How many authors is too many?

Nature recently published a quick blurb about a paper on fruit fly genetics that has sent social media abuzz.  Why?  Because the paper, published in G3: Genes Genomes Genetics, lists over 1,000 authors.  Further, more than 900 of these authors are undergraduates and members of the Genomics Education Partnership, an organization that has posted a record of the commentary on the author number. The author list, which spans the first three pages of the PDF, is shown below.

    fly2     fly3

The paper has sparked a larger debate about the role of training and education in research, particularly when it comes to undergraduate involvement.  Alongside the paper, the authors also released a blog post about undergraduate-empowered research in the Genetics Society of America’s Genes to Genomes blog.  This is the first paper I’ve seen that lists a blog post as supporting information.

I can see arguments on both sides. On one hand, crowd-sourcing allows us accomplish tasks impossible for a single person to execute. The computer scientist in me loves this aspect of the story.  Here, “the crowd” is the sea of undergraduates that edited and annotated a DNA sequence (the Muller F element, or the “dot” chromosome) in fruit flies by analyzing and integrating different types of data.  Unlike papers that use Mechanical Turk to collect data, where the crowd is typically non-experts, this particular crowd has learned a set of specialized skills that facilitated the research.  Undergrads dirtied their hands with real data and learned valuable insights about how to conduct research.  The educator in me finds the endeavor incredibly impactful for the scientists-in-training.  On the other hand, being buried in the author list makes one’s contributions look meaningless.  What does it mean to be a co-author on such a paper?  If the Genomics Education Partnership consisted of only a few dozen undergraduates, would it be better?  Some of these questions are discussed in the Neuro DoJo blog post.  The academic “I-want-to-get-tenure” in me cringes at the thought that good research may be down-weighted because the author contributions were unclear if I were in the middle of the author list.

I think that the undergraduates from the Genomics Education Partnership did conduct research that contributed to the paper, and they should be credited in some way.  It seems that in the age of crowdsourcing, perhaps there needs to be an intermediate between authorship and acknowledgement that indicates a collective contribution from a group of people (e.g. students in a class or members of a consortium).

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