Career, Duty Calls, Science

“Superstar professors with massive research groups are bad for science.” I agree.


‘My professor demands to be listed as an author on many of my papers’ writes an anonymous scientist in the Guardian.

[T]here’s one instance where it’s acceptable for scientists to lie: when fraudulently claiming authorship of a paper.

Too often, researchers attach their names to reports when they have contributed nothing at all to the work.

The problem gets worse the higher up the academic ladder you go.

I think this is completely true.

The reasons are manifold:

One reason is group size. In my own group I currently have 5 postdocs, 5 students and 5 visitors. This is already more than I should have and more than I can manage for a longer period of time. It only works because the visitors are all very independent and only here for less than 6 months. But several groups I know boast 30 or more people. Max Planck directors often have 50 or more scientists in their departments/groups. At the institute where I did my PhD Hans Lehrach had about 80 if not more in more than 10 teams. With a group of that size and at least one intermediate managerial level of team leaders and senior staff the PI has no chance to know about all the projects that are going on at any given time. They are mostly put on the paper because they are the boss and they gave the money – not very scientific reasons.

Another reason is that junior researchers might actually be very happy to have the big names on their paper (and, I assume, might even ask them to join), because reputation matters and papers have an easier time under review the more well-known names are on it. All these papers from the Broad with 5, 6, 7 big name PIs at the end … I don’t believe for a second that they contributed with anything but money, if at all. They have just been put there for decoration and fooling the editors and reviewers. “Look, all these terribly famous people support this result! How can you dare to criticize it?!”

CRUK, the main funders of my research, encourages honesty about my contributions by asking me to organize my publications into different categories: my own papers (lab member first, me last), collaborative papers with major contributions (mostly lab member second, me second to last) and collaborative with minor contributions (middle author stuff).

We also have a headcount limit for all groups (5 for junior group leaders, 12 for senior, 15 for selected seniors). Transparency about contributions and small group sizes mean that -while we have a fair share of big Egos- the PIs at my institute are mostly listed as authors for exactly one reason: because they intellectually contributed to the project.

This fits very well to the conclusion of the article:

Superstar professors with massive research groups – and even bigger egos – are bad for science. There should be limits on the size of research groups that are based on how much time and input it is possible for one group leader to spend with each junior researcher on each project.

The LMB is also pretty good at keeping group sizes small. As is Janelia Farm. Pretty good places both of them.

I have become part of some larger collaborations lately (ICGC pan-cancer, that sort of stuff) and I really look forward to see how we will figure out authorships in a fair way.

Florian

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4 thoughts on ““Superstar professors with massive research groups are bad for science.” I agree.

  1. As for superstars, climbing mountains is good. But no one wants to live on Mt Everest permanently. It’s so cold, dangerous and lonely there. But society has very cruel mechanisms to push its most talented people either very deep down (genius kicked out of school) or very high up, and keeping them there for good. Down and Up seem to be totally equivalent. I think that for many talented people there’s absolutely no way out of either this Down or this Up, so we should never ever envy them. Just be glad we’re not there and try to understand them.

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