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Single or Multiple Co-Authorship?


Research Collaboration Today

Black Cat Blog:

Issues in academia, research, & publishing

Lydia Barza, PhD


At a time when single authorship is exceedingly rare (Paul-Hus, Mongeon, Sainte-Marie, & Larivière, 2017; Parish, Boyack, & Ioannidis, 2018), authorship issues are at the forefront of controversies regarding research dissemination. Some even predict that single authorship will be all but obsolete by the year 2030 (Vimala & Reddy, 2017).


Multiple authorship is most common in disciplines like physics and engineering. However, a significant increase in co-authorship has been documented among the humanities and social sciences and includes education (Moore & Griffin, 2006), social work, library sciences, and business (Manton & English, 2007).


Lone Wolf or Wolf Pack?


From an individualistic perspective, it may seem that taking the glory all for yourself would serve in your best interest. In a study on the impact of single versus multiple authored papers, Rigby (2005) suggests that “some researchers may publish their more important work through single-authored papers in order to enhance their reputations” (p. 199). After all, publishing more than your colleagues makes you most competitive.


On the other hand, ‘two (or more) minds are better than one’. Working on a team has multiple advantages including:


  • division of labor,

  • inclusion of multiple perspectives (often leading to more comprehensive and innovative ideas),

  • pooling of resources (i.e., matching or multiple grants),

  • facilitating group cohesion (think positive work climate), and

  • providing for mentorship opportunities.

As a result, most researchers believe that benefits outweigh detriments and are more than willing to share the limelight.


Research also tells us that a team of authors can publish more papers than a single author (Sauermann and Haeussler, 2017). For example, various team members can take the lead on analyzing the data and/or interpreting it based on their specific areas of expertise. In addition, there may be several phases of a study that team members alternate leading.



Explaining Rising Rates of Co-authorship

This practice should not be confused with duplicate or overlapping publications, considered unethical and discouraged by ICMJE guidelines. Indeed, journals specify that they expect original work. A submission is considered duplicated if the study hypothesis, data, findings and conclusions are virtually identical to another.


More Reasons to Play Well With Others:

  • Acceptance rates for multi-authored papers exceed that of single-authored papers, although there are variations in the significance of the gap between fields (Smart & Bayer, 1986).

  • A significant correlation exists between number of article citations and the number of authors and institutions involved (Figg et al, 2006; Parish, Boyack, & Ioannidis, 2018).

  • Seasoned authors are more likely to collaborate with other seasoned authors, which also results in a higher likelihood that they will publish in high impact journals (Pudovkin, 2018; Vavryčuk, 2018).


National versus International Collaboration

There is some evidence within several fields that national collaboration is much more frequent than international collaboration, despite the push for global work and international comparisons. In astronomy journals, first and second authors work at the same institution over 50% of the time (Smith, 2016). Within the neuroscience community it was noted that “authors tend to collaborate in small densely connected national communities, with very few international relations” (Dehdarirad & Nasini, 2017).


Despite this trend, Dehdarirad and Nasini (2017) found that papers “resulting from international collaborations appear significantly more often in high impact factor journals, than their national counterparts” (pp. 14). This tight-knit grouping of collaborators was also an indication of hyper-specialization (Corrêa, Silva, Costa & Amancio, 2017).


Female researchers tend to collaborate more than males, as do those outside the U.S. (Parish, Boyack, & Ioannidis, 2018). Globalization facilitated by technology and the political unification efforts in Europe have made it easier for scientists to work with each other (Glänzel & Schubert, 2004).


Collaboration for Nefarious Reasons


Collaboration, while extorted by the research community, is froth with conflict. This is partly due to the fact that career advancement in academia is individually earned while collaborations make it tricky to communicate the significance of one’s role within a larger project (Macfarlane, 2017). Pressure to distinguish oneself from team members makes the authorship question contentious.


The steady increase in author numbers is not without its critics. Tilak and colleagues (2015), for example, suggest that the fact that more recent research endeavors are more complex is an insufficient reason to account for the growth of multiple authorships. The push for publications necessary for promotion calls into question the motivation behind taking on multiple partners (Bennett & Taylor, 2003; Gelman & Gibelman, 1999).


“Whilst collaboration has always been at the heart of academic labour its paradoxes illustrate how individual and collective goals can come into conflict through the measurement of academic performance.” P.472 (Macfarlane, 2017)


Author inflation is implicated with the practice of including guest or honorary authors as the culprit. Therefore, some cite multiple authorship as a problem for determining one’s true level of productivity (Lindsey, 1980). Warrender (2016) suggests the calculation of a “contribution score” for determining the degree of merit afforded each publication. Others argue that the fewer the number of authors, the more credit the authors should receive (Woods, Youn & Johanson, 2010).