Why research papers have so many authors

ONE thing that determines how quickly a researcher climbs the academic ladder is his publication record. The quality of this clearly matters—but so does its quantity. A long list of papers attached to a job application tends to impress appointment committees, and the resulting pressure to churn out a steady stream of articles in peer-reviewed journals often leads to the splitting of results from a single study into several “minimum publishable units”, to the unnecessary duplication of studies and to the favouring of work that is scientifically trivial but easy to publish.

There is another way to pad publication lists: co-authoring. Say you write one paper a year. If you team up with a colleague doing similar work and write two half-papers instead, both parties end up with their names on twice as many papers, but with no increase in workload. Find a third researcher to join in and you can get your name on three papers a year. And so on.

To investigate the matter, The Economist reviewed data on more than 34m research papers published between 1996 and 2015 in peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings. These were drawn from Scopus, the world’s biggest catalogue of abstracts and citations of papers, which is owned by RELX Group, a publisher and information company.

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