Physicists set a new record this year for number of co-authors: a 9-page report needed an extra 24 pages to list its 5,154 authors. That’s a mighty long way from science’s lone wolf origins!
Cast your eye down the contents of the first issue of the German journal, Der Naturforscher, in 1774, for example: nothing but sole authors. How did we get from there to first collaborating and sharing credit, and then the leap to hyperauthorship in the 2000s? And what does it mean for getting credit and taking responsibility?Read more here.
Having worked with co-authors, and also written papers on my own, there are certainly benefits and drawbacks either way. Anyone who has ever worked on group projects in school knows that some group members are helpful and some do little to nothing. The same is true in just about any group undertaking.
There are a variety of social psychological phenomena at play here, such as social loafing, which occurs when people exert less effort in a group than they would on their own. A related concept is diffusion of responsibility - we share responsibility with others, so that if there are more people around, we have less personal responsibility for something than we do on our own.
Groupthink can also occur, where groups actually consider less information, suppress controversial and dissenting views, and frequently make worse decisions than an individual on his/her own.
So why do we even bother working in teams at all?
In addition to co-authors becoming more and more common, and perhaps an expectation, research is becoming more complicated. With complication comes the need for multidisciplinary teams and skill-sets. Its becoming less and less likely that one person will have the necessary skills and knowledge to complete the pieces of a study, let alone for a single manuscript. As a result, collaboration is key.
In fact, groupthink is more likely to occur in a homogenous group. Diversity, not only in terms of personal characteristics like race and gender, but also knowledge and background, is incredibly important. Obviously, participants in a group also need to feel comfortable expressing dissenting opinions and critically evaluating information, something that is (usually) strongly encouraged in scientific undertaking.
Though co-authors are certainly becoming the norm, I think we can all agree that 5,154 authors is excessive. The thought of coordinating author forms for that many people gives me a headache!