“Scientists Observe Odd Phenomenon Of Multiplying Co-Authors,” by Robert Lee Hotz. The Wall Street Journal, 8/10/2015.
Early in 2015. the science journal Nature published a paper with 2,700 authors. (The record is over 5,000.) And this was not unique. Many scientists joke that they measure their collaborators in “kilo-authors.” To be listed as an author is a recognition of scientific contribution, not for any superior facility with the English language. Many authors do not even see the final paper until it is published.
Back when I was working in research, multiple authors on scientific papers were common. The number of published papers a scientist has is a measure of accomplishment. An author of 55 papers is assumed to be a better scientist than an author of 27 papers, no matter how many others are listed on each, and that assumption translates into better pay and more job offers.
Scientists who contributed only marginally to the research fight hard to have their name included. One name always there in our lab, without a fight, was the Director of Research, who was never known to have stepped into a lab, but approved the expenses of the research, including the salary of the actual authors.
It was a game, and everyone knew it. The journal publishers, in desperation, began to only publish the first three names, followed by “et al,” meaning “and others.” The fight then became not only to have your name included, but to have it listed in the first three. No one wanted to be grouped with the pitiful, anonymous et als.
I assume the journal publishers have abandoned the battlefield and now publish all of the names. Many of the research projects have also grown much larger, such as in the big sciences of astronomy, genetic studies, and particle physics, where researchers in the thousands are legitimate contributors to the discoveries. But I wonder how much of their time is wasted hunting for their name among thousands of others, I kid you not.