Thursday, August 13, 2015

Authors breeding like rabbits

The Wall Street Journal points to another problem with the current system of academic publishing with an article entitled How Many Scientists Does It Take to Write a Paper? Apparently, Thousands:
In less than a decade, Dr. Aad, who lives in Marseilles, France, has appeared as the lead author on 458 scientific papers. Nobody knows just how many scientists it may take to screw in a light bulb, but it took 5,154 researchers to write one physics paper earlier this year—likely a record—and Dr. Aad led the list.

His scientific renown is a tribute to alphabetical order.
The article includes this amazing graph from Thompson-Reusters, showing the spectacular rise in papers with enough authors that their names had to reflect alphabetical order rather than their contribution to the research. And the problem is spreading:
“The challenges are quite substantial,” said Marica McNutt, editor in chief of the journal Science. “The average number of authors even on a typical paper has doubled.”
Of course, it is true that in some fields doing any significant research requires a large team, and that some means of assigning credit to team members is necessary. But doing so by adding their names to an alphabetized list of authors on the paper describing the results has become an ineffective way of doing the job. If each author gets 1/5154 of the credit for a good paper it is hardly worth having compared to the whole credit for a single-author bad paper. If each of the 5154 authors gets full credit, the paper generates 5145 times as much credit as it is due.  And if the list is alphabetized but is treated as reflecting contribution, Dr. Aad is a big winner.

How long before the first paper is published with more authors than words?


  1. According to your last sentence, 'How long before the first paper is published with more authors than words?', probably you know this variation in a xkcd comic strip: 'The word "sustainable" is unsustainable':

  2. Back in 2013 Izabella Kaminska had a fascinating post in FT Alphaville's Gross Domestic Collaboration series entitled Non-monetary effects of research evolution pointing to a paper by Ajay Agrawal, John McHale and Alexander Oettl entitled Collaboration, Stars, and the Changing Organization of Science:

    "We report a puzzling pair of facts concerning the organization of science. The concentration of research output is declining at the department level but increasing at the individual level. For example, in evolutionary biology, over the period 1980 to 2000, the fraction of citation-weighted publications produced by the top 20% of departments falls from approximately 75% to 60% but over the same period rises for the top 20% of individual scientists from 70% to 80%.

    We speculate that this may be due to changing patterns of collaboration, perhaps caused by the rising burden of knowledge and the falling cost of communication, both of which increase the returns to collaboration. Indeed, we report evidence that the propensity to collaborate is rising over time."