The coauthors I’ve never met

As of two weeks ago, I’ve published 76 peer-reviewed papers, and I’ve published them with 114 different coauthors.  Among those coauthors are my graduate and undergraduate students, my colleagues, my friends, my wife – and quite a few people I’ve never met.

My most recent paper added seven new coauthors to my collection: three I’ve met, and four I haven’t.  This got me curious about my overall numbers, and so I did what any good nerd data-loving scientist does: I wasted invested half an hour counting up my coauthors, sorting them into “met them” and “haven’t met them” categories, and plotting the results (above).  You’re welcome.

Of my 114 coauthors, 70 were people I had already met (at the time of coauthorship); the remaining 44 (or 39%) were strangers*. My first Stranger Coauthor**, ChunShen Xiang, came on my 16th paper, in the 10th year of my publishing career.  ChunShen was a postdoc in the same lab I’d worked in as an undergraduate, but years after I’d left.  My Stranger Coauthors began to accumulate rapidly not long after ChunShen’s pioneering appearance, although recently, my Stranger Fraction seems to have stabilized.

There’s been something of a shift in how my Stranger Coauthors come about.  At the beginning of my career, I knew all my coauthors. For the next two decades, as I racked up Stranger Coauthors, they almost exclusively came along with coauthors I knew.  I’d write a paper with my friend or colleague Jane Doe, and she’d involve her students, her technical staff, or her own colleagues – people who were part of her circle but not mine.  This is, of course, one great benefit of coauthorship: acquiring one coauthor immediately expands your scientific network, by far, far more than that one person.  But with my most recent paper, something very interesting has begun to happen. I’ve begun to gain coauthors who aren’t even one-degree-of-author-separation connected to me (as Jane Doe’s students and colleagues are).  There are two ways this might happen.  I might, theoretically, be famous enough in my field that strangers call me up out of the blue to suggest coauthoring with me.  This, I can assure you, is not the case!  Instead, my newest Stranger Coauthors have come to me through Twitter and blogging.  This isn’t a one-off thing: I have a second paper in preparation with another set of Stranger Coauthors, all accumulated via Twitter discussion of one of my blog posts.  I was a social-media skeptic for a long time, but my newly acquired Stranger Coauthors provide bountiful evidence that I was very badly off-base in that skepticism.

Stranger Coauthors, of course, don’t have to stay strangers.  I’ve had the pleasure of meeting nine of them, months to years after our coauthorships.  Mostly this happens at conferences.  As a card-carrying introvert I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with meeting people at conferences – but I can assure you that few things are more fun than meeting a Stranger Coauthor in person for the first time.  In one memorable case, though, I met a Stranger Coauthor on the streets of my hometown on Hallowe’en night, as we were each shepherding our young sons from door to door.  The only problem?  Although I wasn’t in costume, he was, from head to toe – so at our second chance meeting I still didn’t recognize him.

I have a sneaking suspicion that my fascination with Stranger Coauthors betrays my age.  Perhaps they just aren’t remarkable any more.  There’s no question that technological advances have made it rather easy to find and collaborate with strangers, in ways that just weren’t available to me as a grad student or postdoc.  This is certainly a good thing for science, which gets better and more creative through collaboration and  coauthorship.

I wonder if my Stranger Fraction (at 39%) is unusually high or low.  What’s yours?

© Stephen Heard  October 19, 2017

*^If I included my non-peer-reviewed papers, this calculation would be thrown off spectacularly, because of one of the two funny papers on my CV.  That paper, The Morphology of Steve, gives me an additional 285 coauthors, of whom I’ve met three.  (One other has never seen me, but I’ve seen him on both The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory. Can you guess who that is?)

**^I realize this phrase has a little ambiguity, and I’ll admit it amuses me a little.  But I don’t really mean that my unmet coauthors are strange.  They might be, of course – but I’d bet cash money that some of the coauthors I have met are at least as strange as anyone among my Stranger Coauthors.  And I’d also bet cash money they’d say the same about me.



15 thoughts on “The coauthors I’ve never met

  1. Elina Mäntylä

    My percentage is 27 % (6 / 22). The first coauthors I’ve never met were in my 8th article. I know I will have several more “strangers” in hopefully soon-to-be published articles where I’m a coauthor. 😉


  2. laanisto

    Haven´t met 15 coauthors of total 36 (so ca 42%). First “never met” appeared on my 6th paper in the 4th year of publishing. Living in a tiny country on boreal zone might be the reason why the rate of outreach to strangers is higher. We might see a latitudinal effect if more data would be available…


    1. laanisto

      Driving back home I realized that I made a mistake. The actual “never met” count is 16 out of 36 (44%) and the first never met coauthor appeared already on the 2nd paper, in the 2nd year of publishing.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Yes, that’s true, and although I haven’t done the analysis, in the early part of my career there were no Stranger Coauthors; in the middle part, there were Stranger Coauthors I’d never met at all; and now the bulk of my Stranger Coauthors (although not all) are met-only-online.


  3. Will Petry

    I’m late to the Strangermetrics game, but I’m not only a temporal outlier.

    On nine papers to date, I have 67 unique co-authors. I had not met 58.2% (n=39) of them at the time of publication. Admittedly, a single mega-collaboration is responsible for pushing my Stranger Index to the upper extreme, but excluding that paper flips me to the opposite tail of the distribution: 10.3% (=3/29 co-authors). First never-met was on paper number five, four years after my first.

    I agree that newer channels for communication make it easier for electronic-only interactions (e.g., @bolnicklab’s Skype discount) and more modular collaboration networks. They also may add new levels of Strangerness. For example, the lead author of that mega-collaboration paper and I collaborated only through old-fashioned mail (samples) and email (for planning analyses, manuscript track changes, and preparing responses to reviews). We only heard each others’ voices for the first time in a public radio piece about our paper. As much as it’s great to have a searchable record of exchanges with collaborators, maybe I ought to finally give him a call.

    Liked by 1 person


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