I am that young man

Allen Sandage just died. An article in the New York Times is here. Not someone I knew or indeed ever met, but he has always hovered in my psyche, like he has for most astronomers my age. In 1961 he founded modern cosmology by writing  “The ability of the 200inch telescope to discriminate between selected world models” and in 1962, with Eggen and Lynden-Bell, he kicked off the subject of galaxy formation by writing “Evidence from the motions of old stars that the Galaxy collapsed“.  Anyone who can write two such epochal papers in successive years ought to have a warm glow for the rest of their lives. Maybe he did, but of course he didn’t sit back; he pursued his program relentlessly for decades.

In some ways I miss the old days when the warring H0=52 and H0=85 camps would have bust ups at every conference, led by Sandage and his arch-rival Gerard De Vaucouleurs. A well known astronomer, who may or may not be Richard Ellis, once told me that sometime in the 1990s, by which time Sandage was 70ish and De Vaucouleurs was 80ish,  he went to yet another conference where each camp was convinced of its rectitude. Richard claims he stood up and said “I am getting fed up with these debates. This subject needs some young man to come in and sort things out”. (Pardon the sexism.) Apparently De Vaucouleurs swelled his chest and said “Indeed. I am zat young man.”

(Richard can feel free to unclaim the story.)

So I just checked out those two classic papers. What really hit me was that the classic 1961 paper has 375 citations. Well that’s pretty good of course, but plenty of people these days clock up papers with more citations than that. Certainly wouldn’t guarantee you a Faculty position at a good university these days…

9 Responses to I am that young man

  1. I had the pleasure of hearing him lecture (together with Rich Kron and Malcolm Longair) at the 1993 Saas-Fee school. Interesting, especially from a historical perspective (“When I started out, computers were about 20 years old and usually female.”), but bitterness and contempt for the high-value camp was obvious. Surprisingly, his main motivation for “knowing” that H had to have a low value was that “grand unification” firmly predicts Omega=1 and thus the Einstein-de Sitter model (lambda was just ignored) which means that a low value of H is required to make the universe as old as globular clusters etc indicate that it is. I don’t know if he really thought observations indicate low H (he actually championed “42″ in one paper!) and this tended to make him believe in Rocky-Kolb-style cardboard inflation or vice versa. Probably a bit of both, in a vicious circle. He sort of reminded me of Bill Haley playing “Rock Around the Clock” even after Sergeant Pepper had appeared. 😐

    See also http://telescoper.wordpress.com/2010/11/15/rip-allan-sandage-1926-2010/#comment-11046

    for links to the stuff he lectured on at that school.

  2. telescoper says:

    Well that’s pretty good of course, but plenty of people these days clock up papers with more citations than that.

    There is a fundamental problem with the citation business, which is that people don’t get citations. Papers do. A single-author paper with 375 citations is pretty exceptional (although Guth 1981 is even more so), but most papers nowadays have many authors. Somebody please tell me why a paper with 375 citations but 9 authors elevates each and every one of the 9 authors to the level of someone like Sandage who achieved the same impact on his own?

    It’s true that “plenty of people clock up papers with more citations than that”, but much of the clocking up is simply multiple counting of the same paper!

    I suggest we adopt citation system which is like an extension of cricket scoring: Sandage’s 1961 paper is 375 for 1, which is clearly better than 375 for 9.

    • ian smail says:

      i agree – but it would also help if the papers had author-list ordering which reflected the author’s contribution (even if it was only in 2 or 3 crude bands).

      the move towards large consortium papers with a lead author (if that) and then an alphabetical list means its impossible to judge anyone’s contribution to anything, anymore. and it does make me think that the people who choose such a rule for their consortia are just using it as a way to cover up their lack of scientific contribution to the papers.

  3. andyxl says:

    Two things.

    One : if reading someone’s CV, I would expect them to highlight the number of first author papers / sole author papers / small group papers, and the number of citations for these. I think this is better than dividing by N. Every so often you should lead something.

    Two : it would be a big mistake however to discount that consortium work. The product of academic work is no longer just journal papers. People do very important work that just isn’t suitable for a journal paper – writing software, checking calibrations, planning observing strategy. etc. So maybe we ought to formalise these contributions, like our PP chums do, and boast about them in our CVs. In descending order of impressiveness : “I was PI of SPOGS”; “I chaired the Roadmap committee for SPOGS”; “I was calibration co-ordinator for the SPOGS pipeline”; “I made contributions to the SPOGS pipeline”; “I was a member of SPOGS”.

    Even the latter has a value – just much less than the others.

    I assume that Ian will understand this, but possibly, as a theorist, Telescoper will see all this as monkey work.

  4. telescoper says:


    I think you’re being a bit unfair. I don’t at all think of consortium contributions as monkey work. All I want to see is a more sensible approach to the interpretation of citation data. I agree with you that there are many things that can’t be measured using citations, and that includes much high-value work like that you describe. It’s a pity that so many people seem to think it all begins and ends with the citation count.

    On your first point, I understand what you say about first-author papers but, as Ian says, many go strictly alphabetical these days which makes the 1/N normalisation most appropriate. Some of us also ensure that our students and PDRAs are first authors as often as possible…

    When I have to look at publication lists I usually work out three h-indices based on (i) total citations, (ii) normalized citations and (iii) first-author papers only. In my experience, most people who score highly on (i) also score highly on the others. However, there is at least one astronomer with an h-index >90 based on (i) which falls to zero when you switch to (iii).

  5. andyxl says:

    Peter – sorry if I was a tad provocative. I just worry that the lack of recognition of technical contributions is a worse problem than its converse, the consortium freeloading problem.

    • telescoper says:

      I think the biggest problem is that we have an outmoded style of publishing and we expect to be able to measure everything by simply counting papers produced using it. The system clearly doesn’t work at all for, e.g., instrument builders.

  6. Michael Merrifield says:

    I don’t think this is a new problem: I remember Bill Press complaining about the issue more than twenty years ago, and suggesting we should do away with author lists, and replace them with credits as for a TV show or movie. Such a process might not allow a simple numerical score, but it would permit the reader to figure out who did most of the work, and might shame a few of the more egregious hangers-on into asking to have their names removed to avoid being listed amongst the “also featuring.”

    In fact, this was one of Bill’s milder suggestions: he also advocated that authors should score -1 in citation indices for self-citations, as an encouragement to recognize other people’s work rather than blowing their own trumpets, and not keep ploughing the same furrow indefinitely. Having refereed a paper by XXXX that included “see XXXX (1995a,b, 1996, 1997a,b,c, 1997a,b, 1999, 2000a,b, 2003, 2004a,b),” I have some sympathy for this point of view.

  7. Nick Cross says:

    The issue of credit for the technical side was brought up at the recent Astronomy Data Analysis and Software Systems (ADASS) conference in a more general discussion about how the conference proceedings should be published and whether a new refereed journal was needed for technical papers. Bob Mann raised this last issue and had tested the waters by asking many of the leading journals whether they would publish papers on the topics discussed at the previous conference. MNRAS would not publish any of the 6 papers they had selected to cover the range of topics discussed, basing their criteria for not publishing on the subject matter alone. Some of the others responded better and Bob had not contacted some journals such as PASP which publishes more of these types of paper. However, last year I managed to publish a more technical paper in MNRAS, so they will publish some.

    Generally it was thought that it was difficult to publish refereed technical papers on astronomical related subjects in the journals that astronomers read.

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