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Are solo authors less cited?

Daniel Lemire asks this question when observing a fallacy voiced in an editorial:

…..only a small fraction of the top 100 papers ranked by the number of citations (17 of 100) were published by single authors…..a published paper resulting from collaborative work has a higher chance of attracting more citations.

You can discuss the fallacy if you want, but I am much more interested in the next question that Daniel asks – are solo authors and groups of authors inherently attracted to different kinds of problems, or if solo vs. group dynamics make some projects more conducive for solo work and others for group collaboration:

But the implication is that solo authors are less interesting. Instead, I believe that solo authors probably work on different problems. (Hint: This could be the subject of a study of its own!)

Why?

Because of something I call problem inertia. For collaboration to occur, several people must come together and agree to a joint project. Sometimes money is required to pay the assistants or the students. All of these factor means that small problems or risky problems will be ignored in favor of safe bets. To put it bluntly, Microsoft will not sell PHP plugins! Hence, statistically, teams must be deliberate and careful. Also, fewer problems can be visited: even if the selected problem is a bad one, changing the topic in mid-course might be too expensive.

An autonomous author can afford to take more risks. Even more so if he has a permanent position. This may explain why Peter Turney seems to believe that researchers lack ambition. They may simply be rational: if it takes you three weeks to even get started on a project, you cannot afford many false starts!

And he than quotes Seth Roberts:

One reason my self-experimentation was effective was it didn’t depend on grants. No matter what I found, no matter how strange or upsetting or impossible or weird the results might be, I could publish them and continue to investigate them.

So, what I think he means is that groups jump on bandwagons, and bandwagoners are more common, thus bandwagoners will cite other bandwagoners more. Solo authors can do weird stuff and only very few other people will work on the same stuff, or similar enough stuff to warrant a citation.

If thousands are studying process X in rats, they will tend to cite each other and easily get grants for collaborative work. They have little incentive to cite your work on that same process X that you study in the Platypus, and nobody else in the world studies it in the Platypus so there’s not a large group (or anyone) out there to cite your stuff. But if you find something really revolutionary in Platypus that cannot be discovered in the rat – then your high risk resulted in a huge payoff (not to mention you will get lots of invitations to give talks at meetings as the organizers will like to have someone ‘weird’ – “that Platypus guy, snicker” – attract their audience).

But for the progress of science, both types of research need to be done. And the lack of citations for risky single-author work should not be used as a measure of quality of that work or as impediment to career advances.

Agree or disagree?

Also, a discussion of this happened on FriendFeed.

Comments

  1. #1 Bob O'H
    March 15, 2009

    Isn’t it obvious that there are some things a solo author can’t do, like sequence a genome? They’re inevitably limited to smaller projects. They’re also unlikely to be students or post-docs, as the PI would usually want their name on the paper too.

    I guess it would be nice to see some hard data on the types of things single and multiple authors publish before coming to any firm conclusions. It’s easy to speculate – in fact, you can do it solo!

  2. #2 Coturnix
    March 15, 2009

    Absolutely right. But there are also different traditions in different areas. An ecology grad student is much more likely to get a single-author paper than a molecular biology student even if the scope and size and complexity of the project is equivalent because that is the part of the ecology culture where PIs are likely to stay out of authorship in order to give their students greater recognition as independent researchers. Does this strategy backfire in ecology as the papers get cited less?

  3. #3 chezjake
    March 15, 2009

    Before even discussing the fallacy that Sylvie brought up, what percentage of all published papers are by single authors? Without knowing that, all this other stuff is irrelevant.

  4. #4 Markk
    March 15, 2009

    I’m with ChezJake! I haven’t seen any evidence that percentage wise, single authors are cited less. It may be true but nothing anybody said in that editorial demonstrates any differently.

  5. #5 EvolEcol Guy
    March 16, 2009

    The original article is really strange. The author simply looks at the 100 most cited articles and concludes 17/100 are single authors and therefore collaborative research is more productive. Let’s put the glaring statistical issues with this analysis aside (annoying as that might be). The problem with citation is that papers get highly cited for reasons that have only marginal effects on solving a problem. For example, one reason that a paper might be highly cited is that it outlines a problem that needs to be addressed or reviews the existing literature –neither publication is necessary for direct problem-solving. However, both types of publications could bias the results if these types of publications tend to be inter-disciplinary or collaborative.

    In response to Bob O’H: Yes, single individuals are limited but so are collaborative efforts. Collaborations are limited by the problem and tend to be focused at the intersection between disciplines (assuming collaborations form between specialists from multiple disciplines)which could prevent fruitful research along disciplinary lines. I have to agree that both types of research are necessary.