On the conservation of single-author papers

The number of authors included on research papers in many disciplines has increased over time. This editorial in Journal of Applied Ecology is the latest analysis of this trend, finding that published single-author research papers in that journal have declined since 1966 (two years after the journal started publishing). N.B. the authors only quantify research papers (i.e. data papers, but they don’t specify if they include reviews/meta-analyses…see below), and applied ecology should be a multidisciplinary field, so this is a good thing.

The editorial is excellent, and you should read it – the discussion of underlying causes of this trend is mostly reasons why we should encourage more multi-author papers.

But…there will always be a place for single-author papers in research, especially for early career researchers.

Research is collaborative. Nothing is original; building knowledge relies on community and interdisciplinary collaboration. But this fact alone does not negate the role of single-author papers in contributing to knowledge.

Few papers have looked at single vs. multi author papers across disciplines. So, as an example, I searched for papers on ‘ecosystem services’ in Web of Science, and then refined the results by random disciplinary subjects. I only looked at the first 50 records of each subject, and some had fewer than 50 records, so the graph shows proportions. I used ‘ecosystem services’ because it’s one of my areas of expertise, and it’s also a recent research term (established in the 1970s-90s); so most disciplines will have comparable decades of bulk research. Apparently, single-author papers are more common in some disciplines than others.

single author
Proportion of single-author papers on ‘ecosystem services’ (from a small sample); data from Web of Science

So what is the role of single-author papers in research?

Expert opinions. Well-argued expert views from a particular area of research (including reviews and syntheses) are more common from a single author, compared to papers involving data collection. And researchers can, and should, have their own ideas; formulating and justifying these ideas is part of their job description.

Observations. For ecology & biology related disciplines, observational natural history notes are extremely important data papers – they identify knowledge gaps and provide citable foundations for research projects. The majority of these papers should be single-authored, mostly because if you saw something really cool while out communing with nature, you should write about it! Unfortunately, because so few ecology journals accept natural history notes, this valuable type of single-author paper is often overlooked.

Early career researchers (ECRs). One of the most common skills highlighted in job advertisements, both academic and non-academic, is the ‘ability to work both independently and in a team’. This is a key reason ECRs should be encouraged to include a single-author paper in their publication record – a mix of both single & multi author papers demonstrates a researcher’s ability to conceptualise, analyse, and justify their research, as both an individual and a collaborator.

Independence and reputation. Single-author papers give ECRs space to grow. Many postdoc ECRs are employed on short-term contracts associated with someone else’s project. So any papers they produce from that project will naturally include other authors. This is totally normal, and important for building professional networks. But having a single-author project to tinker away at on the side has many benefits: it provides ECRs with an independent project to work on when waiting for feedback from co-authors, or feeling frustrated with their ‘proper’ job; and it gives them the opportunity to learn and build their own disciplinary niche (see previous point).

Community ecology. Communities are made up of interactions between individuals and their environment. Research disciplines are communities. And individuals, e.g. sole authors, are a component of those communities. Single-author papers inspire multi-author debate, new research, and new collaborations that advance the field. We shouldn’t want them to go extinct.


© Manu Saunders 2017

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