As journals proliferate, so do authors

New journals are appearing almost every day. Does anyone read them? Journals keep popping up because of the need for faculty to publish. Another reason could be that publishers, particularly those who charge authors fees for publishing, are in the business of making money.

Authoring journal articles is not only enhancing to one’s CV (the old “publish or perish” cliché), it is required by residency review committees as evidence of “scholarly activity” in training programs. Maybe it’s good for attracting referrals too.

Without too much difficulty, I have collected some interesting information about the number of authors per paper in several specialties.

First noted in 1993 by a paper in Acta Radiologica and a letter in the BMJ, the number of authors per paper has risen dramatically over the years.

study of 12 radiology journals found the number of authors per paper doubled from 2.2 in 1966 to 4.4 in 1991.

review of Neurosurgery and the Journal of Neurosurgery spanned 50 years. the average went from 1.8 authors per article in 1945 to 4.6 authors in 1995.

Of note, the above two articles were each written by a single author.

Three psychiatrists from Dartmouth analyzed original scientific articles in four of the most prestigious journals in the United States — Archives of Internal Medicine, Annals of Internal Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, and the New England Journal of Medicine – from 1980 to 2000. They found that the mean number of authors per paper increased from 4.5 to 6.9.

The same is true for two plastic surgery journals, which saw the average number of authors go from 1.4 to 4.0 and 1.7 to 4.2 in the 50 years from 1955 to 2005. The number of single-author papers went from 78% to 3% in one journal and 51% to 8% another.

In orthopedics, a review of the American and British versions of the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery for 60 years from 1949 to 2009 showed an increase of authors per paper from 1.6 to 5.1.

An impressive  rise in the number of authors took place in two leading thoracic surgery journals. For the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery the increase was 1.4  in 1936 to 7.5 2006 and for Annals of Thoracic Surgery it was 3.1 in 1966 to 6.8 in 2006.

Where will it end?

As far as I know, the current leader in the race for the paper with the most authors is “Observation of a new particle in the search for the Standard Model Higgs boson with the ATLAS detector at the LHC” in a journal called “Physics Letters B” with 3171. The list of authors takes up 9 full pages.

“Skeptical Scalpel” is a surgeon blogs at his self-titled site, Skeptical Scalpel.

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  • guest

    In a world where every applicant to medical school is expected to have a publication credit to list on his application, and applicants to residency are expected to have several, and residency training programs, even ones which aren’t university-based, are dinged by ACGME if enough faculty members haven’t published, I don’t see how it’s a surprise that this is happening. The real problem is that the proliferation of articles, many times reaching varying conclusions on the same topic, makes it difficult to truly practice evidence-based medicine these days.

    • Deceased MD

      That is true what an enigma all these studies are today. The truth is that medicine cannot be 100 percent evidence based as it is an art as well. The wish to kill off the art is killing medicine.

      • Skeptical Scalpel

        Guest, I could not agree more. Much of this is driven by what you said.

        Deceased MD, medicine will never be 100% evidence-based. There are way too many things that are not amenable to randomized trials.

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