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50 Heads Are Better Than One

From National Radio Astronomy Observatory
January 13, 1997

By Dr. Eric Schulman

TORONTO, CANADA, Jan. 13--- The growing complexity of problems studied by astronomers and their increasing use of the Internet is changing the field of astronomy, according to a team of experts presenting a paper to the American Astronomical Society meeting today in Toronto, Canada.

They found that the proportion of articles published in professional astronomy journals and written by a single author has dropped dramatically over the past 20 years, while the number of astronomy papers with 50 or more authors has skyrocketed since 1990. The team is led by Dr. Eric Schulman (National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Charlottesville, Virginia) and consists of Allison L. Powell and Dr. James C. French (University of Virginia Department of Computer Science, Charlottesville, Virginia), and Drs. Guenther Eichhorn, Michael J. Kurtz and Stephen S. Murray ( Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Cambridge, Massachusetts) .

As telescopes and satellites become more sophisticated and computer analysis of digital results routine, astronomers are seeking to do more complete analyses of complicated problems. And to do that, given the long waiting lists for observatory time, astronomers are collaborating more and more with colleagues who can supplement an initial set of, say, visible observations, with those taken at other wavelengths, such as in the X-ray, radio, ultraviolet, or infrared regimes.

Indeed, the growth of the Internet alone has led to a virtual explosion of international cooperation among astronomers, including individuals who have never met.

An example of the kinds of complicated problems that are promoting cooperation among groups of far-flung astronomers is the monitoring of "active galaxies," the centers of which can outshine the rest of the galaxy. The observations take place nearly simultaneously and use many different ground-based telescopes and satellites to explore the source of these galaxies' high luminosity. Such projects are made possible by the dramatic improvements in satellite, telescope and computer technology that have occurred in the last decade.

A sign of these changes is seen in the authorship of articles published in professional journals, according to the study. The proportion of articles written by a single author has declined significantly over the past 20 years, while the number of articles with many authors--- more than 50 in some cases--- has increased sharply over the same period.

"In 1975, almost half of all astronomy papers were written by one person working alone," said Schulman, who is an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia. "Today, only about one out of six astronomy papers has a single author."

"Before 1990, astronomical papers with more than 50 authors were unheard of," Schulman continued. "But between 1991 and 1995, there was an average of two such papers each year, including one with 124 authors."

And the pace of collaboration seems to be picking up. Last year, there were five papers with 50 or more authors published in the first 10 months of the year, and several more that

The team is using the Astrophysics Data System database--- an archive funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that holds more than 150,000 abstracts of astronomy and astrophysics papers published in journals around the world. The Astrophysics Data System enables astronomers to do rapid and comprehensive online searches for articles that can help them in their research, but the team is using it to study astronomical publication trends in the two decades between 1975 and 1995.

While generic search engines already existed to comb through the data on astronomical publishing, the researchers needed to be able to fine tune the process of gathering and preparing data for analysis. Since last summer, the two computer scientists have been working to develop ancillary software to be used in conjunction with the search engines to do this. One of the major challenges they faced was to make sure the lists of data they wanted to work with were complete. Typographical errors, misspellings and variants of names complicated that task, according to Powell, a University of Virginia computer science graduate student.

"Any discipline wishing to archive its research results or other data will find these tools useful," explained French, a professor of computer science at the University of Virginia. "Our goal is to increase the utility of online databases and be able to use them for purposes beyond those for which they were collected. Digital libraries will become an increasingly integral part of our social fabric and we are committed to creating software systems that ease the use of this new medium." The computer scientists said their work will lead to the creation of software tools that will help database managers in many fields, not just the sciences.

As for astronomical publishing, Schulman believes the group's findings are significant in demonstrating that a trend sensed by many astronomers is stronger than expected. The rise in the number of papers published by large groups of authors suggests the need for astronomy organizations, academic departments and funding agencies to revamp their methods of evaluating potential faculty members and grant recipients.

"Publications are an important criterion for evaluating astronomers," Schulman said. "In the past this was relatively straightforward, but now that there are papers with very large numbers of authors, the field needs to establish revised guidelines for evaluating the productivity of astronomers."

It is interesting to note that the research was made possible by some of the same technologies responsible for the trends the team found. Schulman found out about the U.Va. and SAO researchers via the World Wide Web, contacted them through electronic mail, and the research plan was developed in a conference call between the six scientists. Since then, they have exchanged data and information via the Internet, but no one on the team has yet met all of the other five members in person. "Our research may be typical of the direction that astronomy is moving in," suggested Schulman. "We are six scientists at three different institutions doing complimentary research and collaborating to get the most out of the work that each of us is doing."

The team's research is supported by NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

This graph shows the dramatic drop in the proportion of single-author papers between 1975 and 1995. The sharp decline can be seen in six astronomy journals published in the United States and Europe: Astronomy and Astrophysics (A&A; Europe), the Astronomy and Astrophysics Supplement Series (A&AS; Europe), the Astronomical Journal (AJ; United States), the Astrophysical Journal (ApJ; United States), the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series (ApJS; United States), and the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS; United Kingdom). The decline is less apparent for the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (PASP; United States). This research was presented to the American Astronomical Society meeting in Toronto, Canada on January 13, 1997.

FIGURE CREDIT: Dr. Eric Schulman, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Charlottesville, Virginia.

EDITORS: This diagram can be obtained over the Internet via
http://www.cv.nrao.edu/~eschulma/f1au.ps" or

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