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Single-Author Papers Are Disappearing

Study shows that the number of articles published by a single author has declined in some areas of biology

NEGREIROSWhen zoologist Célio Haddad, from the São Paulo State University (Unesp)/Rio Claro, began his career in science in the early 1980s, most of the researchers in his field preferred to publish their articles individually. Works on taxonomy and botany required very little contact with researchers in other fields of biology and were completed largely in isolation. “The task of identifying and classifying species could be performed by individual researchers, with little need for interaction with colleagues,” Haddad recalls. The situation began to change in the 1990s when the methods formerly used to describe the external characteristics of animals and plants were no longer sufficient to distinguish new species. Methods from other subfields of biology, like molecular analysis, had to be adopted. A recent study published by researchers from the State University of Goiás (UEG), in the January 2015 issue of the journal Scientometrics, presents data about the changes in the pattern of publication that have occurred in four subfields of biology—genetics, ecology, zoology, and botany—in the last 40 years.

The research suggests that in all those specialties there has indeed been a decline in the number of articles published by a single author. Meanwhile, the tendency to credit several authors for an article is more pronounced in interdisciplinary fields such as genetics and ecology. In zoology and botany, which are not interdisciplinary and in which articles describing species are more common, the number of papers by a single author is still significant and has declined more slowly (see table). According to João Carlos Nabout, a UEG biologist and principal author of the study, this happens because those two areas have what he calls a problem of origin. “The modern scientific classification scheme proposed by Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus n the 18th century was first adopted in independent studies. Linnaeus’ s method has been used for hundreds of years,” Nabout explains. But genetics and ecology are multidisciplinary, since they were born of collaborative efforts from various fields, such as biochemistry, mathematics, and physics.

To arrive at these conclusions, the study selected scientific articles that had been published between 1966 and 2012 in periodicals listed in the Thomson Reuters Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) database. Researchers consulted 16 scientific journals (four for each specialty field) that have a high impact factor, including Nature Genetics, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society and Zootaxa. This last journal was founded in 2004 and is responsible for the upward trend in numbers of zoological publications that began that year. Having collected the data, one of the tasks that Nabout and his team set for themselves was to try to predict when the single-author pattern would disappear in each of the subfields. Based on mathematical calculations, the group estimated the years in which each of the specialties would reach the point where only 0.1% of the articles published would be written by a single person. In genetics, this would happen in 2036; in ecology, in 2054; in botany, in 2063; and in zoology, around 2090. “These are estimates, but they reflect the extent to which those specialties are becoming less and less autonomous,” says Nabout.

An interdisciplinary tool
According to Nabout, one of the factors that led researchers in zoology and botany to begin to interact a little more with other specialties in biology—but at a slower pace than in genetics and ecology—is the fact that today these two subfields are more often used as tools that supply other categories of biology with theoretical approaches. An example is a recent research project headed by biologist Carlos Guilherme Becker, of Unesp’s Rio Claro campus. His study demonstrates that the presence of a greater number of species of amphibians in a region helps deter the transmission of a fatal fungal disease (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 226). Haddad participated in the experiment, in which the different stages involved knowledge of taxonomy, statistics, and molecular analysis. His main responsibility was to identify the species of amphibians most suitable for use in the experiments.

NEGREIROSEvidence of the increase in interdisciplinarity is found in the increase in the number of scientific journals, such as the Jornal of Animal Ecology and Molecular Ecology, that aggregate subfields of biology. “The chances of getting a paper accepted for publication as well as having it receive more citations increase when the researcher is associated with international research networks that can bring hundreds of authors together for a project,” says Rogério Meneghini, scientific coordinator of the SciELO Brasil virtual library.

One example of a project of that magnitude is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the biggest particle accelerator on the planet, installed at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) near Geneva, an effort that involves nearly 10,000 researchers from different countries. According to Meneghini, Brazilian researchers appear more frequently on the list of authors of multi-author articles on particle physics and clinical medicine. In the latter field, it is common practice for new-drug testing procedures to be distributed among researchers in different parts of the world.

