Physics: Authors and Institutes

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2023/jan/15/scientists-ukraine-war-cern-physics-large-hadron-collider,

Like other sensible colleagues, I had refrained from drawing attention to a tricky problem which has been rumbling on for months. But now it’s been raised in the press, in an article which is very misleading in some places, perhaps the time has come to get some things straight.

Despite the headline, we are not atomic scientists. And we are not split. And physics is not ruined, it is getting on very nicely.

But we do have a problem: many international experimental collaborations include groups from Russia. How do we react to the invasion of Ukraine on February 24th 2022?

I can’t speak for everyone, but in my experience there has been no feeling against our Russian colleagues as individuals. They’re part of the team, getting on with the job under complicated political pressures. If we were all to be held accountable for the actions of our governments then we’d all be in trouble.

Where there is a reaction is with the Russian institutes. These are part of the Russian establishment, and some of their spokesmen have made very hawkish public statements justifying the invasion. Like many others, I have no stomach for appearing in a publication with such instruments of Putin, and by doing so appearing to condone their views and actions.

Institutes appear in two places in publications: in acknowledgements of support at the end of a paper, and as affiliations in the author list at the beginning. The acknowledgement of support is not a major issue: it can be presented as a bare statement of fact, the wording can be crafted, if desired, to be unenthusiastically neutral, and nobody reads this section anyway. But their prominent appearance in the author list is a problem.

We always do this: in one format or another, authors are listed together at the start of a paper with their university or laboratory affiliation. The word processing tools for writing papers expect this to happen and provide helpful macros. It’s so commonplace that nobody asks why we do this but I think there are three reasons:

  • It gives some credibility to a paper to know that the author has a position.
  • It gives a means of contacting the author if anyone wants to question or discuss the paper. This was surely the original reason, when all this started back in the 1800’s.
  • It distinguishes the author from someone else with the same name.

Looking at these in the cold light of reason, they’re pretty irrelevant in the 21st century. For a paper with hundreds of authors the academic status of any individual is irrelevant, for contact details we have google, and there are tools such as ORCID that are much more reliable for linking authorship to individuals. We can solve the whole problem by abandoning this archaic practice.

It is proving controversial. It is interesting is how many of us have a gut reaction against dropping our affiliation from our byline. It is a part of our professional identity: we are introduced, and introduce ourselves, as Dr … … from the University of … . It’s on our rarely-used business cards. It’s part of our email signature. So it’s a bit of a wrench to drop it, but we can get over it.

Some European funding agencies (not all, only a few) are unhappy as they use the number of times they appear in publications as a metric. Without commenting on whether this is a sensible way to allocate research funding, it should not take them long to write a computer script to use ORCIDs rather than whatever bean-counting they do at present.

In the cold war, which some of us still remember, scientific co-operation rose above politics and built important bridges of trust. That was the right thing to do yesterday, but it’s the wrong thing to do today. To ignore the invasion, or to postpone any consequences, is to play into Putin’s narrative that there is nothing to see except some minor police action. Dropping the listing of institute affiliations has been adopted by the BelleII and BaBar experiments, and is under consideration for those at the LHC. Meanwhile the science is still being done and published on the arXiv, which is where everyone accesses it anyway as it’s free to access and up to date. And the physicists are still working togther.

Published by

rogerjbarlow

After his PhD at Cambridge, he has worked on particle physics experiments at DESY (TASSO, and the discovery of the gluon, and subsequently JADE, and the measurement of the B lifetime) , CERN (OPAL doing precision studies of the Z ), and SLAC(BaBar, and the discovery of CP violation in B mesons). He is currently a member of the LHCb collaboration. After many years at Manchester, rising from lecturer to professor, he moved to Huddersfield in 2011, from where he retired in 2017 He has written a textbook on Statistics, founded the Cockcroft Institute, started the ThorEA association, and originated the National Particle Physics Masterclasses. He was the PI of the CONFORM project that led to the successful operation of EMMA, the worlds's first nsFFAG accelerator.

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