In some fields of research, huge collaborations are the norm. This is especially true in experimental high-energy physics.

Say I'm evaluating someone's resume, and that person is transitioning out of one of these fields into something else, such as a career in industry or teaching. I'm not a specialist in that field, and I'm not familiar with current research in it except at a very broad level. How do I tell whether this person was any good at what they did? I can do a literature search on the person's name, but that will just pop up a bunch of papers where the list of authors looks like this: "The XYZ Collaboration: A. Aarons, J. Abelson, ... [183 additional authors not shown]"

  • I am a nuclear phenomenology (theory) guy, and I'll add here that the situation is complicated by the fact that even when it is obvious that the contribution of the author in each such publication is fractional, these mostly have a lot of publications to show (in the same amount of time in which a typical theory guy would churn out one bi-authored publication). So, the correct answer needs to involve a balancing between a large $N$ and a small $1/f$.
    – 299792458
    Commented May 4, 2015 at 13:25
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    A while back I asked a related question, whose answers you might find relevant here: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/23981/…
    – Miguel
    Commented May 4, 2015 at 17:50

3 Answers 3


Years ago, I was on the college executive committee when we had to decide whether a certain experimental physicist should be promoted (to tenure, if I remember correctly). Her papers were of the sort you describe, huge collaborations that gave us no information about the extent and quality of her contribution to the project. But that information was provided, in considerable detail, by the letters from external reviewers. (Here "external" means outside our university. In cases like this, the college waives its usual rule that so-and-so many letters must come from people who are not among the candidate's co-authors, because essentially everyone who has real information about the candidate's contribution is a co-author.)

  • How do you judge the validity of the information that they feed you? What if they are inflating it just the boost the prospects of their friend/acquaintance? Do you simply take their word?
    – 299792458
    Commented May 4, 2015 at 13:18
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    @TheDarkSide We treat this information just like external letters in all other promotion cases. We assume the reviewers are honest unless there's some indication to the contrary. Commented May 4, 2015 at 15:25
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    @TheDarkSide: This is why such recommendation letters need to be detailed and persuasive, and why more than one or two of them are solicited. Commented May 4, 2015 at 16:37
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    This is basically a social thing: if you consistently fail to pull your weight, people notice. If you consistently excel they notice. If you're just average, but will step up for the dirty work or when the pressure is on, they notice. And word gets around. So talking to people who've worked with the candidate more than once is the best way to know. Commented May 4, 2015 at 23:34

I have two answers.

First, if the person in of interest has many publications with a diverse range of coauthors, then you might be able to glean some insights by looking at the overall pattern. For example, you might be able to determine this person's areas of specialization and perhaps their focus in research. But these inferences depend on having papers that are sufficiently diverse that you can isolate interesting patterns that are common to all of them, but otherwise uncommon.

My second answer is that you probably can't derive any useful information from the fact that a person has been part of a very large collaboration team. Instead, you need more detailed and context specific information about their tasks, responsibilities, and performance. This might come from seeing their specific work products, from their performance reviews or recommendations from their supervisor or peers, or similar.

In a way, this is no different than the situation in industry where you might know that a person is employed at a National Lab, and maybe that they are part of XYZ Department, working on ABC Projects. You can't really tell much from that information about their individual role or individual performance.


I heard that the number of presentations they give (check e.g. Indico) is a better indicator than the number of papers.

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