How Many Scientists Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb?

The answer to this gag seems increasingly to be: Nearly all of them. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday on the growing trend of listing dozens and dozens of co-authors on scientific papers, presumably because it conveys authority (97 percent!) and thoroughness. In some cases the number of listed co-authors for journal articles tops 1,000:

In fact, there has been a notable spike since 2009 in the number of technical reports whose author counts exceeded 1,000 people, according to the Thomson Reuters Web of Science, which analyzed citation data. In the ever-expanding universe of credit where credit is apparently due, the practice has become so widespread that some scientists now joke that they measure their collaborators in bulk—by the “kilo-author.”

Earlier this year, a paper on rare particle decay published in Nature listed so many co-authors—about 2,700—that the journal announced it wouldn’t have room for them all in its print editions. And it isn’t just physics. In 2003, it took 272 scientists to write up the findings of the first complete human genome—a milestone in biology—but this past June, it took 1,014 co-authors to document a minor gene sequence called the Muller F element in the fruit fly.

Here’s a helpful chart from the WSJ—gee, it looks sort of like the climate “hockey stick,” doesn’t it?

WSJ Chart copy

More likely this authorial inflation is another indication of the slow corruption of academic science by the peer review and tenure process. In some cases it has just become a joke:

Some scientists do their best to subvert the process.

Michigan State University mathematician Jack Hetherington published a paper in 1975 on low temperature physics in Physical Review Letters with F.D.C. Willard. His colleagues only discovered that his co-author was a siamese cat several years later when Dr. Hetherington started handing out copies of the paper signed with a paw print.

In the same spirit, Shalosh B. Ekhad at Rutgers University so far has published 32 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals with his co-author Doron Zeilberger. It turns out that Shalosh B. Ekhad is Hebrew for the model number of a personal computer used by Dr. Zeilberger. “The computer helps so much and so often,” Dr. Zeilberger said.

This kind of thing does seem prevalent in the sciences—physical and social. Whoever heard of multiple authors of a journal article about literary criticism, or political philosophy?