academic publication, NRF, professor, single-authorship

Does single authorship matter?

Yesterday I attended a research meeting and it was said that there is a new challenge facing us: if you want to become a Professor, or obtain a NRF rating, you have to write more single-author articles. This should be balanced with the drive to do more multi-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary research (and with achieving large quantities of high-quality outputs). We argued a bit and I decided to write this post.

The challenge of the academic environment is to make your work visible. Teaching presents some particular challenges, but I have always thought that research is easier. A paper is a paper. If you want to, you can count the number of authors, attribute things to the order in which the authors are mentioned, or have a look at the impact factor, h-score or just the number of citations. It should be an easy metric of what you can do as a researcher.

Apparently the idea behind this single-authorship “challenge” is that multiple-author papers do not provide a  clear enough signal of ability. Maybe some people are being carried. To become a Prof, you need to show that you can do it all on your own!

I think that these ideas should be treated with caution. It assumes that multiple-authors are simply sharing the work and that the efficiency and quality of the end products are are same as single-author papers. As an economist I tend to favour the idea of the division of labour and specialisation. Writing with good co-authors gives the opportunity to do just that and it benefits efficiency and quality. I think that there are also spillover effects if you have good international collaborators. They have not only mastered the latest methods, but also have experience of what it takes to submit to top journals. There is usually a lot to learn.

Practically speaking the division of labour is typically between the writer and the empirical specialist. One can write with just the turn of phrase that makes the literature review excellent. She/he shares with the co-author who has access to a unique data set, or can estimate the fashionable econometric model of the day. Given the number of years and amount of work it takes to become a professor, you will probably have each of those roles at some stage. I may be too rational, but no-one is going to carry you all the way to professorship.

Instead of getting young academics to write single-author papers, we should rather be encouraging them to write with a greater variety of co-authors and just plain better co-authors.

But now the question is: do I have data to support these claims? Unfortunately there is only so much that you can learn from an hour or two on the internet. I had a look at the ERSA working papers to get an idea of the prevalence of single- and multiple-author papers in Economics and discovered the following:

Single authorship is more prevalent than I thought, but as expected, the two-author format is common. You do find ERSA papers with three authors, but there are very few with more than three authors.

You would need to know a lot more about the papers and authors involved to draw any conclusions. I know a fair number of the authors of these ERSA papers and want to conclude that there is no clear pattern. You find young researchers and established Profs writing single-author papers. There is also diversity in type of topic and approach, though you will probably find a few more theory papers with only one author. The multiple-author papers are often by colleagues at the same university and they are repeat collaborators. Having a close look at the data could be quite interesting and inform administrators’ ideas of how, and at what stage of a career, single-authorship should be promoted. For now, they are probably set on this idea and it might be best to play the game a bit and write a single-author paper for the next round of promotion. Then, e-mail your collaborators and get started on some proper work!

I’m keen to get some thoughts and comments on this.

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One thought on “Does single authorship matter?

  1. I agree. Research should be focused on either creating new knowledge or improving the way we interpret and use our current knowledge. I suspect these goals can be reached with greater efficiency when using specialisation through the division of labour (co-authorship). Knowledge creation should not take place in a vacuum. The collaboration and exchange of ideas associated with co-authorship will be more productive than isolated (single author) research. more productive than isolated (single author) research.

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