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 (www.nejm.org) – 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!