ATLAS would count for nothing.

The difficulty was that the university judges research output based on publications that attract a subsidy from the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). The effect of the DHET funding policy led directly to a new stream of income that the university then began to depend on. Unfortunately, the DHET does not pay the subsidy if there are more than 100 authors per paper and thus would not cover my research output, meaning it would not count towards my job performance targets.

For my first two years I engaged management on this issue, and was assured at various stages that the quality of my work was understood and that this would only be a problem for the “bean counters”. But when I was asked for the third year running to agree that my publications had no value – while at the same time being approached by the university to give public lectures on the Higgs boson – I decided not to agree with the terms. The university responded by disciplining me for being insubordinate and in breach of contract, with the chair of the disciplinary hearing labelling my actions those of a “sluggard”. Upon appeal, the verdict was upheld.

Yet I was lucky to have support from the South African Institute of Physics as well as my colleagues. In July 2015 at the first external process at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration – a body that looks into labour issues before they go to court – the university agreed to expunge my disciplinary record. In the end, I believe that my previous university (I joined the University of Cape Town earlier this year) is now poorer, since particle physics is no longer accessible to its students.

Particle physics is not the only subject in South Africa that could be hit with this issue of large authorships. The country has been constructing major astronomy facilities such as the Southern African Large Telescope, the MEERKAT/KAT-9 radio telescopes and a significant fraction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The SKA commitment, in particular, has been wonderful, and we appear to be reaping the rewards with many excellent academics choosing to come to South Africa. The government is also supporting students and postdocs on SKA-funded projects with much larger bursaries than students in other fields.

But as the SKA gets going and researchers begin to publish scientific papers – many of which will be multi-authored – I hope they are not hit with the same issue over how research outputs are measured.


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