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Scientific publishing: How much is too much?

John Ioannidis reflects on the phenomenon of "hyper-publishing," where certain scientists are listed as authors on scores of papers a year.

If you’re a scientist, publishing papers on your research is a critical part of your career. So you’d think that the more a scientist publishes, the better, right?

It may not be that clear cut. In a new review in Nature, John Ioannidis, MD, DSc, co-director of the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford, and colleagues question what it means to publish, especially in high volumes.

Some scientists, he says, fall into a category of “hyperprolific” authors — a term he coined and defines as people who publish more than 72 research papers during a calendar year. Ioannidis is hoping that studying the authors who are extremely prolific may offer useful insight into evolving authorship norms — as well as norms affecting credit and responsibility — across science.

It’s hard to quantify how many papers are too many, and hyperprolific authors may well include some of the most stellar high-achievers, Ioannidis says, but these massive numbers are surely curious, and raise questions about the motivations of these authors, as well as the system itself. Nonetheless, as Ioannidis and his co-authors write, "we have no evidence that these authors are doing anything inappropriate."

Ioannidis and his colleagues have released a list of the hyperprolific authors included in analysis, which was based on information in the Scopus database  — these authors have also been notified of their inclusion.

I reached out to Ioannidis to learn more.

What is a hyperprolific author?

Hyperprolific authors are those who publish so many papers within a short period, that many other scientists would find it implausible and rather unfeasible. These are full papers, excluding editorials, letters, or notes, and publication is happening at a rate that's equivalent to publishing a full paper every five days.

Is hyper-publishing new?

The phenomenon is quite new — extremely few authors managed to reach such productivity peaks until recently. In the last decade, there are suddenly thousands of such authors in high energy and particle physics, but there it's widely recognized that these scientists are not really 'authors' but simply members of large teams who work together. In other sciences, in the last 15 years, we also saw a rapid growth of such hyperprolific publishers and it has been unclear whether they actually fulfill traditional authorship criteria.

In fact, it's likely that many fields have changed the bar that scientists must pass to become an author. In our survey of hyperprolific authors, most of them admitted that, in many of their papers, they did not meet the traditional Vancouver criteria for authorship [recommendations for conducting, reporting, editing, and publishing scholarly work in medical journals that is drafted by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors].

Is this a concern?

I see it more as a window of opportunity to examine what authorship and credit means in science. Authorship is the key coin of scholarship: people get recognized, rewarded and  promoted based on their publication records. There is strong 'publish or perish' pressure in most scientific environments and many institutions or even entire countries have incentive systems that favor those who publish more papers. In some institutions in China, for example, cash awards for papers published can be many times higher than one’s entire salary.

It's important to be fair and transparent with how credit and rewards are allocated. We want to reward the most energetic and the most creative, not the most manipulative, politically savvy or coercive. I trust that these hyperprolific authors include some of the best scientists in the world — but they may also include some that passed this threshold for reasons other than excellence.

What are your next steps?

I feel that we've just scratched the surface of a major issue. We will continue work in this field, trying to understand better the main drivers of this phenomenon, whether they are congruent with best science, and how one can maximize quality and allocate credit in a fair manner.

Photo by cocoparisienne

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