Authorship: are the days of the lone research ranger numbered?

Data suggest that single authorship is continuing to decline across the world, but will it always have a place?

July 3, 2019
Lone ranger on horse
Source: Getty

A common refrain in modern research is the need to increase collaboration, whether that is internally within a university, between academics in different countries or reaching across disparate disciplines.

It has inevitably led to a growing amount of research being authored by more than one academic, and in some cases publications can list hundreds of scholars as co-creators. But does this mean that single authorship in research is dying out, and is this potentially a problem?

Looking at the data on the prevalence of single-author papers across all disciplines confirms its continuing decline since the beginning of the century. Across the world, single-author publications made up 21.4 per cent of articles, reviews and conference papers indexed in Elsevier’s Scopus database in 2001, a share that had almost halved by 2017 to 10.8 per cent.

However, the rate of this decline has been variable across different nations. While countries such as the UK and the US have generally followed the world trend, others already had a relatively low proportion of research produced by single authors.

The shrinking share of solo-authored papers

The share of single-author papers in China, Brazil and South Korea, for instance, was below 8 per cent in 2001. In China, this share has kept falling, to represent a mere 2.6 per cent in 2017. In Brazil, too, it has dropped, although not as rapidly, with 4.4 per cent of papers being by single authors in 2017. In South Korea, the proportion of single authors seems to have bottomed out at about 5 per cent.

Such variations can be seen more clearly by examining how nations have changed relative to the global average. A striking contrast is presented by Russia and Australia, which in 2001 had a similar share of overall research produced by single authors. By 2017, however, they were a long way apart, with Australia below the world figure, at 7.9 per cent, and Russia above, at 13.6 per cent.

So what are the potential drivers in such variation?

Vincent Larivière, professor of information science at the University of Montreal, said the disciplinary mix of research in each country was likely to be a “strong component”.

“We know that researchers in the social sciences and humanities are more likely to publish alone than [those] in the sciences,” he said, adding that countries such as China had a higher proportion of science papers indexed in bibliometric databases.

A flavour of the disciplinary variations can be seen in Scopus by looking at the global share of single-authored papers in different fields: in 2017, solo authors accounted for some 78 per cent of publications in history, compared with 28.1 per cent in economics and econometrics. In organic chemistry, the worldwide figure was 2.4 per cent.

Professor Larivière said the national variations could also be down to other factors, such as different cultures of collaboration, but without detailed analysis controlling for variations in each subject it would be difficult to know the extent of this.

However, he added that the overall global decline in single authorship may have been impacted by a shift towards crediting authors who might not have been named on papers in the past.

“I do believe that authorship criteria may also affect the trends, where those who have made more technical contributions will now be authors, while it was not the case before,” Professor Larivière said.

Giulio Marini, a research associate at the UCL Institute of Education, said the overall shift towards “bigger” science, the structure of funding systems and the knock-on effect of research assessment were also likely contributors to the decline of single authorship. This last factor arguably had led to “contrived co-authorship” – the practice of listing authors who have contributed little to a project, in some circumstances because of the need for academics to demonstrate productivity.

“All these reasons may explain why some people may frown [in] the wake of a single-authored publication. To some…it is a sort of wasted opportunity to establish connections and boost productivity,” he said.

One way to shore up single authorship might be to tackle the problem of contrived co-authorship by more accurately measuring research contributions in multi-authored papers. “Generally this normalisation, or ‘fractioning’, to account for actual productivity does not exist in many national systems,” Dr Marini said.

However, without such changes, could we see single-authored papers disappear entirely in some disciplines? And might there be sound reasons for still encouraging researchers to produce them?

Jos Barlow, professor of conservation science at Lancaster University, and co-author of a 2017 editorial on the topic in the Journal of Applied Ecology, said single-author papers should “be neither encouraged nor discouraged – the science should be judged on its quality, irrespective of who the authors are, where they are from, or how many there are”.

However, he added, in a “world where science is increasingly multidisciplinary, with each paper building on a wide range of knowledge, skills and techniques, then it is harder for single authors to compete”.

