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How fair is it for just three people to receive the Nobel Prize in physics?

Alfred Nobel didn't foresee the current era of mega scientific collaboration. © Nobel Media AB Pi Frisk

The Nobel Foundation statutes decree that “in no case” can a Nobel Prize be divided between more than three people. So it may not raise many eyebrows that the 2017 award in physics went to just three scientists on the LIGO team for their “decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves.”

But science is increasingly collaborative across teams (including scientists and engineers), across nations and across disciplines. The majority of all scientific articles are co-authored. Of these, over 25 percent are internationally co-authored. LIGO – more than most projects – represents these trends. One of the group’s most important papers involves 355 co-authors from at least 20 countries.

So with cutting-edge science being carried out in large international collaborations, who actually winds up on the rostrum in Stockholm? As a student of science dynamics, I have tracked how and why scientists link up with one another, in what fields, and how it improves the outcomes. These allegiances have an impact on who receives an award like a Nobel Prize, since international collaborations are more highly cited than national or sole-authored work.

A LIGO optics technician who is not a recipient of the Nobel Prize.
Matt Heintze/Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab, CC BY-ND

Shifting norms around collaboration and credit

Scientific discoveries these days typically rely on advances in the underlying technology and equipment used in experimentation. To enable breakthroughs, LIGO, CERN, the Human Genome Project and others rely on new technologies, which in turn are built often by large international teams. And within science, it’s becoming standard to more broadly recognize contributions like these than in the past.

This is a shift in social behavior, since scientists have always had collaborators and helpers – they just didn’t grant them a place on the “author” list. Now, there is a greater tendency to list the technical people who make discoveries possible. At CERN, for example, new discoveries, such as the Higgs Boson, are claimed in articles that list engineers and computer scientists as well as the theorists who develop the experiments.

And the fact that the Nobel Prize is offered specifically for physics is out of step with the tendency for interdisciplinary contributions to be fundamental to breakthroughs. A quick glance at the list of contributing institutions for LIGO shows collaborators from a school of mathematics, space science, departments of informatics, as well as cosmologists, astrophysics observatories, supercomputing centers and many others.

While practitioners have expanded the way contributions are credited, awards like the Nobel Prizes haven’t caught up. The little bit of science history taught in school still focuses on individual contributors such as Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. Harder to explain or visualize are the cross-disciplinary collaborations that constitute most of science today.

The rich get richer

In a study I conducted with the Nobel Library in Sweden, we compared Nobel Prize winners in physiology or medicine to a matched group of scientists to examine productivity, impact, coauthorship and international collaboration patterns. The laureate’s co-author network reveals significant differences from the non-laureate network. Laureates are more likely to build bridges across a network by reaching out to a non-obvious collaborator, such as physicist Jack Kilby working with a materials scientist to develop new materials for microprocessors. They were more likely to exploit “structural holes” – gaps between fields that offer enticing but unrealized possibilities.

This process builds their reputation within as well as across scientific fields. (For example, both physicists and materials scientists read Kilby’s paper.) In science, reputation is the coin of the realm. It’s gained through cooperation as well as attention to the outputs of science – the journal article.

When publishing any scientific article, there is a basic conundrum – someone must receive the prime place on the list of authors. In some fields, authors covet the first place; in others, the last place. And the benefits of being the primary author go far beyond a single article. There’s a phenomenon called the “Matthew Effect” in science, referring to the observation in the Gospel of Matthew that the “rich get richer.” The noted author of an article is much more likely to receive attention into the future.

Creative networkers like Jack Kilby grow their network in several fields as a result of their work, enhancing citations and reputation.

Searchable databases such as Google Scholar accentuate the Matthew effect, since a search will prioritize the articles with lots of citations. It has long been noted that only a few “superstars” in science emerge over time – but current practices have supercharged the process because of the agglomerating effects of being listed as the primary author.

The Nobel stage in Stockholm doesn’t have space for everyone.
© Nobel Media AB Pi Frisk.

Who stays behind

The Matthew Effect is likely part of the reason that three white men came out “on top” in the case of the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics. The downside of needing a primary author on a collaborative paper means that collaborators, such as notable women who also worked on LIGO, sit in the shadows. Women’s names are much more likely to be listed second, third or farther down the list of authors on scientific papers. It can be difficult for women to claim to top spot.

No doubt when the current Nobel Prize winners in physics accept their award, they will point to “others” who have been instrumental in helping. Yet, the essentially collaborative nature of the work – many paying nations, many collaborating disciplines, a multitude of people – begs the question: Can the award fairly be claimed by three (white, American, male) people? The Nobel Prize, developed to recognize 19th-century creativity, may no longer reflect the true contributions within 21st-century science.

The Conversation

Caroline Wagner does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Source: The Conversation – Science

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