Nautilus, Nature‘s blog for authors, has a guest post by Robin Rose on long author lists, entitled “What’s an author?”. The post is representative of a certain brand of curmudgeonliness mixed with a dash of either ignorance or naivete. Rose has seen author list with more than 20 authors, and he’s confused. Did each author contribute equally? How could the manuscript possibly have gotten written? How do you evaluate each author’s contribution? Should we cite these long author publications differently? These are all questions running through Dr. Rose’s mind, and he has bothered to share them with the world.
What Rose fails to realize, however, is that different fields of research collect and analyze data in different ways, and this gets represented in how researchers publish their results. As a member of a field that produces papers with long author lists (I’ve had the honor of being author #10 out of 50), I feel it’s my duty and responsibility to respond to Dr. Rose. You see, when a paper has a lot of authors — like this one, this one, or this one — it’s because a lot of people contributed to collecting and analyzing the data. Genome sequencing projects, for example, require a group of researchers to propose the sequencing project, at least one sequencing facility to generate the sequence data, another group of scientists to assemble the sequences into chromosomes (or parts of chromosomes), and yet more scientists to analyze the assembled sequences for various features (identifying genes, comparing those sequences other sequenced genomes, etc.). That’s a lot of people, each contributing in a substantial way to the data presented in the manuscript. This type of project cannot be carried out by a small group of researchers because of the diversity of laboratory tools and areas of expertise required to generate and analyze the data.
Just because there are no projects in your field that require manuscripts with large author lists doesn’t mean that you should look at papers with more than 20 authors with disdain. Simply put, some projects in some disciplines require many people to complete. And when those results are presented, there’s usually some rhyme and reason to how the author lists are assembled. In biology, for example, you can usually figure out the significance of someone’s role by their proximity to the beginning or end of the author list — people near the beginning usually did a lot of the work, and people near the end are usually responsible for either overseeing the project, designing the project, or instigating the research. The closer you are to one of the ends, the more significant your role. In other fields, the lists are compiled alphabetically (which I do not find as useful as how it’s done in biology).
The post has a minimal comment from Maxine Clark, Executive Editor at Nature pointing out that the journal does not have rules regarding the maximum number of authors or the order in which they are listed. She also makes the important point that it’s very nice when each author’s contribution is listed along with the article.