More Scientists Join Gangs

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research, now in all-pdf form. Get a subscription now for only $25 a year!

by Tenzing Terwilliger, Improbable Research staff

These scientists are members of the The Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists™ (LFHCfS).

More and more, more and more scientists are ganging up to write research studies. It’s no longer unusual to see a paper that lists more than 500 co-authors.

The journal Science Watch tracks statistics about which scientists publish where, when, and how often. Every few years Science Watch makes a brave plunge into the sea of so-called “multi-author papers.”1,2 Their most recent look shows increasing numbers of papers that have more than 50, 100, 200, and 500 authors.

The most gaudy, of course, are the papers credited to more than 500 co-authors. During the year 2003, only (only!) 40 of these giganti-group efforts were published. Then came a growth spurt. The year 2005 saw the publication of 131 of them, and subsequent years have seen production hold about steady.

(Image source: Multiauthor Papers Redux: A New Peek at New Peaks)

If there were a prize for largest number of co-authors, it would have gone to the 2512 people credited with writing a paper called “Precision Electroweak Measurements on the Z Resonance,” which appeared in the journal Physics Reports in the year 2006.3 That’s a mild elevation from the previous record of 2458 co-authors, attained just two years earlier when the Circulation Journal published a paper called “Design and Baseline Characteristic of a Study of Primary Prevention of Coronary Events with Pravastatin Among Japanese with Mildly Elevated Cholesterol Levels.”4

In fact, at least one prize has been awarded for highest number of co-authors. In the year 2003, the Ig Nobel Prize for literature went to the approximately 976 co-authors of a medical study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.5

In the new record-holder, the list of 2512 authors stretches over 14 pages. These hard-writing individuals come from more than 100 different institutions in the UK, Germany, Canada, Italy, Hungary, France, Switzerland, Canada, Israel, Japan, Poland, China, Belgium, Australia, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Sweden, among others.

They appear to be a sociable bunch. The very first word in their paper is “we”, and the paper’s final section elaborates on that same theme: “We would like to thank the CERN accelerator divisions... The SLD collaboration would like to thank the SLAC accelerator department... We would also like to thank members of the CDF, D], NuTeV and E-158 Collaborations...” And so on.

The paper’s “references” section lists 264 papers that in some way influenced the new research. Nearly all of those referenced papers have author lists too long to be, well, listed in the new paper. Each list is credited only in abbreviated fashion: “F.J. Hasert, et al.” “G. Arnison, et al.” “M. Banner, et al.” And so forth.

It seems cold to discuss a group of 2512 authors without mentioning any of their names, but space here is limited. Space there is limited, too—no first names are given, only initials. So suffice it to say that the final author in the group is J. Zhou.

1. “Multiauthor Papers Redux: A New Peek at New Peaks,” Christopher King, Science Watch, November– December 2007.

2. “Crowd Control? Multiauthor Papers Appear to Level Off in Recent Years,” Science Watch, July–August 2004.

3. “Precision Electroweak Measurements on the Z Resonance,” Aleph Collaboration et al., Physics Reports, vol. 427, 2006, pp. 257–454.

4. “Design and Baseline Characteristic of a Study of Primary Prevention of Coronary Events with Pravastatin Among Japanese with Mildly Elevated Cholesterol Levels,” MEGA Study Group, Circulation Journal, vol. 68, no. 9, 2004, pp. 860–7.

5. “An International Randomized Trial Comparing Four Thrombolytic Strategies for Acute Myocardial Infarction,” E. Topol et al., New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 329, no. 10, September 2, 1993, pp. 673–82.


This article is republished with permission from the January-February 2009 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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