Jacqueline Leta, a researcher at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), says that the trend is for people in all subfields of biology to talk more among themselves and also maintain contacts with other fields of knowledge. “Science in the experimental areas is becoming increasingly technical,” she says. It is ever more difficult, therefore, to do research without modern equipment. “Individuals cannot by themselves master techniques in genetics, chemistry, and information technology, for example,” says Leta, a biologist by training who works in information science. This means that people look for partnerships, not only to fill gaps in their research that depend on a knowledge of other areas, but also to reduce costs by sharing equipment and facilities that bring together multiple users and can help breed promising partnerships (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 221).

The impact of these changes has also been observed on a lesser scale. Roberto Lovon, one of Leta’s students in the Information Sciences graduate degree program (Ibict/UFRJ), is working on a project in which the figure of the single author appears to be waning. Preliminary data from this study show that in the three-year period 2001-2003, 36% of the articles published by the entire group of UFRJ researchers had only one author. By 2010-2013, that percentage had dropped to 28%. The next phase of the research will draw distinctions by field of knowledge, but according to Leta, everything leads them to believe that the same change is happening in all fields of knowledge. Meneghini calls attention also to the social sciences and humanities, saying that “in those fields, single authorship is still strong, as is the preference for publishing the research in book form.”

Although the UEG study depicts progress in terms of collaboration in subfields of biology, caution is dictated when it comes time to consider the conclusions of the research. One proviso made by Meneghini is that co-authorship is only one of the criteria for evaluating levels of scientific collaboration. Even so, it may not be a very reliable yardstick. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to identify each author’s responsibility for an article that was signed by several people, “ he says. “One researcher may have assisted by lending a certain piece of equipment, but this does not constitute actual scientific collaboration,” Meneghini explains. Leta agrees: “working together to write up results does not always mean cooperation. A researcher may include the name of a colleague out of friendship, to return a favor, or even to facilitate acceptance of the article by a journal,” she says.

That idea became even clearer among scholars in scientometrics after J. Sylvan Katz and Ben Martin, researchers from the University of Sussex in England, published an article in 1995 that showed that co-authorship is only a partial indicator of collaboration. Based on bibliometric data from 1981-1990, extracted from the Thomson Reuters Science Citation Index, and their review of the literature of the time, the researchers stated that collaboration is traditionally measured by the multi-authorship of papers, but that approach is not very efficient, inasmuch as there have been several cases of “unconsummated collaboration.” “Despite the presumption that multiple authorship and collaboration are synonymous, it must be recognized that in some cases not all the people mentioned are responsible for the work. Case studies show that some authors are listed for purely social reasons. A recent investigation of several cases of scientific fraud revealed that this is common practice,” the study says.

Meanwhile, a more recent work, published in 2011 by researchers from the Journal of the American Medical Association, evaluated the prevalence of the so-called “honorary authors” and “ghost authors” in six medical periodicals that had a high impact factor in 1996 and 2008. Honorary authors are the ones who are named in an article without having contributed sufficiently to be able to publicly assume responsibility for the work; ghosts are the ones who contributed quite a bit to the research and do not appear as authors but only, for example, in the final appreciation notes. The results of the study showed that 21% of the articles published in 2008 in the six medical journals analyzed exhibited both those types of authorship. In 1996, 29% of articles were found to have inappropriately claimed authorship.

João Carlos Nabout acknowledges these limitations. “Of course there are people who contribute less to a research effort than others. What the study shows is that the trend toward disappearance of the single author in the biological sciences is a reality,” he says.

Scientific article
NABOUT, J. C. et al. Publish (in a group) or perish (alone): the trend from single to multi-authorship in biological papers. Scientometrics. V. 102, Issue 1, pp. 357-64, 2015.