The rise of mass authorship and fractional authorship: Do too many cooks spoil the broth?

The rise of mass authorship and fractional authorship: Do too many cooks spoil the broth?

The archetypal image of a researcher publishing study findings as a lone author is long passé. Research is now primarily a collaborative and often an interdisciplinary endeavor. Unsurprisingly, this shift is echoed in the patterns of scientific publications: the author list in many scientific fields has lengthened significantly. But the trend of multiple authorship has evolved into what is called ‘hyperauthorship’ or ‘mass authorship’ with some papers having thousands of authors. For instance, a physics paper authored by more than 5000 researchers at CERN, which provides a precise estimate of the size of the Higgs boson, set the record for the largest number of contributors to a paper; while a paper on the genetic make-up of a fruit fly was credited to 1,014 authors. The publishing of papers with thousands of authors, also referred to as ‘kilo-authorship,’ has sparked discussions in academic circles about the meaning of authorship and whether the trend of hyperauthorship is making the credibility and accountability of author contribution questionable.    

Hyperauthorship has been a norm in some scientific fields, such as high-energy physics and biomedicine, where collaborations in huge teams is common. However, a similar uptrend is being observed in other fields such as psychology and health policy. A study conducted by Dr. Andrew Plume and Dr. Daphne van Weijen found that over the past ten years, the number of authorships per author (2.31 in 2013) has increased while the number of single-author articles (0.56 in 2013) has declined. At the same time, the average number of authorships per article has increased from 3.5 to 4.15 authors from 2003 to 2013. As clearly indicated in the study, the increase in the number of authors per article and the relative decrease in unique authorship indicate the rise of ‘fractional authorship,’ which means more number of authors claiming credit for a single published work.

The shift in the publishing landscape toward fractional authorship and mass authorship has led some authors to have an exceptionally prolific record, with some researchers churning out an article every ten working days. Some believe that large author lists is an unscrupulous method adopted by some researchers to improve their citation record. Ernesto Priego, Lecturer in Library Science, City University London, says hyperauthorship “in addition to being impractical […] is also threatening the entire system by which academic work is rewarded.” Since a researcher’s career progression is primarily based on the publication and citation record, universities and funding bodies should be wary of researchers’ exact contribution to the papers on which they have been listed as authors.

What has led to this rising trend of hyperauthorship? Extreme competition due to the ‘publish or perish’ culture and international collaborations are deemed to be the primary reasons for the rise of mass authorship. Apart from this, the practice of senior scholars seeking ‘gift authorship’ from young researchers has also led to this phenomenon. As Zen Faulkes elucidates, “We’re seeing things that might have, at one point, just been a thank you at the end of the paper [become], hey, could you put my name on this paper as an author?” 

The changing trends in conducting research warrant the rethinking of the definition of an author. The widely accepted criteria for authorship, as defined by ICMJE, are that an author should have made substantial contributions to the study as well as to drafting the work, and should be able to identify all co-authors on a study and their contribution. In papers that have over a thousand authors, students who contributed in data analysis and so forth have also been added as authors to the paper. Therefore, Faulkes suggests giving up the term “authorship” and focusing on “credits” that describe with greater clarity the contribution individuals make.

Research collaborations are critical to scientific progress. However, institutions and funding bodies need to ensure that large-scale collaborations do not branch out into fractional authorship. Additionally, ethical bodies can play a pivotal role in bringing clarity to the definition of authorship by defining the roles of an author and a contributor, thus preserving research integrity. 

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