Saturday, March 4, 2023

Hyperauthorship: the publishing challenges for ‘big team’ science


Then the COVID-19 pandemic broke that record, with 15,025 co-authors on a research paper examining the effect of SARS-CoV-2 vaccination on post-surgical COVID-19 infections and mortality.

The term ‘hyperauthorship’ is credited to information scientist Blaise Cronin7 at Indiana University in Bloomington, who used it in a 2001 publication to describe papers with 100 or more authors. But with the rise of large international and multi-institutional scientific collaborations — such as the ATLAS consortium behind the discovery of the Higgs boson — papers with hundreds, even thousands, of authors are becoming more common. There are many legitimate reasons for this shift, but it is raising questions — and concerns — about the nature of authorship and the impact that hyperauthorship has on the metrics of scientific achievement.

It’s a big change from the 1980s and is driven largely by an increase in international collaboration in science, says Jonathan Adams, chief scientist at the ISI and co-author of the report. 

These changes reflect the growing need for large research groups, spread across different types of institution and geographies, to answer complex questions. They also reflect a desire for more-inclusive authorship that recognizes researchers from backgrounds that might have been overlooked in the past.

But hyperauthorship creates challenges for researchers and for the journals that publish their work. Coordinating so many individual contributions across a multitude of institutions and nations is an enormous logistical feat. And hyperauthorship is raising philosophical questions about what it means to be an author of a research paper, and who has the right to — and need for — acknowledgement.

Overall a very interesting read into the phenomenon of high-authorship, high-impact papers.

Adams suggests that the number of authors on publications should be considered when looking at citation counts for institutions or nations, just as citation counts are normalized for year of publication and field. “We should be normalizing for the authorship, so you get a more representative citation indicator.” He says there’s even a case for leaving the largest of hyperauthored papers out of the citation process entirely. “If it’s CERN or one of the big telescopes, it’s like you’re either in the club or you’re not,” Adams says. “And then, what are we comparing you with?” [emphasis added]

I disagree with a lot of the conclusions of the article, but this opinion in particular I think could have a damaging effect. Much of my work is with a large collaboration (the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration), so I have personal experience with this. Oftentimes, high-author papers are the only product researchers in the collaboration will have; anything they are working will get subsumed into these monster result papers. To torpedo these types of papers in a citation count will completely nullify years and years of research for many scientists working full time on these projects, dedicating their lives and careers to these results, with collaboration papers being their only scientific product. 

Another critical oversight this article makes is regarding collaborations (like the EHT) which have policies mandating full authorship. I spent the better part of 2 years working solely on a single paper which, when published, was determined to require full Collaboration authorship. This was a fair assessment, as the paper relied on the previous and ongoing work of large portion of the Collaboration and presented results that impacted and supported other major Collaboration work. I fully supported and advocated for this classification. However, the idea that the paper could simply be tossed in future citation counts purely because it has a giant author list is frankly terrible, given how important citation counts are becoming as a measure of productivity and impact. 

I know I am not alone in this situation--there are many, many early career scientists facing this exact problem. We work in large collaborations because many problems today are intractable without huge groups of people and data--something this article understands. However, the requirement of working in such a large collaborations is that most of your work goes into collaboration papers with everyone else's, and short-author-list papers are simply not as common--and certainly almost never as impactful. Especially for early-career scientists (particularly students), they may not be allowed to lead projects in these collaborations, meaning their only contributions will be recorded in the collaboration papers, if at all.

While altering citation counts to exclude high-authorship papers may weed out people who haven't contributed directly to the writing of a paper, it will be a harsh foot in the back of early-career scientists who rely on these projects and infrastructures to get their start in a world of large collaborations. 

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