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Write a Paper. Write a Paper. Write Another Paper.

Time is short for blogging today, but I wanted to take a moment to point out people for whom time for writing things up is (apparently) never, ever short. This is a study on prolific authorship, and the high end of that cohort is pretty terrifying. At least 9,000 authors have been on 72 papers or more in at least one year between 2000 and 2016 (that’s a paper every few days). Some of these, to be sure, are giant collaborations – the great majority of the authors are in physics, where that’s the norm. But what about the ones who aren’t? Read the article for more interesting thoughts on authorship, productivity, and what happens when both of those concepts get stretched. . .

35 comments on “Write a Paper. Write a Paper. Write Another Paper.”

    1. b says:

      Especially the authors who immediately go on the defense and think they are being accused of something. Gave me a chuckle.

      1. RM says:

        To be fair, these people have just been contacted by the author of “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” with an email which contains the somewhat provocative “we have no evidence that [you] are doing anything inappropriate, though we do think that many people may consider this implausible by most standards of authorship.”

        It’s sort of a “we’re not accusing you of anything, but we are going to point a finger at you and waggle our eyebrows suggestively” statement. I’m not really surprised that some people reacted defensively. You have a person who is know for accusing people of publishing crap come out and imply that your practices are inappropriate.

  1. HoodRat says:

    Hey yo, all them authors deserve that shit you know. Mudafuckas act like they aint shit and all dat. Maybe yall need to mind yo bidness!

  2. GM says:

    Interesting that you are surprised.

    I am a biologist, and I have always been under the impression that chemists publish on average 4 times as many papers as we do, and would therefore not be too surprised to see such lists given all the prominent chemists with 1000+ publications under their belt.

    Although usually those are people who crank out 40-50 papers a year, not 72+.

    1. MTK says:

      Ha! That’s funny GM, because as a chemist I always thought biologists published more, although I really wouldn’t know. I guess I thought that because in general the number of authors on a biology paper usually seems pretty long compared to a chemistry paper.

    2. LK says:

      When I was in grad school for biology, I remember being jealous of the chemist graduate students who regularly and magically (to me) publish 2-3 papers a month. It seemed that they could publish a paper on every molecule they synthesize, no matter how simple, as long as it hasn’t been published before and as long as they include some very standard characterization of the final products. In contrast, a biologist cannot simply publish any new construct they engineer without extensive characterization, often involving novel and tailored cell-based assays or in vivo work with animal models that take a long time and are prone to failure.

      1. GM says:

        Chemistry papers also tend to be quite a bit shorter, at least in my experience browsing the literature. Or rather, you can publish fairly short papers (of exactly the kind you describe) in respectable journals, while in biology the 7-figure, 20-page, 50-age supplement monstrosity is becoming the norm ever further down the impact factor ladder.

      2. BK says:

        I don’t know what garbage journal publishes single compounds unless it’s a crystallography journal or maybe a polymer/materials journal. I think your friend was highly exaggerating their productivity though.

        1. GM says:

          It wasn’t always single compounds but still, papers like “Synthesis and crystal structure of the double barium–titanium isopropoxide [Ba4Ti4(µ4-O)4(µ3-OR)2(µ-OR)8(OR)6(ROH)4][Ba4Ti4(µ4-O)4(µ3-OR)2(µ-OR)9(OR)5(ROH)3]” are how comrade Yuri Timofeevich Truchkov broke all publication records several decades ago (which eventually even got him the Ig Nobel prize)

          Two pages, one figure, rinse and repeat 3000 times.

          Although he will almost certainly eventually be surpassed by a biologist (look up the name Didier Raoult)

    3. Circeus says:

      There are some areas of biology (floristic reports and nomenclature updates) that function similarly to chemistry in allowing frequent, small papers

  3. Philip says:

    In my distant past I worked part time in two departments at a state university. In the first, if you did not write part of the paper you were not an author. In the second, if you breathed on the project you were. The department chair of the second department was an author on almost every paper the department produced. Not sure the department chair met the requirements for authorship, but having their name on the paper seemed to help get it published.

    1. Thoryke says:

      Then there are the interesting semantics that allow a medical writer to hammer out many of the sentences in a manuscript, but because they do not have final say over whether the document is published, they cannot be considered an “author” of those documents. Instead, they are thanked for “editorial support” or “writing support” by ICMJE guidelines. “Author” in that context, stands for “Authority over the text” not necessarily “the person who wrote the text”. Was quite a hot topic ~10 years ago….

      It is much easier to publish lots and lots of papers if your time isn’t bogged down by the obligations of actually producing the prose.

  4. myma says:

    It seems to me a fair bit (most?) of the hyperpublishers are the courtesy credit type.

    (although we all know exceptions of the crazy professor who never stops working and reads everything with copious obsessive corrections.)

  5. Ilya says:

    I hoped today’s post would be about Cochrane v. Gøtzsche controversy…

    1. Some idiot says:

      Good point… that one will be interesting to watch… my own view is that over the last 5-10 years he was starting to get more into dogma than evidence. A shame… but then again I am not the right one to judge, and I might be dead wrong…

      But yes, this will get interesting…

  6. Peter S. Shenkin says:

    I once had a Usenet discussion with Marvin Minsky, who deplored the large number of papers that well known chemists publish in a year, particularly in organic chemistry. I pointed out that in chemistry, grad school is best described as an apprenticeship, where the professor usually generates the key idea, or at least direction, for a dissertation and then the grad student executes; and following that, the professor is not hands-off. He (or she) provides guidance throughout, on tactical matters of experimental technique and approaches as well as at the more strategic level of further ideas, implications, etc. And in fact that guidance may be mediated by one or more post-docs as well, who will also be on the paper. Minsky was mollified.

