Demise of the Lone Author

In reading a recent article on author contributions, I remembered an essay I had been meaning to set out for reflection in case it had been missed due to the timing of its publication (Dec 20, 2007). This would be Mott Greene’s essay in Nature entitled The Demise of the Lone Author.

Greene notes that “From the late 1600s until about 1920, the rule was one author per paper,” which ensured clarity regarding who received credit for which scientific advance … which in turn is important to research sponsors, promotion & tenure committees, search committees, potential trainees, and so forth. Greene’s concern with the proliferation of authors (reaching the 100s when sequences are published) is that few journals include notes about how each author contributed to the research and the article itself. With today’s cattle call authorships, it is hard to give serious weight to the contributions of those listed after the first author (or the first two when an asterisk emphasizes their equal contributions).

Greene turns to Lotka’s Law (Alfred Lotka, 1926) for mathematical relief, describing it as:

a rough ‘inverse-square law of scientific productivity’. For every 100 authors who each produce a scientific paper in a given period, there will be 25 authors who produce two, 11 who produce three, and one author who produces ten or more.

Thus, the more citations you have, the more prominent and reputable a scientist you are – and more worthy of support.

Then Greene, acknowledging modern trends, muddies the purity of mathematics with a law from the dismal science:

Goodhart’s law, from the economist Charles Goodhart: “Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” Once citation counting became established as a means to determine prominence, players began to ‘game the system’ based on their knowledge of that standard, and the metric ceased to have a close relation to the outcome it was designed to measure. Such attempts led to the somewhat occult business of impact factors, impact journals, author rank within a paper, and other such countermeasures to re-establish the utility of citation counting.

An occult business indeed. However, Greene is concerned that even Lotka’s law combined with black magic to prevent “author gaming” cannot withstand the proliferation of papers with 100 or more authors. He envisions a sort of cinematic rolling of the credits to accommodate the casts of thousands and perhaps even institutionally imposed restrictions on the number of authors.

However, way back at the start of his essay, Greene suggested that those intrepid scientists who could legitimately conduct experiments independently and pull off a sole-author paper would be discouraged (or prevented) from doing so by funding agencies and home institutions in their push for collaborative multidisciplinary teams. This thought was picked up the following March when Kevin Hallock penned a letter in response to suggest that:

funding agencies and institutions should also encourage single-author papers. The effort and initiative required to publish alone suggests an independent and tenacious scientist — both highly desirable qualities in any researcher.

If the ICMJE authorship rules were strictly enforced, many members of this species might well enter the literature as sole authors. Lone authors. Armies of one. But perhaps that would be interpreted as not being collegial or collaborative rather than as being independent and tenacious.



  1. BB said

    1) Lab assistants, technicians, grad students, post-docs would never publish if we would go back to the olden ways. That’s fine as long as careers don’t suffer as a result.

    2) On my yearly evals, it’s not enough to have had x number of papers in a given year, no, I must be senior or corresponding author for the papers to count towards fulfillment of my goals (!). I suspect I am not alone.

    Greene acknowledges that modern science no longer supports the lone author model, “Collaboration in multidisciplinary research is now universal as well as essential,” but his interest in coming up with meaningful and valid measures of author contribution could ultimately allow your willingness to collaborate with colleagues and give up first/corresponding authorship to “count” at evaluation time. – writedit

  2. PhysioProf said

    Wistful longing for the days of the lone author is a total waste of fucking time. The structure of the scientific enterprise precludes this completely in the case of experimental research.

    What is important is to figure out a way to correctly assign credit to contributors in interdisciplinary highly collaborative projects, as the existing system–first and last/corresponding author get almost all the credit–unduly discourages those projects.

  3. writedit said

    Perhaps quantifying contributions by category, as examined in the post above by the Croatian editors, could eventually be used to permit electronic sorting of author lists according to who did most of what task. In an electronic age of publishing and citation, why do author lists need to be static? A corresponding author could be listed for informational purposes, such as the Contact PI on NIH awards using the multiple PI option, with the default author listing presented alphabetically as a universal nonranking practice. Well, a fantasy until logistical issues could be solved, especially in terms of minimizing burden (e.g., to sort lists by contribution) on readers/reviewers/search-P&T committee members and avoiding the eventual gaming of the system. Perhaps Fred & Bruce have suggestions along this line derived from work on their bibliographic ontology project.

  4. […] – bookmarked by 2 members originally found by evisall on 2008-12-11 Demise of the Lone Author – bookmarked by 2 members […]

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