Collaboration in Science

On July 4, 2012, scientists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider announced they had found the Higgs Boson – a fundamental particle underpinning the Standard Model of particle physics. The existence of this particle had been theorized by Peter Higgs in the 1960s but was never “found” until the CERN experiments. This was a big deal for particle physics. The Standard Model is a unifying theory that describes three of the four known fundamental forces in the universe (electromagnetic, weak, and strong), and the Higgs boson was the last undiscovered fundamental particle in the model.

I bring this up because the original paper by the ATLAS group at the Large Hadron Collider had 2,932 authors (ATLAS Collaboration Phys. Lett. B 2012;716:1–29) and so for about a year after the discovery, I would often encounter the various Higgs boson research articles in my PubMed searches when I searched by author name. A more recent collaboration between the two groups at the Large Hadron Collider, ATLAS and CMS, lists 5,154 authors, the largest group of authors ever published (Aad, G. et al. (ATLAS Collaboration, CMS Collaboration) Phys. Rev. Lett. 2015;114, 191803).

This got me thinking. Physics has long been a leader in this type of “hyperauthorship,” but it is an emerging trend in biomedical science as well. Just take a look at the homepage of the New England Journal of Medicine ( – every “original article” listed has greater than 10 authors. The Journal of Hand Surgery has been very open to recognizing multiple authors when asked, but researchers may be discouraged from asking by the 6 author limit in the “Instructions to Authors”.

Collaboration does not come naturally to surgeons. While physicists can try one experiment, then another, and medical doctors can try one drug, then another, we are forced in our clinical lives to take sole responsibility for our patients in the operating room. The mindset of “sometimes wrong but never in doubt” is natural to us, but hampers our progress scientifically.  It took the thalidomide disaster for Dieter Buck-Gramcko to see enough children with thumb deficiency to perfect the technique for index pollicization. Absent a similar disaster, “moving the needle” on the complex problems in our field will require collaboration – pooling data and resources. Although modern technology makes collaboration increasingly easy, there remain many barriers to collaboration in the science of hand surgery. Foremost among these are credit and authorship. For those of us in academia, authorship is important – for promotion and sometimes even for pay. Beyond the money, though, there are only so many hours in a day – so why choose to collaborate when doing your “own” work will be regarded more highly? The system of limiting authorship and “rewarding” only first and last authorship perpetuates siloing within departments and competition between institutions. Those of us on promotion committees and journal editorial boards should think about how to alter our current guidelines to encourage rather than discourage collaboration. Future patients will thank us!

Article written by:

Dr. Andrea Bauer is a pediatric hand surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital. She used to have hobbies, but now she has a 3-year-old son named Topher. At work, she enjoys thinking through complex problems like congenital hand differences and brachial plexus birth palsy. At home, she enjoys trips to the playground and making pancakes on Sunday mornings.

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  1. Scott S Gordon, MD

    With all due respect Dr. Bauer, this notion of collectivism in research using collaborative megadata in the medical field could be counter-productive in my opinion. The reason being is that unlike physics, medicine is as much as an art as a science. Yes, megadata studies can be useful in finding trends with the free flow of data and communication between colleagues, BUT interpretation and conclusions need to be handled and assessed individually because every surgeon is unique with her or his abilities and outcomes. In addition, I do not need to tell you that treatments need to be tailored for the extreme diverity we see in our patients with regards to age, culture, underlying disease, comorbidities, just to name a few.

    The collectivism of authorship does not mean that the conclusions are right and it seems like kismit that you have chosen the LHC’s Publication of the Higgs Boson as an example stating that the original paper by the ATLAS group at the Large Hadron Collider had 2,932 authors. I have news for you… That is 2,932 authors that got it wrong.

    The Higgs Mechanism giving mass to particles is not correct. How do I know? As unlikely (actually impossible) as it sounds, The theory of everything has been published in a 350 page book. It will take years for this model to be looked at, reviewed and accepted. But when this theory is finally accepted, it will show once again that it is not the “collective mind” but a single individual who usually brings about the major leaps in progress and understanding. If you are interested in physics, here is a paper that gives an intro to a new more fundamental foundation to physics:

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