Publication Trends – Authors – Astronomy
Authors publish because they want to transfer information. An essential ingredient for this transfer is being able to find this information. This means that this information, for example articles in scholarly journals, needs to be indexed properly and enriched with relevant meta data and links. Enhanced information retrieval tools, like recommender systems, have become indispensable. Besides the actual content of the information offered for dispersal, the information comes with another piece of essential meta data: the author list.
The importance of the author list is essentially bidirectional. Having your name appear on articles is an essential ingredient of any scholarly career and plays an important role in the process of seeking for e.g. tenure or jobs. The role of first author depends on discipline, so the first author isn’t necessarily the “most authoritative” author. Some disciplines use alphabetical author lists, for example. Co-authorship with a prominent expert clearly makes a difference and sometimes gives you “measurable status”, like the Erdős number in mathematic, which is the “collaborative distance” between a person and Paul Erdős (if your number is 1, it means you published a paper together with him).
To me, co-authorship is the most normal thing in the world. In a lot of way, doing science is like learning a “trade”. You start off being an apprentice, you do an examn showing that you have mastered the basic skills for the “trade” and then you find your own way. As an aside: I think the doctoral thesis and its subsequent defense is that “test of ability”. In some displines it now seems to have become a requirement that doctoral research should result in something original and new. Please correct me if that observation is incorrect.
In the past, at least in astronomy and physics, it was more common to publish papers just by yourself, once you’ve mastered your field. And this was initially totally feasible. In the early days of science there were no budgets being slashed and there were no enormous projects like LHC. Most scientists had their own little “back yard” where they could grow whatever they felt like growing. As the 20th centory progressed, especially in roughly the second half, collaborations became more and more unavoidable. Enter collaborations and therefore growing numbers of co-authors. From this moment on we see the The demise of the lone author (Mott Greene, Nature, Volume 450, Issue 7173, pp. 1165). The figure below is an illustration of how the distribution of the number of authors has changed over time.
This figure illustrates a couple of things. First of all is shows the “demise of the lone author”, where the fraction of lone author papers dropped from about 60% in 1960 to about 6% in 2009! The widening of the distribution shows that on average the number of co-authors has increased. It seems that this is still an ongoing process that hasn’t reached a saturation point yet.
The figure below highlights the “demise of the lone author” by showing the change in the fraction of single author papers in the main astronomy and physics journals.
The drop in the astronomy journals is more dramatic than for the physics journals. A factor of about 10 versus a factor of about 3 or 4.