Sunday, May 20, 2012

More Authors or Less Authors?

In my brief time in research I have written journal articles authored by as few as two people and as many as six people. Many of those authors have been faculty members (senior researchers who provided me with valuable mentoring), colleagues (graduate students with similar experience and training), and trainees (early researchers learning the research process from me and others). This experience has got me wondering: What is the best combination of authors for writing a research paper? Is it better to have more authors or less authors? I consider these questions in today's post!

I should note that many of these challenges apply to any form of collaborative work, and not just research.

The (Dis)Advantages of Many Authors
It should be relatively clear why many authors on a project can be helpful: More authors means more minds and more minds means more input from skilled researchers. This advantage could take the form of having access to methods and theories that enhance the presentation of the research, new data sets to test the hypotheses, more statistical expertise, and new theoretical perspectives to enhance the manuscript. These are the things I enjoy about multi-author papers, and so without question, many authors do come with a number of benefits that are hard to argue.

Of course, what comes with these advantages is a few clear limitations. With more authors, the time it takes to edit a manuscript can increase, as each author takes a turn editing the paper. As well, more authors could mean more disagreements on theory and data presentation, so this could mean some arguing between researchers on a project. There is also the question of authorship order, which is, even after all this time, a complete mystery to me. So, in short, many authors means a host of new issues to solve.

I can haz first author!!! (source)
Leadership From the Top
Robert Sapolsky (2005) has studied naturally occurring baboon hierarchies in Africa for decades. In his long years of research he finds that baboons who attain high status in their groups--by intimidating other challengers or by winning dominance contests (i.e., fights)--tend to have more grooming partners, mate preferences, first access to food sources, and in general, better health outcomes. These positive effects of status happen for high status baboons in stable hierarchies. When hierarchical position is uncertain or unstable, it actually becomes chaotic for the alpha baboon male, who must constantly fight to prove his dominance. In these unstable hierarchies, the high status baboon actually has extremely elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol (Sapolsky, 2005). In short, an unstable hierarchy means disorder and chaos for baboon social groups.

Why bring up baboons? Because many-author research projects can be just like a pack of wild baboons! Without a stable hierarchical structure, it can become unclear which direction a many-author research project should proceed. The project could easily deteriorate into an elaborate pissing contest, where different researchers try to push their own pet theories. To navigate the challenges of a research project with several authors, I believe it is crucial to have a clear alpha researcher--someone with a clear vision for the research project, who can make final decisions on the trajectory of the research paper. This person can be the first author or the most senior author, but whoever it is, that person must make final decisions and handle any developing conflicts between the other authors on the paper.

The Social Loafing Problem
Remember those classic social psychological studies where teams of people play a game of tug of war? In those studies the researchers found that people playing tug of war in groups--where they couldn't be evaluated individually--tend to pull less hard on the rope than when they were playing alone--where they could be evaluated (Latane, Williams, & Harkins, 1979). This can happen on many-author research projects: More authors means less opportunities to be evaluated individually. The result is that some of the many authors on a project pull less than others. How does a young researcher deal with this social loafing?

This is a hard question to answer because there are not a whole lot of choices for a person dealing with loafing authors. I suppose you could threaten to pull someone's authorship from a paper if they didn't help out enough, but that seems unethical because by the time you are writing a paper, the authors presumably all contributed to the data, analyses, and theory in some way. You could change the authorship order, but I'm not sure that there is much difference between being listed third or fourth on a six author paper.

I think the best solution is to keep the number of authors as minimal as possible. Having only authors that are vital to the project can ensure that those authors are invested in the project (e.g., not likely to play a minimal role in the writing), and integral to the project's completion (e.g., providing necessary data or skills to the project). If you have more authors than are necessary on a project, then expect some loafing, and don't be surprised that a long-standing social psychological principle is being replicated in your own work.

Sharing Credit
Say you have three researchers authoring a single paper, and you ask each one independently, "What percent of the total work did you complete on this paper?" How much of the total work will each author take credit for? Will the perceived total add up to something greater than 100%?

It will according to the egocentric bias--a bias in perception in which people take more credit for group work, because they can remember their own effort better than that of others (Ross & Sicoly, 1979). In the original study, husbands and wives each tended to say that they did the majority of their shared housework (impossible, because only one person could do the majority of the work) and researchers are likely to do the same on a research paper. I bring the egocentric bias up because I want you to be aware of it! It's easy to get caught up thinking that your work on a research project is not being appreciated or recognized, but these feelings can sometimes arise from egocentric perceptions of your own contributions. Research shouldn't be about credit or recognition, it's about new discoveries and answering new questions! As researchers, we'd all do well to remember that!

Have you had problems in your collaboration at work or on research projects? How did you solve those problems? I'd love to hear your solutions!

Ross, M., & Sicoly, F. (1979). Egocentric biases in availability and attribution. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37 (3), 322-336 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.37.3.322

Sapolsky, R. (2005). The Influence of Social Hierarchy on Primate Health Science, 308 (5722), 648-652 DOI: 10.1126/science.1106477

Latane, B., Williams, K., & Harkins, S. (1979). Many hands make light the work: The causes and consequences of social loafing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37 (6), 822-832 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.37.6.822


  1. Hi,

    There are a couple of interesting pieces of work related to this question.

    Jones, B. F., Wuchty, S., & Uzzi, B. (2008). Multi-university research teams: shifting impact, geography, and stratification in science. Science (New York, N.Y.), 322(5905), 1259-62. doi:10.1126/science.1158357

    This paper looks at the correlation between co-authorship patterns and citation count. There is a sweet spot where the best combination is shown to be between cross-institutional set with a mix of experienced and young researchers.

    Radicchi, F., Fortunato, S., Markines, B., & Vespignani, A. (2009). Diffusion of scientific credits and the ranking of scientists. Physical Review E - Statistical, Nonlinear and Soft Matter Physics, 80(5 Pt 2), 056103. APS. doi:10.1103/PhysRevE.80.056103

    created a tool for calculating authorship credit based on weighting citations by the number of authors. They calculate something approximating a page rank, but for authors rather than papers. Their tool can be seen here: