An interesting essay by Simon White showed up on astro-ph Wednesday night entitled "Fundamentalist physics: why Dark Energy is bad for Astronomy." The whole thing is an interesting sociological read, highlighting in very clear terms the adage (mantra?) that astronomy doesn't want to become like particle physics:
Dark Energy is the Pied Piper's pipe, luring astronomers away from their home territory to follow high-energy physicists down the path to professional extinction.This topic is big enough that both Rob and Sean have already commented on it (I was travelling! no interenet!). As someone who got into astronomy because cosmology was so interesting (I didn't like astronomy as a kid, and MIT doesn't have a separate astronomy department), I find this topic to be quite enlightening. Sure, we could all be working on what is arguably the "most interesting" topic, but what's the fun in that?
What I found most interesting in the essay, though, were the cold hard numbers behind the reality of the situation, i.e., how the culture of writing and citing papers has changed in the last, say, 30 years. The final figure in the essay outlines how the number of refereed papers, distinct authors, authors per paper, and references per paper have changed from 1975 to 2006.
The numbers in parentheses are the 1975 values.
By 2006 the number of authors had quadrupled but the number of papers had only doubled. On the other hand, the mean number of authors per paper also doubled, so that the number of papers signed by a typical astronomer remained constant at about 2 per year. The size of the astronomical community has thus increased dramatically and a drop in the mean productivity of its members has been masked by the tendency for more individuals to sign each paper. In 1975 over 40% of all papers in the major journals had a single author and fewer than 3% had 6 or more authors. In 2006 only 9% of papers had a single author while almost 28% had 6 or more authors.Why these trends occur and just how bad (or good) they are is harder to pin down. I know that big long author lists are extremely uncommon in most fields; are there even any other fields within physics that support papers with more than 6 authors on an "oh, that's normal" basis? I doubt we've found a nice equlibrium within the collaboration system yet: the benefits of "more people means more ideas" has to be balanced out by the fact inidividuals can get lost, e.g., that after the first author, it's difficult to track down just how much each author contributed.
As an extreme example, the fourth ranked astrophysicist by citations to papers published over the last decade has never written a first-author paper for a refereed journal and has gained almost all his citations through his right to sign official papers by a large collaboration in which he played a purely functional role