Friday, February 7, 2014

Author! Author!

As journals proliferate, so do authors.

New journals are appearing almost every day. Does anyone read them? Journals keep popping up because of the need for faculty to publish. Another reason could be that publishers, particularly those who charge authors fees for publishing, are in the business of making money.

Authoring journal articles is not only enhancing to one's CV (the old "publish or perish" cliché), it is required by Residency Review Committees as evidence of "scholarly activity" in training programs. Maybe it's good for attracting referrals too.

Without too much difficulty, I have collected some interesting information about the number of authors per paper in several specialties.

First noted in 1993 by a paper in Acta Radiologica and a letter in the BMJ, the number of authors per paper has risen dramatically over the years.

A study of 12 radiology journals found the number of authors per paper doubled from 2.2 in 1966 to 4.4 in 1991. 

A review of Neurosurgery and the Journal of Neurosurgery spanned 50 years. the average went from 1.8 authors per article in 1945 to 4.6 authors in 1995.

Of note, the above two articles were each written by a single author.

Three psychiatrists from Dartmouth analyzed original scientific articles in four of the most prestigious journals in the United States—Archives of Internal Medicine, Annals of Internal Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, and the New England Journal of Medicine—from 1980 to 2000. They found that the mean number of authors per paper increased from 4.5 to 6.9.

The same is true for two plastic surgery journals, which saw the average number of authors go from 1.4 to 4.0 and 1.7 to 4.2 in the 50 years from 1955 to 2005. The number of single-author papers went from 78% to 3% in one journal and 51% to 8% another.

In orthopedics, a review of the American and British versions of the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery for 60 years from 1949 to 2009 showed an increase of authors per paper from 1.6 to 5.1.

An impressive  rise in the number of authors took place in two leading thoracic surgery journals. For the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery the increase was 1.4  in 1936 to 7.5 2006 and for Annals of Thoracic Surgery it was 3.1 in 1966 to 6.8 in 2006.

Where will it end?

As far as I know, the current leader in the race for the paper with the most authors is "Observation of a new particle in the search for the Standard Model Higgs boson with the ATLAS detector at the LHC" in a journal called "Physics Letters B" with 3171. The list of authors takes up 9 full pages.


Anonymous said...

Author-number inflation is at least partly driven by tit for tat mentality: you put me on your paper, I put you on mine. We all know of papers, where coauthors did not even bother to read papers with their name on it.
This trend will continue as long as most accepted citation metrics keep not penalizing for author number.
For example, Google Scholar does not care whether you are a solitary author, lead author, or just one of 98 coauthors - all papers with your name on it count equally toward your citation count.

Anonymous said...

Is it not possible that new journals are appearing every day because the scientific community is simply tired of the "establishment" and the fake or flawed peer review that takes place in so-called impact factor journals, especially of the top four science publishers? Many would say that diversity is important for survival. 10 years ago, this would have been shot down as total nonsense in science publishing. Nowadays, with such high volatility, alternatives might not be such a bad idea.

Josh Nicholson said...

37,000 on a paper:

Skeptical Scalpel said...

Anon 1, I agree it's a "tit-for-tat" mentality at least in part.

Anon 2, you might be right, but what makes you think the peer review is any better in the newer journals? It might be worse.

Josh, very interesting. I followed the link. I'm not sure it really is the winner because the 37,000 co-authors are not named anywhere (at least that I could find). Thanks for the tip though. I'll leave it to the readers to decide.

Anonymous said...

I note you did not reference "The Effects of Peanut Butter on the Rotation of the Earth"
(I believe this was originally published in 1993 but is now Copyright 2003 Annals of Improbable Research). I believe this citation help reinforces your point.
Best Regards,

Skeptical Scalpel said...

Thanks for the funny link.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I'm one of the 37,000! In this paper the researchers crowdsourced the determination of spatial structures for a bunch of proteins. They created a downloadable game where you had to tweak a protein and improve a format score. The idea was that maybe humans could do it better than the machines that try millions of tweaks by brute force. The paper was published in Nature and everyone who played got "authorship" (ie, authors are "A, B, C and the 37,000+ people who played the game")

As I did play the game (it was quite fun) and even got the best structure for one of the proteins, I guess I'm still ahead of some tit-for-tat "authors" out there.

Skeptical Scalpel said...

Thank you for sharing your story. I guess you are ahead since you actually did make a meaningful contribution to the paper.

I confess I'm a bit conflicted though. Does being one of 37,000 people who played the game really elevate one to the status of an author?

Anonymous said...

The game players didn't get de jure authorship, but just a collective mention in the authorship line and in an acknowledgement in the body of the paper.

Skeptical Scalpel said...

Yes. I don't think they can really be considered authors even if they contributed more than many "authors" of other papers.

Anonymous said...

I can't speak for surgical publications as I come from biochemistry/neurobiology basic research.
I believe that part of the relative explosion of authors that has come about in the past few years is the need for wide coverage of a topic. It is no longer enough to say "we bred some mice with a mutation in gene X and we saw Y." Now, journals want the mouse results to be confirmed in a second model and structural hypotheses to be backed up by electron microscopy. If you're part of a smaller lab, you need to outsource the additional models and techniques; this outsourcing greatly increases the number of authors.
The NIH also seems to be much more interested in collaborative grants at the moment, and longer author lists demonstrates one's ability to "play well with others" so to speak.

Skeptical Scalpel said...

Anon, you may be right about your field. I still think in medicine it's about the proliferation of journals and the pressure on academic physicians to publish.

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