It was a splendid, magnanimous compliment from a modest 15-author team to two teams of 16 authors apiece. What happened in 1986 we have yet to learn. As a regular reader of NEJM, my impression is that things have improved. Certainly, 1987 began quietly with a six-piece band as the largest group of authors in the first issue of the year. In the scientific literature at large, however, the problem of multiple authorship remains formidable. With the arguable exception of particle physics, in which international collaborations can genuinely orchestrate the labors of dozens of researchers, it is hard to believe that many alleged joint authors have made sufficient contributions to justify that reward. Does the technician who takes the electron micrographs using standard techniques really merit equal recognition alongside the scientist who interprets the pictures and designs the experiments in the first place?
The obvious fraternity to sort out this problem is the guild of editors, so it's good to see one of their own organs taking a lead in ventilating the issue. The current issue of European Science Editing (No. 30, January 1987, p. 3) carries a paper in which Dr. K. Satyanarayana of the Indian Council of Medical Research complains about what he calls "the inconsistent awards of authorship" and the frustrations which this generates for researchers, publishers, information scientists, bibliographers and editors. Confirming a familiar trend, he reports that while the number of single-authored papers in the Indian Journal of Medical Research dwindled from 31 percent in 1944 to less than four percent in 1984 (and even those with two or three authors declined slightly in number), papers with four or more authors increased dramatically. He rightly questions the real significance of this change.
Unfortunately, when Satyanarayana moves on to discuss practical solutions, he becomes hyper-cautious. "In India nobody except the person heading a research team has a say in nominating authors," he writes.
"Can the editors question this?" To which the obvious answer is: "For heaven's sake, why not?" Satyanarayana is uncomfortably aware of the difficulties caused by multi-authorship and the inconsistencies (and worse) it can disguise. He claims, for example, that most instances of duplication and fraud have occurred in multiauthored papers. He also reminds us of problems created when key names are omitted—an obverse sin, but one originating in the same failure to adhere to rigorous rules of authorship.
"Some junior scholars have complained that their names have been completely left out although they had carried out the study," he writes. "They have marched into the editorial office armed with their theses and proved their point. While many of them hesitate to put this accusation on paper, some do. But then the damage to the reputation of the journal and to the career of the young scholar cannot be undone."
There is no shortage of possible solutions to this problem. One idea is for journals to insist that the first author is the person who actually does the work, that the last named is the supervisor, and that the work of these and any other contributors listed in between is authenticated through a signed document. I've little doubt that this would help to cut the cackle. It is time for editors the world over to accept their responsibility here, and discharge it to the benefit and relief of all.