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Thousands of scientists publish a paper every five days (nature.com)
122 points by chriskanan 10 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 41 comments





This is a great study and gives insights in to what's wrong with research today. As the study has uncovered the causes:

- mentorship of very many young researchers

- leadership of a research team

- becoming full professors, department chairs

- leadership roles in large centres

As the paper states: at the peak of their productivity, some cardiologists publish 10 to 80 times more papers in one year compared with their average annual productivity when they were 35–42 years old. There was also often a sharp decrease after passing the chair to a successor.

In other words, people with checkbooks gets their names engraved on work that is being done by others. Their author metrics like h-index and citation counts would shoot up and the get credit for scholarly publications even if they have played little or no part.

This is extremely sad. These people in leadership roles should be avoiding taking credit to scholarly work that is not theirs.

As the article says, requirements for authorship are the "Vancouver criteria" established in 1988. These specify that authors must do all of four things to qualify: play a part in designing or conducting experiments or processing results; help to write or revise the manuscript; approve the published version; and take responsibility for the article’s contents.

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors does not count supervision, mentoring or obtaining funding as sufficient for authorship. However as credit hungry folks becomes leaders they circumvent all and every ethical line to get their names on everybody else's work whoes paychecks and careers depend on their whims.


It is more complicated then that with mentors and leaders. When I was writing article, I did the problem solving and writing.

Then the professor went through it multiple times and we rewrote a lot of it. Initial push - the choice of problem and choice of articles to read so that I learn enough to even start were also instrumental to my research. It would not be possible without it.

I don't think it is entirely unfair for professor to get credit for that. Knowing what to do, which problem has reasonable potential and is open, knowing what is potentially related and knowing what to read matter a lot. As in, it is be easy and possible to replace student and harder to replace professor in the whole thing.


Totally agree. However, in many instances, some people listed as authors didn't contribute in any way to the article. They may have attended a meeting at some point, or there may be a local culture where you have to include your PhD advisor no matter what.

On the other hand, there are researchers who wouldn't put their name on an article unless they contributed significantly.


I had an advisor who wanted his own name and 2 of his students names on a paper where his only contribution was giving some reagent.

A mentor deserves to be credited but that does not have to mean listing them as an author.

It's the academic analog to Hollywood's "executive producer" credit. At least they typically only take the last author slot on the paper's author list. That's how it is in computer science research.

Same in oceanography. People also are frequently attached to papers/proposals for name recognition to increase chances of funding. I don't really see an issue with it at all. everyone knows that it is the first and second authors that are important.

As long as the "ghost writers" are actually involved in at minimum reviewing the research.

I see what you are saying, but at the same time I think it is an inescapable fact that the only ‘essential’ authors on a paper ie the authors without which the work wouldn’t have been done at all, are the senior authors. To suggest that they shouldn’t receive credit for that seems very unfair.

Firstly, two of the Vancouver criteria are silly. The third doesnt make sense. Most gradute students in my experience do not have the authority to approve the published version. Does this mean grad students cant be paper authors? They're the ones doing most of the work. The fourth criterion is meaningless. Your name is on there that means you take responsibility. In any case if you're a reputed professor no one is questioning the paper.

Secondly, the four criteria are easy to meet for professors who shouldnt be authors. They "guide" the student which can be construed as playing a part in design, look over the manuscript, approve it, and take responsibility. But their contribution was probably of the order of a few percent of the total effort. If you have enough researchers under you, it's not super hard to meet those and be a hyperprolific publisher.


I thought approving a paper just meant saying "Yes, I approve." Why do you think students can't do that?

I send the final paper draft to all my co-authors before submitting to get their approval.


> These people in leadership roles should be avoiding taking credit to scholarly work that is not theirs.

That's also one of plot devices behind "Space Apprentice" by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.


MDs are NOT scientists by any criteria you could reasonably formulate. The actual and unique use of research for 99.99% of MDs is academic advancement, which in the medical field also goes with lots of money (patents, scientific board membership, etc.). Hence the rise of "piggyback research", i.e. putting your name everywhere you possibly can or if you really want to put some effort in it, doing meta analyses on topics you don't know anything of in practice.

Medical "research" is a shame to our society.


The only information your post conveys is that you know nothing about medical research, but you have strongly held conspiracy views about it.

And you are being very much presumptuous. Clearly, you also have very partial views on the topic.

It doesn't surprise me that many of the prolific authors are in medical and life sciences. I have worked with validating registered research at a large hospital (actually a conglomerate of multiple hospitals) and the physicians there had the most 'creative' ways of registering their research I have ever seen. Interviewed by a journalist? Let's put that down as a peer reviewed journal article. It was absolutely jaw dropping some of the things they tried to get way with in order to inflate their publication numbers. I'm sure that many other tricks are being used, like pressuring students to publish papers and get your name on them without any work, etc. Citation cartels have been uncovered among journals that you wouldn't normally think to be predatory, and are indexed by Scopus and/or WoS. It would not surprise me the least if publication cartels exists as well, with editors and reviewers agreeing to let anything get published in exchange for returning the favor.

Another way is to simply use existing methods applied to a new gene/molecule. So in principle you're just doing the work of a laboratory technician, but you get to publish a scientific article.

That still sounds like potentially useful work to me, I always appreciate it when I'm looking something up and can find those gigantic tables of everything applied to everything. Perhaps not a Nature paper but at least it's something.

What hurts is the whiff of grant cartels. You read some of the grants and it's not hard to believe they we're written with someone in mind.

