[from Physics Today, April 2012]
Commentary: Too many authors, too few creators
Philip J. Wyatt
Wyatt Technology Corporation, Santa Barbara, California
A few years ago, Robert Fefferman, dean of physical sciences at the University of Chicago, made an interesting remark. He mentioned that Enrico Fermi, wanting to encourage individual creativity and innovation, required his PhD students to select their problem, solve it, and submit the results for publication in their name alone. Fermi also was aware that a multiauthor paper with one famous author might receive automatic acceptance rather than a thoughtful and thorough review. Many PhD students then and since have published their theses under joint authorship with their advisers. Unfortunately, the need among grant-seeking academics to publish and be cited often grew stronger, especially during federal funding cutbacks, the most recent example being the cuts in science budgets under President George W. Bush. When applying for government grants, an applicant team’s record of many cited publications was important to confirm that the submitted proposal had significant cachet for continuing support. A vicious cycle began.
Over the years, publication lists were increasing. Some colleagues boasted more than 300 publications and one close to 800! The number of authors associated with each published article was also increasing; single-author papers had become relatively rare. Were Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman, and other great scientists just lucky in finding simple ideas that one mind could understand and present? Or was technological creativity becoming so difficult that great teams of scientists were required to recognize and develop it?
Seeking answers, I made a cursory examination of some publication records of the last half century. I selected the eight publications listed in the table to the right and selected the first issue of each from January 1965 and from January 2011. To compare innovation over time, I included data on the first 100 patents issued to US applicants by the US Patent and Trademark Office during the corresponding periods. The data were gleaned from the office’s weekly Official Gazette.
The results seem truly astonishing. Although the data sets selected are relatively small, they show the downward trend of individual creativity. Most of the papers studied were written by authors in, or associated with, academia. A few came from government laboratories and some from industry.
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