Dr Robin Rose writes: Recently, the scientific community was presented with a paper containing the names of no fewer than 21 authors in Nature. The race for recognition in certain areas of study appears to have many scientists battling for authorships on as many papers as will accept them. Any number of journals seem to find this acceptable. Thinking back through my long career in science I cannot recall ever seeing an article or “letter,” in this case, with so many authors: 1/21 would suggest an average 4.76% contribution, with some contributing more and some less (!). While collaboration is often praiseworthy, I found myself asking more than a few questions:
(1) How does a paper with so many authors actually get written, accepted for review, and then revised? What does author mean in such a case?
(2) How does such a paper ‘count’ in terms of value in academic promotion and tenure? Did 20+ people have the same idea at the same time?
(3) What level of credit does each author take when such a paper is part of a resumé or when citation statistics are considered?
(4) After the first three to five authors, how is the contribution of the rest gauged?
(5) Does the author order have some significance when there are 20+?
(6) Is research more credible with 20+ authors? Should journals allow for 30+ authors?
(7) Are 20+ authors meant as some sort of statement, whether scientific, political or scientifically political?
(8) Were authors added as a way to strengthen the conclusions, but also implying that a few did most of the work, more did a bit of the work, and the rest did very little?
(9) Are the authors part of a collective group? Why not use the group name as the author?
(10) Are we witnessing “author inflation?”
Such questions are important for scientists, journal editors, and their supervisors to sort out. Maybe papers with high author counts are intended to display some harmony that exists in the international academic and research community. Maybe we need to stop using the vague “et al” and go to “first author name plus 20” (the specific number of co-authors) so as to better clarify multiple contributions. There may be more issues, questions, and possibilities but I’ll leave those to countless other authors.
Dr Robin Rose, Research Cooperative College of Forestry, Oregon State University.
Maxine Clarke, on behalf of the Nature journals, adds: we welcome responses (in the comments section below) to Dr Rose’s points. Our authorship policies do not specify a particular order or maximum number of authors, but we do strongly encourage authors to include a statement in the end notes to specify the actual contribution of each coauthor to the completed work.