"In high-energy and particle physics, projects are done by large international teams that can have upwards of 1,000 members. All participants are listed as authors as a mark of membership of the team, not for writing or revising the papers. We therefore excluded authors in physics."

One important point that the authors are missing is that most of the results published by those teams are null results. This doesn't happen in the other fields considered in the article, e.g. medicine, where there is often a positive-results bias, despite the lower number of publications per author.


Some agencies issuing grants have started only allowing mentioning n (e.g. n=10) important publications in grant applications. I think this is a good temporary workaround for some of the bad incentives in the current system.

You will give a negative impression if:

+ you can not find 10 high-quality articles in your body of work

+ you are not the first author on any of the 10 articles

+ influential work is more positively rewarded than with the h-index


Are they also the first author? that is the relevant question. Letting a PhD do all the work and just slapping your name at the end of the 'author'-list hardly seems authorship.

By this definition a CEO of a building company builds a flat in whole year just by himself.


The end of the list is called Senior author and is very important and sometime a point of contention between collaborators. Still, if your name is on the list it’s because you presumably had a significant scientific contribution.

So no, being a CEO is not an automatic qualification. It’s actually a good measure of how narcissistic a CEO is.


There's another source (I've seen'em do it!). Some computer scientists rehash their papers constantly so almost the same paper gets published in a variety of magazines.

Some? Probably most. A project I worked on produced a "here is what we have just started doing" paper in year 1, then a "we have some more results" paper in year 2, and two slightly different "here is what we ended up with" papers in year 3.

But what do you expect? The system rewards publication above everything. And these are intelligent people. Of course they are going to maximise the numbers. Because if they don't, they get fired and replaced by people who will.

After 10 years in industry (publishing patents, not papers) I contacted my PhD adviser and asked what chance he thought I had of getting an academic job. His answer was equivocal, "none".


I had a professor that spoke fondly of the LPU, the "least publishable unit". And, needless to say, you shouldn't waste more than one LPU on one paper...

(Side note: I was amused to see that the LPU has a wikipedia article. It also references "Salami publishing"... Side side note: I was also amused to see that the acronym LPU also stands for "Lovely Professional University" in India.)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Least_publishable_unit


On the flip side I've been working on the same project with lots of progress but no publication for years. There are drawbacks.

I need to graduate at some point and I am afraid my lack of publication will hold me back. I have been working on this project for years and have no feedback from the community. There may be things I've been missing for a long time.

There's a balance to strike here.


Shouldn't this article by replaced with a single sentence: "Some collaborations are large and their individuals have normal publication rates yet the entire collaboration is listed"?

In fact, there’s more to it than that. While there are large collaborations, that’s basically the first thing they filter out. There are a significant number of people who seem to collaborate a lot (and, they note, don’t sleep much), without being in large collaborations.

Those large collab papers are hilarious. I once ordered a paper through inter library loan. I got an envelope with the paper in, but when I leafed through it I realized that it was about 12 pages with only a title and author names. Some one had not looked through to confirm that all the pages were there before sending it, and I could understand why. Didn't count the names but it must have been several hundreds. Good luck assigning author rank from their order!

The Thing is, in today's physics experiments at that scale, you cannot distinguish the amounts of work. Basically everyone in the collaboration will have a non-zero share. A paper about a specific analysis would not be possible without the people who designed the experiment, build it, maintain it, do the actual data taking, wrote the analysis software, do dev-ops in the data center etc etc etc.

So there is only one fair solution, list everyone in alphabetical order.

And if two LHC experiments publish together, that's > 2000 people.


> wrote the analysis software, do dev-ops in the data center etc etc etc.

These things are true for other fields as well (machine learning for example), but they don't result in authorship in other fields.


high energy physics is somewhat unique in this regard, as other fields would consider the LHC the apparatus which is maintained by techs who are NOT authors.

I work in the LHC. I can confirm dev-ops, the very many kinds of engineers, people writing analytic software, storage systems and a long long etc. do NOT get referenced in physics publications.

Only physicists (but then there are hundreds of them)


Where do they draw the line? Is a person with a PhD in physics who writes analytics software credited? Or only someone with an official research program/grant?

It seems that there can't be that many people actively involved in the paper, but everyone needs to be on, e.g. the Higgs boson paper, not referenced in a supporting work on, e.g. a detector, or their career is trashed.

In our lab we always push for people to write up what they are working on, which may or may not be 'original'. Usually it turns out that there is much innovative or original work, which without documentation the experiment could not be repeated/analysis would have been different, etc. And that kind of tech note/report should be referenced by all the experiments that tool/technique, even if they are not co-authors of the derived work. For example, an experimenter uses visualisation system Y in producing report X: X->Y reference. The vis system uses FFTW documented in report Z: Y->Z. The source and binaries and build chain for the expt and analysis are in VM images archived with the data.


Seems like many of those in physics were excluded from the list.

If Einstein was still alive he'll probably say: "I've been publishing papers before it was mainstream!"

Einstein? You mean the guy who could only publish four papers during his most successful year? By today's standard he probably wouldn't even get a PhD.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annus_Mirabilis_papers


I'm sure my graduate adviser appears to be a high-frequency publisher (before he became Dean). His name was on every paper that his 9-10 PhD students got published and rightly so--he got us the funding, helped us formulate ideas and perform the research, smoothed over our screwups, and even helped write the papers themselves.

That's called soft fraud.

I think many of these authors should be featured or retraction watch:

https://retractionwatch.com/2018/09/12/when-it-comes-to-auth...

I have chosen to have a paper pulled when I was added as an author without my knowledge. (They had used some of my unpublished work.) These journals should do the same, establishing a minimum threshold of active contribution.




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