That said, data presented in the editorial suggested that the rate of decline in single-author papers in applied ecology had slowed over the years as the proportion got closer to zero. Does this imply that there will always be some place for single authorship, no matter the discipline?

Professor Larivière pointed out that “single authorship remains present, even in the most collaborative disciplines”, and for solid reasons, which suggests that we should not write it off entirely just yet.

“Theoretical contributions, for instance, remain more often the results of single individuals, and unless scientists stop theorising, there will always be single-authored papers,” he said.


Print headline: Last ride of research’s lone rangers?

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (4)

As someone in Australia, the prevailing culture here is that collaboration makes it more likely for the grant covering work to be funded. Therefore, the push toward more collaborative studies is driven by the funding environment. I find that in my own studies it does help to have different perspectives - usually, my co-authors find things in data that I don't immediately see because their lens is shifted with respect to my own.
At the start of my career I was named on papers to which I had (looking back) contributed little, but it taught me a great deal about doing research. Now I'm paying that back by inviting others to join me. Seems only fair.
I commented on a prior article related to this and repost my commentary here as you seem to be missing one of the main points. The cost of co-authorship is now very low, hence one can add co-authors even if their contribution is relatively small. In the past it was very costly to co-author work unless you were co-located. So while some of this discussion relates to institutional differences across fields and geographies it fails to explain the longer term trend, which I would argue is almost all due to technology. Here is the comment on hypercompetition. One need think about the difference between productivity and competition. The desire to be noticed may be more constant the influence of productivity. For example, I wrote my first published paper in the 1980s before email. I wrote it with a colleague in Germany and all of our edits and correspondence had to travel by mail. As international phone calls were restricted by my university, even that was not a real option. It took several months to revise the paper and several months to get it reviewed and several months to get it revised again for publication. This year, I wrote a paper with four authors on three continents in four different cities. On any given day, we revised the paper several times, did additional analyses and had the paper in constant movement as we could work across time zones. Like a DHL package constantly moving the paper evolved quickly. Imagine if it was the 1980s again? First, I would not have 4 co-authors as this would just increase the time and cost of any effort. Second, the revisions would not iterate quickly but in large blocks. Finally, any revisions even after review would be slowed to a crawl. If you look at the role of editor, again this has changed. I was an Associate Editor of a major journal before the switch to online systems and an Associate Editor and Editor of another after the switch. Again, it was night and day. Requests to review were sent via letters along with physical copies of the manuscripts. Reviews were typed, sent back, copied and where there was identifying information "wited out". The process was slow and time consuming. Now a paper comes in, can be desk reviewed in a few hours, and out for review almost immediately. Similarly, the use of databases allows expansion of citations and the number of available journals. Before the internet came into use, the only journals you had in your office were the "major" ones as having more was expensive. Collecting more references was a slog in the library. Now there is no reason to bother. When I moved jobs, I literally left 20 years of journals sitting in my old office. When they asked what to do with them, I said I didn't care as I didn't need them. Now you can read journals you would most likely never open or even knew existed. Hence, what you have is a massive productivity shock. This leads to more papers being accessible, hence more papers being cited. It leads to a reduction in the cost of co-authoring, hence you now have more co-authors. This leads to more interaction and hopefully better ideas from that interaction. Overall, more productive academics working with other more productive academics leads to more outputs. Hence, the argument that “nothing makes sense in the world of academic publishing” is wrong and not supported by even a causal examination of the reality. It makes a lot of sense. And the fact that there are more papers being produced by more authors is good for society. Consumers want more choice in products. The public is made better off with more contestable science. Sure academics might feel that they are under pressure, but the competition for the predominance of ideas and faster and cheaper discovery is good. Indeed, it is very good.
"At the start of my career I was named on papers to which I had (looking back) contributed little, but it taught me a great deal about doing research. Now I'm paying that back by inviting others to join me. Seems only fair." Fair to whom? Is it fair to the researchers who only put their names on papers in which they had made "substantial" contributions and thus may have fewer publications than you? (