Phone book et al: one paper, 45 references, 144 authors

CV-boosting encourages astronomically large lists of contributors, says ethicist. Matthew Reisz writes

April 8, 2010

Articles can be written by a single author, a team of two or three, perhaps even half a dozen - but what about a gross?

When Gavin Fairbairn, professor of ethics and language at Leeds Metropolitan University, came across an article titled "The Sloan Digital Sky Survey: Technical summary" in The Astronomical Journal, in many ways it seemed "pretty ordinary".

It was 5,230 words long, including the text of its 39 footnotes, and had 45 references.

Yet it was also an article with "more authors than any other publication I have ever come across in any of the areas in which I have worked", Professor Fairbairn said.

A total of 144 authors were listed - equating to a mean contribution of 36.3 words each.

Professor Fairbairn added: "No doubt all those named contributed to the research. However, I find it difficult to understand how 144 individuals, however close their working relationship, could be involved in writing it.

"I find it even more difficult to imagine how any assessment at all could be made of their contribution when it comes to awarding academic brownie points."

The problem is not new. In 1996, John Hudson, professor of economics at the University of Bath, produced a paper titled "Trends in multi-authored papers in economics".

He noted that while "the economist of the early postwar years was typically a solitary worker ... the economists of today are much more inclined to hunt in packs".

Yet Professor Hudson warned that collaboration, as well as offering certain advantages, often resulted in extra costs and led to the kind of compromise that discouraged risk-taking and produced "a patchwork of text lacking a direction or theme".

Increasingly large groups of writers could lead to "a growth in impenetrable prose and confused arguments", he wrote, adding that such dangers would remain endemic to academic life as long as "professional rewards tend to favour a lengthy curriculum vitae".

The army of astronomers behind the paper in The Astronomical Journal raised the same issue in a more acute form.

Professor Fairbairn said: "Careers depend on number of publications. If you have large numbers of authors, this can improve their academic record in publications. It looks terribly impressive if a professor has published 235 refereed articles, but one doesn't know how much he or she has been involved in them."

As an ethicist, Professor Fairbairn works in a field where articles tend to be written by single authors or by teams of two or three.

Where competition for internal promotions cuts across disciplines, he said, there were dangers in using publication records as a major criterion.

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