Image credit: S. Heard. Hand models: Ken Dearborn, Allyson Heustis (thanks!).
I just read an intriguing opinion piece, Garsten et al’s (2015) “Single authors: an exterminated race”, which argues that “the scientific community could benefit from encouraging solo authors”. By all means read the piece (it’s a short and easy read); you may agree. I don’t, and here’s why.
Garsten et al. begin with the familiar observation that the fraction of solo-authored academic papers has been declining for a long time, especially in the natural sciences. (I’m certainly no exception: in the last dozen years I’ve published just two solo-authored papers, and I don’t see many more on the horizon.) For multiply-authored papers, the average number of authors has been rising too (sometimes to silly extremes, with hundreds or thousands of authors*). There are many reasons for this, as Garsten et al. correctly point out, including increasing complexity of scientific work and (less admirably) author-list inflation arising from our metric-obsessed attempts to measure researcher quality through publication counts.
So far, not much to argue with. But things get interesting when Garsten et al. move from description to prescription, arguing that solo-authored papers are superior to multiply-authored ones**. They claim that “single authors papers [have] qualities unobtainable in multi-author papers”, in that “they present an opportunity to publish opinionated and creative thoughts unbound by compromise.” They go on to suggest that solo-authored papers (but not multiply-authored ones) can produce “highly creative and laudable individualistic approaches to fundamental questions”.
This is an interesting and important claim. It would be difficult to put it to quantitative test, although one might ask whether papers later cited as paradigm-shifting have shorter authorship lists than the average for their field and time. I’m not going to do that analysis (because I have a day job!), but it would make an interesting science-studies PhD thesis***. Instead, I’ll turn to personal anecdote . My own experience is that multiply-authored papers can be more creative, not less, than solo-authored ones.
In fact, greater creativity is one of the things that draws me to coauthorship. Throughout my career, I’ve published multiply-authored papers that were far better than anything I could have written alone. Sometimes that’s because a team can cover more methodological ground, combining ideas from different fields to make an advance no single author could have made alone (as with the paper I blogged about here, or more dramatically, with my papers on the diversity of T-cell response to immune challenge). Other times it’s because ideas come out of two authors tossing ideas around, or arguing about them, maybe even before they know they’re going to coauthor a paper (as happened with my paper on the heritability of speciation rates). Many times I’ve had a conversation that went like this:
Author A: I think thing X.
Author B: You mean thing X1?
Author A: Well, no, I meant thing X2. But your X1 idea is better. Or is X3 better still?
Author B: Ooh, yes, I hadn’t thought of X3 – that’s brilliant. Could we test it with experiment Y?
And so on, until in the very best collaborations the team ends up with idea X7 being tested with experiment Y4b and nobody can quite remember whose idea anything was. That’s where creativity comes from – the jostling, tumbling play of ideas that ensues when two or more scientists think usefully different things. That’s why I coauthor papers – not because I can write them more easily, or because I can publish more of them, but because they’re better. More interesting, more integrative, and yes, more creative!
Now, Garsten et al. are quite right that we should make sure we give solo authors and coauthors appropriately weighted credit for their contributions (although defining “appropriate” credit is not trivial). But that doesn’t mean thinking solo authors, or their solo-authored work, are necessarily superior. Coauthorship brings wonderful opportunities; let’s not “encourage” each other to miss them.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) April 28, 2015
**They even suggest that PhD students might be required to publish a solo-authored paper as a condition of graduation. Here’s Alex at The Lab and Field explaining why that’s not a good idea.
***To be published solo-authored, of course.