How many authors makes a good paper?

A recent Nature article, repeated in a Nautilus blog post, talks about author accountability. The article suggests that at least one author per collaborative group signs a statement with reference to Nature's publication policies. This policy would certainly help avoid honorary authorship, but it can be difficult to enforce in large research projects.

I would like to make another suggestion. The quality of a research paper should not only be judged by the number of citations it receives (which improves the Hirsch number of the author), but also by the number of authors. There are of course research projects that are only possible with large numbers of collaborators, but many biomedical papers probably only need 2-4 authors, but rather have 5-8 authors.

One good rule of thumb is a number of papers published per year. If that number is too high (e.g. more than 10), than the author has probably not contributed significantly to all those papers. Department heads often fall into this category. These rules can easily be applied when reviewing job or grant applications.

One of the most famous examples for authorship not perused is the 1922 CMAJ paper about the action of pancreatic extracts on blood sugar in diabetics. John MacLeod was not a coauthor, but rather thanked in the acknowledgements. As head of the department he provided mainly logistical support. He still went on to win the Nobel Prize for the discovery of insulin the following year.

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3 Responses to How many authors makes a good paper?

  1. Maxine Clarke says:

    One aspect is the consortium, a form of authorship that has existed for a long time (eg high-energy physics) but has become increasingly prevalent across all disciplines as “science becomes bigger” and more collaborative.
    We discussed this on Nautilus back in August in a “guest post by Robin Rose”: There are some good comments to the post from authors of genome multi-author collaboarations, explaining their roles, in which you might be interested?

  2. Martin Fenner says:

    thanks a lot for directing me to the Nautilus discussion. I guess that the rules are different for hyperauthorship. And it appears that researchers in high-energy physics have accepted this as a fact whereas biomedical researchers are still struggling.
    But how many papers can a scientist publish a year? I become suspicious if that number is too high, but I don’t know if the cutoff is 5, 10, 20 or 50 papers.

  3. Maxine Clarke says:

    You are welcome, glad you enjoyed it.
    Some scientists don’t publish very much — only when they have something to report ;-). Earth Sciences is an example of a discipline where a paper is a paper, and people don’t publish that often. That’s why the impact factor of journals in that discipline is not as high as cell/molec bio journals.
    Cell/molec biologists, on the other hand, seem to have a prodigious output and a plethora of journals to accommodate it.
    Knowing how much effort goes into writing a paper (not least doing the work for it), I think that if you are the main author on a paper, two a year would be quite hard to keep up for very many years. But I suppose if you are part of a big collaboration and have a specific “ring-fenced” role, you could co-author many more than that.