Science authorship: is increasing numbers of authors making it meaningless?

Big science means many authors on paper, but are adding so many authors on a paper diluting the contribution of those who did the work? Does it make authorship meaningless?

I am a big proponent of including those who have done the work onto the author line. I have even been on papers with more than 25 authors. At the very least, everyone should be treated fairly and authorship needs to be consistent. You can’t just include some but not all. The trouble is now the number of papers that include 25, 50, 100, or even over 5000 authors is increasing. This is happening for a few reasons, primarily, however because these big data projects that involve sophisticated physics or genomics, require extraordinarily expensive and complicated technology and computational data analysis that many scientists need to be involved to complete these complex projects.

So, what is authorship? What does it mean? This topic has been addressed by Science, Nature, and journal editors who are involved in evaluating and publishing such studies. One paper nicely outlines the increase in the number of authors in biomedicine and physics. While biomedicine authorship inclusion has increased, some papers in physics have topped the authorship numbers at greater than 5000. Yes, 5000?

While this has been evaluated in the scientific press, recently this discussion has made it to the pages of the Wall Street Journal. They too highlight the rapid growth of the author line. Is this a reflection of the increase in technology and team science? Most likely, it is. Is it sustainable? Probably not. Authorship is a prized and privileged thing. There is no problem included on the author line, just as long as those who deserve it are included and those who are not closely aligned and work hard on the project are not included. How do you honestly assess what author number 452 out of 5000 contributed?

One of the first questions that came to mind when reading these articles was – how long does it take 5000 people to write that article?

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