    It’s different in a field like history, math, and for the most part computer science, where grad students usually publish their dissertation alone, if at all.

    This, of course, was not about the “hyperprolific” authors the article discusses, but rather just normal chemical practice. But from Minsky’s perspective, it seemed hyperprolific.

    1. anon says:

      This may have been the case in bygone eras, but from my firsthand observations of my own and other big (chemistry) labs at several top tier institutions I think the apprenticeship model is dead (except for maybe the first two years of assistant professorship). PIs seem more like money/resource managers. I think now the postdocs are doing the real mentoring of trainees and most trainees come up with their own ideas for their main (year 2-5) project(s).

    2. Wavefunction says:

      Mollified? I hope he was horrified when he found out how many professors use grad students and postdocs as cheap labor.

  7. Scott says:

    I kinda wonder how many of those physics papers are a case of “we talked about problems we were having in our experiments over lunch, and co-author B suggested a solution to one step of the process, co-author C suggested a solution to another, ” etc

    1. Peter S. Shenkin says:

      My guess is that most of these physics papers with huge numbers of authors are experimental studies that involve collaborations between researchers at multiple “national”-level facilities.

      1. HFM says:

        That would be my guess too. If you’re involved in building the Large Physics Object (or Large Biology Object), you will be an author on any paper that uses data generated by said Object. That can be hundreds of papers over the project’s lifetime. Given that senior PIs who do this kind of thing usually have multiple Objects going at once, it’s not actually hard for them to hit triple digit papers per year. You can argue over whether that’s legitimate authorship, but the papers are real.

        1. anon says:

          I don’t know about biology, but in (astro)physics at least you don’t get to be an author on all papers that use the data generated by the experiment. You will be, however, an author on the “consortium papers” of which there are typically a couple of dozen. The papers (possibly thousands) that use the data will then cite one/some of the consortium papers.

  8. CheMystery says:

    I would like to see a follow up study that looks in which journals these hyper-productive researchers publish. I suspect that predatory open-access journals will be rather predominant.

    1. G2 says:

      An examples in the MedChem field?
      I only stumble over Claudiu T. Supuran – it seems that you can publish nothing regarding carbonic anhydrase without him as coauthor. But at least mostly in high ranked journals…

      1. Derek Lowe says:

        Boy, are you right about that example. I didn’t want to call anyone out by name, but geez.

        1. Just another Med. Chemist says:

          . . . yes . . and then there is this from an interview with him . . “3) What has been the biggest success of your career?
          I am ranked among the top Italian scientists at position 42, with a Hirsch index of 93 and more than 37,300 citations [16]. This classification takes into account all scientific and humanitarian fields of Italian scientists (based in Italy or abroad) and is done by a non-profit organization based in UK. I am the second in rank in my university and among the first three in
          chemical/biochemical sciences from Italy.”
          From: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1517/13543776.2015.1027045

  9. Rhenium says:

    From one author, a crystallographer.

    “As to “how I feel” about this, my main focus these days is teaching and supporting students and until John Ioannidis contacted me, I had forgotten all about these publications and I had no idea that they define me as a “hyper-prolific author” perhaps he could inform my own management (assuming that this is a good thing)”

  10. hahascience says:

    “Due to some family disturbances, I was living alone since the year 2011, so in
    positive directions I devoted my full time of 24×7 hrs mainly working for
    science with a passion, formulated a team of selected researchers…”

    divorce led to his awesome prolific publishing career and the long winded response with some acknowledgments to others who helped.

    1. HoodRat says:

      Dun Didly Doo Dawg Yeah!

  11. Anonymous says:

    I think I have published more than 72 replies to In The Pipeline so far this year. Does that make me hyperprolific? 🙂

    (If Pipeline was built on forum software and not as a blog, I could get an accurate count and more easily search for old posts.)

  12. Chris says:

    “The joy of extreme productivity irreversibly exploited my
    health and culminated in a stroke accompanied by administrative destruction of
    my professional situation to avoid further ‘publication success’. Certainly not a
    pattern to be followed by young researchers eager to deliver outstanding
    publication records for the better of science.”

    As someone leaving grad school, I do wonder about the strange industry I have ended up pursuing.

  13. Kaleberg says:

    An all time candidate for hyperprolific was the mathematician Paul Erdos who was an author on 1,500 papers. As one obituary pointed out, in mathematics, a lifetime output of 50 papers is considered prolific. He was notorious for traveling from university to university and doing nothing aside from mathematics. A visit from Erdos was seen as an opportunity to get unstuck on existing problems and explore new ones. He collaborated on so many papers that mathematicians still have a ranking called the Erdos number. It is one, if you wrote a paper with Erdos. It is N if you wrote a paper with someone who had an Erdos number of N-1 so on. I wonder if any of these other hyperprolific authors had a similar impact on their field.

    1. Anon says:

      He apparently said “another roof, another proof” and indeed he was prolific. Wonder if EJC of chemistry any where close to him? Granted that the chemist from Harvard had little or no collaboration, unlike Erdos.

  14. Derek Freyberg says:

    What would be interesting to me is looking at the number of authors on the papers by these highly prolific authors – are these authors consistently on papers with high numbers of authors?
    For crystallography, I would guess not; but for medicine, I think they might be – there seems to be a practice of listing all the PIs at multi-site clinical trials as authors on papers; and for people working on Very Expensive Equipment (astronomy, high energy physics), the collaborations seem to be large.

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