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As a recently graduated researcher in the field of physics, I am in the early stages of establishing my scientific career, which involves being hired by senior researchers and professors. Much of the likelihood of being hired in a reputable group relies on my publication record and, for good or for bad, on my citation count.

I have always played a significant role in all the papers I have written or coauthored, which justified my inclusion in the list of authors. Thus I feel that I have earned the many or few citations to my papers.

In the context of a competitive mindset in which your quality is often (perhaps unfairly) measured by the number of citations your work has attracted, it has always bothered me how endless author lists from large collaborations boost the citation counts of those people. It is just a matter of common sense to assume that not all of them have significantly contributed to a paper. I am thinking especially about particle physics collaborations, such as LHC at CERN. Take as an example this highly cited paper with a couple of hundred authors sharing authorship. The same or very similar author lists appear in several other highly cited articles. I am sure most of these are highly capable and competent researchers, some of which are leaders in their field. But did they all really contributed enough to be credited as authors? Another question - how much is enough?

How can one trust the citation count model (whether it's fair or not) when there are these collaboration-enhanced players in the game?

How much do professors and PI's rely on citation counts in order to make a decision on hiring a researcher (be honest!)?

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I am not into physics, but I always assumed that any hiring committee in the field is fully aware of the special practices regarding large collaborations in physics, and adjust their expectations / valueing of such papers accordingly. –  xLeitix Jun 26 at 11:30
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@xLeitix That adds an extra perspective: long author lists may undermine the contribution of significant authors, whose names get lost among the other ones in an alphabetically ordered fashion. –  Miguel Jun 26 at 11:34
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3 Answers 3

A general rule of bibliometrics is that they shouldn't be used to compare people (or projects, or papers, or research projects) across different fields, because publication culture can vary wildly even within disciplines and between closely allied fields. To begin with, the size of the field - the number of papers published per year, for example - has a direct impact on how many citations each paper gets.

Your quandary is an example of this. In certain fields such as high-energy physics, astronomy, or parts of biology, a lot of the science is concentrated in very large collaborations, which produce papers with many citations and many authors. It is indeed unfair to use citation counts to compare such a CV with, say, a mathematician's, since papers there tend to have few authors and, in many specialized fields, be read by very few people indeed, even for high-quality papers.

Whether such bibliometrics are used in practice by hiring committees - well, that obviously depends on the field, the institution, and the specific people involved. If all the applicants are from similar fields then this may not be a huge problem, but the numbers need to be treated with some distance to avoid the problem you point out. If a hiring or review process places a large emphasis on citation counts (or other bibliometrics) for applicants from different fields, then that is indeed a problem.

One final thing you should keep in mind is that applicants with a high-citation-count, large-collaboration paper in their CV are likely to get asked at interview questions like

So, what was your role in this collaboration?

in any case, as part of the interview process.

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"Field" should be narrowed down even more. For example, within high energy physics, this is only typical for experimental papers, not theoretical one. (You can spot an experimental paper in the reference list: the first author always has a name starting with "A"). –  Szabolcs Jun 26 at 18:30
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In biology these papers have become extremely common. These papers are often results of high-throughput data generation projects (e.g. genome sequencing projects). Since they generate a lot of data, their data is often used thus generating many citations (this is why journals like these papers - they are impact factor boosters).

However, I think this is not such a big problem.

In many cases where it is important for people to understand your contribution, there tend to be means of doing this. For example, some funding agencies may ask you to specify verbally or numerically what your contribution to each paper was. If these are the only papers you have, the relevant people will want to know what your exact role in the project was. You will almost always be able to explain or emphasize your role in a cover letter.

When it is less important for people to understand your exact contribution, I find that people will usually give a very low weight to such papers. I guess this comes from an underlying assumption that without prior knowledge we can assume that the amount of contribution is the inverse of the number of authors (maximum entropy?). That said, in biology the first and last authors have special status and I think this is also the case in these papers.

So the main problem, I think, is not getting more recognition then you deserve but actually less if you are some author in the middle of the list. However, as I mentioned, you will usually have some other venue to explain your exact contribution. The only way I could see these papers being very useful for a CV is as an indicator that you can get collaborations and funding (these projects are typically well-funded).

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At least in the example I gave from CERN, the authors are listed in alphabetical order, so not too much to make out from there. As you say there are also negative aspects for authors in these long lists. Maybe we should resort to a movie-like credit system where stars, executive producers, director, etc. are listed first in bold big letters, followed by the rest of the crew - just a joke (or is it?). –  Miguel Jun 26 at 13:07
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Where I work at a academic computing center, when hiring at the postdoc and research associate (junior researcher) level, I never look at citation counts. We are very different from an academic department, and citation counts aren't all that useful to us. We are looking for a certain skill set which includes good publications, but it also includes lots of other things.

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