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Research Biologist Coins Term 'Kilo-Author' For Scientific Journal Articles


The question of who is listed as an author of a scientific journal article is no small matter. Academics publish or perish. It's been a common complaint of graduate students and junior faculty that their contributions have gone unnoticed. But as we learned recently from The Wall Street Journal, acknowledgment of authorship has become very expansive these days. So many authors are credited in science journals that Zen Faulkes, himself a research biologist in Texas, has coined the term kilo-author. Now, Zen Faulkes, what is a kilo-author?

ZEN FAULKES: It is - like a kilogram is a thousand grams, a kilo-author is 1,000 authors.

SIEGEL: I read in The Wall Street Journal piece that a physics article listed 5,154 authors. What does that mean?

FAULKES: Well, physicists collaborate to do their science and in very, very large teams. And it means that for somebody like me who is not a physicist, trying to figure out who did what is just about impossible.

SIEGEL: Is this a consequence of digital publishing that you don't actually have to use that much paper to credit people, so why not throw in a few hundred more authors?

FAULKES: No, I don't think so. I think it has much more to do with just the kinds of collaborations for particular sorts of projects. And there's also a tendency now because authorship is worth something, you know? It's better to be on a paper than not. I think that people are tending to err on the side of inclusion. So we're seeing things that might have, at one point, just been a thank you at the end of the paper go into, hey, could you put my name on this paper as an author?

SIEGEL: But does the proliferation of authorship credits in journal articles - in scientific articles certainly - does it cheapen the credit that a scientist gets?

FAULKES: I think so. I think it makes it very difficult for people to get fair credit because there's the first author, who is usually assumed to be the person who did most of the work. There's the last author, who is usually assumed to be the boss. And everything in between is just, oh, just somebody else. I think that really does make it difficult if you're really worried about am I getting appropriate credit? Am I getting, you know, recognition, you know? So if you're one of a thousand in a paper, you still have a paper to your name versus somebody like myself, who - I write a lot of papers just on my own. And I do everything by myself, and, you know, we both end up with one paper.

SIEGEL: Of course, when one sees a thousand authors credited for a single article, it's - you know, it's hard to imagine a thousand people agreeing on a birthday card not to mention a scientific article.

FAULKES: Oh, yeah. It's certainly not as though - and you know that they didn't all contribute the same, right? It's not as though that everybody got five words and wrote five words out of the paper.

SIEGEL: Somebody in there may have brought in the coffee for all we know.

FAULKES: Well, there have been some cases of prank authorships being snuck in there with - there was one story about, you know, somebody who credited one of their research subjects, which was a frog. Somebody - or a hamster I think it was. Somebody else put in their dog as an author. So, you know, sometimes scientists do like to play their little jokes.

SIEGEL: Well, Zen Faulkes, thanks to you, and to you alone, for talking with us about it today.

FAULKES: Thank you very much for taking an interest in the secret lives of scientists.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) OK. Zen Faulkes is a research biologist at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.