Scientists quit Nobel-winning project over authorship dispute

Founder of Ligo project reveals some researchers have left over a lack of recognition, exposing wider attribution difficulties for large teams

July 5, 2019
Black hole
Source: Alamy/Patrick Kunkel/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

A dispute over paper authorship has led to scientists quitting the celebrated project that in 2015 successfully detected the existence of gravitational waves, a Nobel prizewinning physicist has revealed.

Rainer Weiss, one of the founders of the US-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo), whose discovery ended a 100-year hunt for the phenomena long predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, revealed that battles over scientific recognition had caused “a lot of friction” at the project, which involves about 1,000 scientists.

The dispute highlights the complexities of distributing paper authorship in an era of huge scientific endeavours involving massive teams. One paper estimating the size of the Higgs boson released by scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) in 2015, for example, had no fewer than 5,154 authors.

Speaking at a conference in Germany on a panel discussion about how to manage such projects, Professor Weiss, awarded the prize in 2017 for his work uncovering gravitational waves, said: “It’s a big problem. How do you get visibility [when working as part of a very big team]?”

Ligo’s rule is that, when scientists publish a paper analysing new data, everyone involved in the wider project – right down to undergraduates and engineers – has to be listed as an author. “That’s how we wind up with these monster lists,” said Professor Weiss, emeritus professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But one subgroup within Ligo which had spent eight years attempting to detect what is called a “continuous wave” from a pulsar was unhappy, because they wanted to be listed as special authors if and when such a signal was detected and reported, he explained.

“That’s caused a lot of friction. And has even caused people in the collaboration to leave the collaboration, because we can’t guarantee that we will change the rules [to allow special recognition],” Professor Weiss told the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, an annual conference bringing together laureates and young scientists.

“We never even had these issues until we finally made a discovery. Then everybody began to think: oh my god, how do I get recognised?,” he added.

Rainer Weiss

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Professor Weiss declined to go into further details about who had left.

But he commented: “What has made the problem is many of these people feel they have not gotten enough recognition by this process.”

“And I happen to agree with them. But was leaving the project the right thing to do? I don’t know that,” he said, adding that they had departed in order to have more freedom to work with the publicly available data.

The panel also heard from Rebecca Meißner, a physicist at the University of Innsbruck, who recalled working on one large-scale project where after one year scientists were put automatically on the author list, and remained there for a year after they left.

This meant that some master’s students did not stay long enough to ever earn authorship, she said.

Having done both her undergraduate and master’s degrees on the project, she was eventually included as an author – but was credited on papers where she only had a “rough idea” of the results, yet left off her actual work when it was published, having departed the project too long previously.

“Paper-wise, I think I can’t show you a paper which is really my main work where I’m still on the author list,” she said, and added that authorship rules for large team projects needed improvement.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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