I am not in a field in which large (twenty authors or more) collaborations are common. However, I have always been interested in how authorship is distributed in those cases, particularly for extremely large collaborations (i.e., hundreds to thousands of collaborators).

How is it determined whether someone has had a signifficant contribution to yield authorship (i.e., why are there 436 authors and not 437 or 435)? How are authors listed (I know that LIGO, for instance, lists alphabetically)? How does one determine the major contributor? How is the paper drafted? Does everyone in the collaboration approve the paper?

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    How is the paper drafted? From speaking to my colleagues (some LIGO, some on other astronomy surveys eg LSST, eBOSS) the answer is: a lot of telecons. Like, a lot. Commented Dec 30, 2017 at 19:46
  • @astronat thanks, that's very interesting to hear. I suppose not all authors participate in those telecons, nonetheless. So there is probably some kind of hierarchy where senior members draft the paper and grad students feed the PIs who attend those telecons?
    – FBolst
    Commented Dec 30, 2017 at 23:54

1 Answer 1


How is it determined whether someone has had a signifficant contribution to yield authorship?

Very large collaboration are common in physics. I guess it started with collider physics experiments, and then it became common elsewhere (see LIGO). The general rule in very large (hundreds to thousands of authors) collaborations is that everybody who passes a minimum threshold of contribution to the experiment is an author.

More specifically, an author is typically somebody working in an institution who pays money/puts work into the building/running the experiment. He/she has to have served at least a number of months up to a year helping build or operate some of the experimental equipment before becoming an author. Some collaborations make this threshold a one-off, others a yearly commitment. Interestingly, building the necessary hardware is seen as a natural qualification for becoming an author, while building the software infrastructure does not always count as a qualification for becoming an author.

Exceptions can be made on a paper-by-paper base when somebody who is not a typical collaborator but has contributed significantly to a paper is added to the author list of that paper only. This is the typical case for theoretician who would like to use the experiment's data to prove/disprove a specific scenario.

Junior collaborators become senior enough to join the author list, less junior collaborators leave the collaboration, new institututions join the collaboration bringing in new collaborators. As a result, no two papers from the same collaboration in principle have to have the same number of authors; tracking the list of authors becomes another task to add to the long-list of large collaboration administrative jobs.

How are authors listed?

Given the impressive collaborators list length (ATLAS and CMS papers at CERN list approximately 2000 people each) then the simplest choice is to list all authors alphabetically. Such a large number of collaborators publish typically of the order of 100 papers per year. It is thus natural to expect that no author will ever read all the papers produced by her/his collaboration. Realistically, in such instances the average authors read 15-30% of papers he/she signs as author.

How does one determine the major contributor?

There is typically no difference between a null/negligible contributor, a significant contributor, and a major contributor in the author list. The only exception to my knowledge of the author lists "rules" above is for the Belle collaboration. In Belle papers, the main authors are listed first, with the others following in alphabetical order. If a reader would like to contact a Belle paper authors, he/she can write them directly. In all other instances, a reader would write to some committee that might eventually redirect him/her to the actual authors.

How is the paper drafted?

The main authors of the result draft the paper; this is typically a team of 3 to 7 people, although much larger teams are possible for very important papers. The paper is then heavily scrutinized by an internally assigned committee, then handed over to another committee, then handed over to the another committee; in some instances handed over a fourth committee. The typical time it takes to work on the paper is thus in the hundreds of days - typically as long or longer than producing the result itself. However, scientists typically start working on some other projects while waiting for the committees feedback.

Does everyone in the collaboration approve the paper?

Not literally everyone. After the committees work, the general rule is the "opt-in". However, just as any author is allowed to comment on a paper before it gets released, any author can decide to opt-out of being an author for that paper (although it happens only in exceptional and heavily controversial instances).

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    I recall a conversation I had some twenty years ago with a PhD student working at CERN, when I was a PhD student too, but in a completely different field. I asked him how they would write up their papers and he told me that, as a student, he would receive a phone call asking for a graph or two; he would produce the graphs and that was it. Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 16:49
  • Edit to my previous comment - Just as a "company culture" have a big impact on the way a private organization operates, an analogous concept of "laboratory culture" and "academic institution culture" do exist., and matter. Cern collaborations tend to have a more hierararchical structure then US and Japanese counterparts. At Fermilab, a PhD student (and supervisor) would normally write the entire paper. I have not seen this happening at CERN personally, although I am confident it does happen - perhaps not that often.
    – famargar
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 16:06
  • But how large is a typical collaboration at Fermilab compared to CERN? If you have, say, 200 authors at Fermilab, who are that PhD student and that supervisor? Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 17:32
  • Collaborations at Fermilab were 600 people at most. At CERN, it should be above 2000 at this point. Of course size does matter, as it's highly correlated with burocracy
    – famargar
    Commented Jan 22, 2018 at 16:41

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