Publishing challenges for the big team of science

The Rise and Fall of Scientific Disruption in the 20th Century: Evidence from Northwestern Computational Social Scientist Yian Yin

Other research2 has suggested that scientific innovation has slowed in recent decades, too, says Yian Yin, also a computational social scientist at Northwestern. This study will give a new beginning to a data-driven way to investigate how science changes.

It is important to understand the reasons for the drastic changes, Walsh says. The trend might stem in part from changes in the scientific enterprise. For example, there are now many more researchers than in the 1940s, which has created a more competitive environment and raised the stakes to publish research and seek patents. That has affected incentives for researchers to do their work. Large research teams, for example, have become more common, and Wang and his colleagues have found3 that big teams are more likely to produce incremental than disruptive science.

The authors also analysed the most common verbs used in manuscripts and found that whereas research in the 1950s was more likely to use words evoking creation or discovery such as, ‘produce’ or ‘determine’, that done in the 2010s was more likely to refer to incremental progress, using terms such as “improve’ or ‘enhance’.

Dashun Wang, a computational social scientist at Northwestern University, describes it as great to see aphenomenon documented in a methodical manner. “They look at this in 100 different ways, and I find it very convincing overall.”

Disruptiveness is not inherently good, and incremental science is not necessarily bad, says Wang. He says that the first direct observation of gravitational waves was revolutionary and the result of incremental science.

The ideal is a healthy mix of incremental and disruptive research, says John Walsh, a specialist in science and technology policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. He thinks more replication and reproduction would be a good thing because of the validity of findings.

Walsh says finding an explanation for the decline will be difficult. Although the proportion of disruptive research dropped significantly between 1945 and 2010, the number of highly-disruptive studies has remained about the same. The rate of decline is also puzzling: CD indices fell steeply from 1945 to 1970, then more gradually from the late 1990s to 2010. He says that it is necessary to make sense of the levelling off of disruptiveness in the 2000s.

Multi-authorship studies of the COVID-19 pandemic: Working groups, meta-analyses, critical appraisal and phenomenology

The existence of the Higgs boson was first posited in a trio of papers in 1964. Two of them were written by the UK’s Peter Higgs, and the other three by his US and Belgian counterparts.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic broke that record, with 15,025 co-authors on a research paper6 examining the effect of SARS-CoV-2 vaccination on post-surgical COVID-19 infections and mortality.

How authorship is eventually structured in the journal varies enormously between fields and even subfields. “We actually have what’s called a first authorship group and then we have an analyst group, and so on. It is usually in order by the name, Medland says. A multi-authorship paper covering a genome-wide association study might therefore have several lists of authors, each ordered alphabetically. By contrast, the hyperauthored Higgs boson paper has a single alphabetically ordered list.

The more authors you work with, the more complicated things get. It takes a new thinking from both researchers and the people who evaluate science.

Sarah Medland is a geneticist at the QIm Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Australia and she says that statistical power is one of the main problems in studies that look at genetics in mental-health disorders. To examine the effects of genetic variants on the structure and function of the brain, she and her colleagues often use genome-wide association studies — in which large numbers of genomes are scanned for genes that correlate to particular diseases or traits — as well as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and psychiatric assessments. The effect of a single genetic variant can be very small, so it’s important for studies to have a lot of participants. The bigger the studies, the more expensive they are, especially when MRI is involved.

ENIGMA generates papers that are meta-analyses of unpublished data from individual research teams within those working groups. “All of those groups could write their own paper, but if they did that they would be polluting the literature with all of these underpowered studies,” Medland says. Instead, they contribute those unpublished data, or a summary of them, to the meta-analyses. The end result is studies that have hundreds of contributors but are large enough to generate statistically significant and meaningful findings.

A desire for more inclusivity in science is also contributing to longer author lists, Medland suggests. She says that the people who remain as authors tend to be the most senior, and that’s because you can only have four of them listed on a paper. She says she thinks the author lists are younger, more female and diverse now that more authors can be included.

Nuclear physicist and editor-in-chief at the American Physical Society in college Park, Maryland, says no country can afford that price tag. If you want to stay at the forefront and do exciting physics, it becomes more and more expensive. It could mean hundreds or thousands of authors.


Contributions to Publications in Collaboration Agreements: Managing Authorship Groups and Coordination of Research Projects in Many Babies and ENIGMA

He said that you need to make a contribution to at least one of those categories, as well as review the manuscript to be considered for authorship. This expectation is clearly laid out at the start of any project in a collaboration agreement, and it ensures that everyone who gives their time and effort is credited equally.

This cuts to a bigger question of what sorts of contribution to scientific research warrant authorship — which Coles calls the “coin” of the scientific realm — rather than just a mention in the acknowledgements section at the end of the paper.

Thoennessen says that, in his experience, authorship is limited to scientific staff, who are the ones who are evaluated and rewarded on the basis of their scientific output.

A research paper can take a lot of work, even for a few authors, and can cost thousands of dollars. Many Babies uses a form of peer review called registered reports to evaluate the feasibility of a research project before the data has even been collected, to reduce the risk of a large ship foundering. The initiative is being promoted by the Center for Open Science, a non-profit technology organization based in Charlottesville, Virginia, to encourage best practice in scientific methods. If the question and methodology meet the required standard, a journal that has adopted the initiative will publish a paper.

Using registered reports gives our contributors a little assurance that they will get something, as opposed to the typical process of running a study and not being sure if it will ever happen.

Further challenges in coordinating large authorship groups arise once a study’s results are collated and analysed, and the process of writing and editing the manuscript begins. The senior and the first and last authors are the ones who usually have to prepare the draft according to Medland. “Once there’s a draft they’re happy with, it gets opened for comments.”

Both ENIGMA and ManyBabies use Google Docs to share the draft paper with all co-authors and collate their comments and edits. “Google Docs is both good and bad in that way”, says Medland, because you can end up with multiple, lengthy comment threads. Being in a doc where a bunch of other people are also editing it, and you can see where someone is working and follow their thought process, is kind of fun.

Ensuring that the affiliations of the authors are correct is the next challenge. Coles says that one useful tool in this respect is a web app called tenzing, developed by an international team of researchers, which essentially takes a spreadsheet with author names, affiliations and contributions and “writes your authorship page”.

Dealing with so many authors is also a headache for publishers. American Physical Society journals require authors to verify they are contributors to a paper. The system will send an e-mail if there is an agreement that you contributed and you are a co-author. He says that.

When 15,000 or so researchers have contributed to a paper, it distorts the metrics commonly used to evaluate the impact and importance of a particular research project.

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