I keep coming across commentary lamenting the increase in the number of authors on scientific papers (or patents), such as by Philip J. Wyatt in Physics Today and related posts in the blogosphere, e.g. a very recent one by UNC Chapel Hill marine ecologist John Bruno on Seamonster. This intriguing development seems diametrically opposed to the calls for crowd-sourced science put forward by people like Michael Nielsen. The conservative single-author advocates think that more and more authors reflect an erosion of individual creativity, while the Science 2.0 crowd is convinced that more people working on a problem delivers faster, better, and more diverse science.
So which aspect is more important: the noble aspiration to individual scientific excellence or the more modern result-driven push for large-scale collaboration?
My opinion is that you can have both things and that this important question has very little to do with actual authorship. Let’s talk about authorship first. What I certainly support is that automatic authorship such as that often demanded by organizational heads with 50+ published papers per year should be banned. What I don’t support are the stringent guidelines suggested by some journals. Take for example the oft-cited rules by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors:
Authorship credit should be based on 1) substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; 2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and 3) final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet conditions 1, 2, and 3.
Let’s apply those rules to a hypothetical scenario: Prof A invited a long-term collaborator, researcher B. This visitor has an original idea for an experiment which can be implemented with a new setup in A’s lab. This setup has been assembled over the past 4 years by PhD student C, who completed his work but unfortunately never got to do any actual science before he had to write up his thesis. The experiment will this be carried out by promising new PhD student D, who was introduced to the apparatus by C. Since taking the data is time-consuming, and D is new to research, the data will be analyzed by PhD student E, a real Matlab genius. For good measure, throw in postdoc F who spends most of his time teaching, planning and supervising other projects, writing grants etc. F will write the paper while data is being collected and analyzed.
According to the ICMJE guidelines, the resulting paper will have zero authors. Because none of our protagonists, starting with the researcher who had the idea, to the grunt who built the experiment, all the way to our Professor without whom none of the others would even have been there, meets the suggested criteria for scientific authorship.
I offer a much simpler criterium:
If the manuscript didn’t exist at this time, in this form, without person X—even if X could have been replaced by any other similarly qualified person, then person X should be an author.
Just as the IMCJE criteria above, my suggestion offers room for interpretation. Obviously, even I don’t think that authorship should extend all the way to Adam and Eve. But it does extend to the guy who owns the lab, created that particular line of research, hired the involved people, and financed the experiments. And it very certainly includes the researcher(s) who provided the initial idea. Because an idea of sufficient quality, i.e. somewhat more specific than ‘you should look into curing cancer’, is worth more than data that could probably have been taken in a dozen other labs. (So take that, John Bruno, unless your idea was entirely obvious, you should definitely have been an author of Brian Helmuth’s Science paper). It also obviously includes the guy who built the experiment. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon in experimental science that whole PhDs are spent on setting up an experiment from scratch with no immediate outcome while some luckster simply walked in a few years later and started milking the setup for results. In this case our student would do well to arrange an agreement with the lab owner on how many papers they can get out of their work.
The best justification for my authorship criterium is exemplified by large scientific collaborations. Publications by CERN or LIGO routinely sport hundreds of authors none of whom would qualify for individual authorship according to some official guidelines. No one in his right mind would however suggest that a PhD degree in experimental science is worth less when obtained while contributing to the most exciting scientific endeavors undertaken by humankind. In this context, suggestions (see the comments on Wyatt’s Physics Today article) of a per-author normalization of scientific indicators like h-factors are laughable. While those huge projects are certainly extreme cases, the principle is scalable: if a project benefits from more participants, then by all means, they should all be there, and they should probably all be authors.
But back to the initial quandary of whether multi-author papers erode individual creativity. Will the fact that our paper has 6 authors instead of 1 have that effect? No it won’t. Most of the creative achievement was contained in the initial idea, some in the experimental design, and the question of authorship won’t change that. Should we have left every aspect of the experiment to our new guy D in the spirit of a wholesome scientific training? Maybe, but that means it would have taken much longer to complete the research which cannot be in the best interest of science or the taxpayer. With good supervision, student D can easily learn the components they missed out on in the time saved. It would furthermore be silly to underestimate the learning effect of sharing the process of scientific research with more experienced colleagues. Do we really want to return to yesteryear when researchers were supposed to do everything on their own, isolated from the environment? I don’t think so. And finally, if the opportunity really arises, any aspiring academic will cherish publishing a single-author paper anyway,
The only reasonable argument I see against increasingly multi-author papers is that hiring committees will have a harder job separating truly creative minds from mere data analyzers. This problem is already mitigated by author contribution statements, as nowadays requested by major journals such as Nature and Science. It would certainly be welcome if those declarations were standardized and taken up by more journals. Beyond that, if two or three job references and an extensive interview still isn’t enough for our struggling committee, then maybe the data analyzer is actually more creative than we had thought.
In summary, anyone who contributed to scientific research should be considered as an author, no matter whether their contribution was restricted to “just” data taking or any other singular aspect of the research. We will still have scientifically brilliant individuals, probably more so because of the far broader opportunities offered through larger collaborations, and if you find it harder to identify those individuals, maybe it’s your fault.