The Sassy Scientist – Co-author Craziness

The Sassy Scientist – Co-author Craziness

Agata struggles with the many and diverse opinions thrown at her whilst endeavoring to finish a paper:

What is the perfect number of co-authors for a paper?

Dear Agata,

As few as possible. Limit yourself to the people you really cannot avoid. Such as those collaborators that have actually provided a significant contribution to the body of work presented in a manuscript. For every researcher this definition of significant appears to be different though. Don’t you enjoy those papers with twenty names, where a single subject should be constituted by about half as many sub-subjects. It is very hard to actually identify every, single sub-subject that could potentially be ascribed to one of the co-authors? I oftentimes wonder whether it is even possible to properly write such a paper. Can you really limit yourself to a couple of pages with that many bona fide contributions? Or should some names not appear in the author list when following the letter of the law?

One of the (numerous) problems constitutes the prosperity of data acquisition. Nowadays more and more advanced technologies and multi-step processes are applied. Result; many people are needed to actually acquire and produce the data. But you need a paper to get citations. Sure, nowadays there are databases where your data can be stored, published and doi’ed. So you can get those citations. Every scientist wants the interpretation of the data though. Interpretation is everything, which means that a pure data-based database may be good for the acquisitioners, but not for the interpreters. How do you even know that some new data is out there in a database when there is no paper citing it? Result; the acquisitioners join forces with the interpreters and multi-co-author papers are born. Individual contributions fade away into the melting pot.

Generally speaking and unsurprisingly, we can say that the time of single author papers is in the past. Sure, every once and again you come across one. You come across multi-co-author ones more (and more) often though. Is this inherently wrong? Definitely not. Does it pose an opportunity for fraudulent authorship, i.e., are there names on the list who didn’t contribute significantly to the manuscript? Definitely. Is there a solution? I haven’t got it. Luckily (some) scientific journals provide a first step towards more transparency by encouraging and/or even forcing the elucidation of the individual co-author contributions. Do you want to make it easy for yourself? Limit the list of potential co-authors to the unavoidable few.

Yours truly,

The Sassy Scientist

PS: This post was written by my lonesome. The solitude of a sassy scientist …

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I am currently employed at a first tier research institute where I am continuously working with the greatest minds to further our understanding of the solid Earth system. Whether it is mantle or lithosphere structure and dynamics, solid Earth rheology parameters, earthquake processes, integrating observations with model predictions or inversions: you have read a paper of mine. Even if you are working on a topic I haven’t mentioned here, I still know everything about it. Do you have any problems in your research career? I have already experienced them. Do you struggle with your work-life balance? Been there, done that. Nowadays, I have only one hobby: helping you out by answering the most poignant questions in geodynamics, research and life. I am waiting for you right here. Get inspired.

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