My question parallels that of https://english.stackexchange.com/q/99886/117318, which asks whether "Gamma et al." should be considered singular or plural for verb conjugation. The top and accepted answer says that it depends whether the verb refers to the researchers (since the translation of the Latin is "Gamma and others", which is plural), or if it refers to the publication/work.

Which usage is conventional in academia? Is there significant variation across fields that anyone is aware of? Are there best practices to avoid confusion?

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    "Is [anything] typically [anything] in academia?" No. – Mark Meckes Dec 18 '18 at 2:08

If you say "Gemma et al." to mean the paper, then it is singular. This is the usual case. If you say "Gemma et al." to mean all the authors of the paper, then it is plural.

Gemma et al. describes the ants of Southeast Asia.

But note: Gemma et al. have never actually been to Southeast Asia.

Comments show this varies by field. So look at some of the best recent papers in your own area, and see how they do it. In fact, some areas do not write "Gemma et al." but something like "[7]" or "[Gem 1995]" or whatever code is in the bibliography. Then of course we may write

[Gem 1995] describes the exceptional Lie algebras

even if there are three authors. Or, if you claim papers cannot take any actions,

[Gem 1995] contains a description of the exceptional Lie algebras

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    This is the right distinction, but which is the usual case will vary depending on the field. – Especially Lime Dec 18 '18 at 10:26
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    "et" is not an abbreviation. – Emil Jeřábek Dec 18 '18 at 14:29
  • @Norbert: When you refer to a paper, you really say "The work of..."? I don't. – GEdgar Dec 19 '18 at 1:08
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    This must be discipline specific. I've generally heard that papers can't say or do or describe anything (only people do such things and then write about them in papers), so signal phrases should refer to authors: "Gemma et al. describe...". – 1006a Dec 19 '18 at 3:45
  • I agree with @Norbert, as explained in an another answer. – user2768 Dec 19 '18 at 7:18

I'm going out on a limb here and making a wild guess. "Academia" is too broad. Some fields may use one more often than another, but I really doubt that it goes much beyond a single author and how he/she is thinking at the moment. I think you will find wide variety of usage even in the same field.

However, I'll go out even further on the limb and suggest both a reason for this and what I consider a sensible way to write.

Sometimes you want to refer specifically to a particular paper and your phrasing or context makes that clear. Whether the paper has multiple authors or not isn't relevant. The paper is it and it is singular.

However, sometimes you want to refer more generally to the work of an author or a group of authors, of which a particular paper is only an instance. In such cases it is entirely natural to use singular or plural depending on the number of authors.

But it is a bit more complicated. You could, in fact, even refer to the work of a particular lab (in general) independent of its members, in which case, it is, again, singular (in the US, at least - see below), depending on your overall phrasing and context.

There is, I've noticed, a per-country convention in some of this. In the US, if I refer to the work of, for example, Google, I would use the singular (Google has produced...). But in the UK an organization is considered to be plural (Google have produced...). This same convention would naturally be applied to a lab considered as an organization.

So, my conclusion is, don't look for any consistency for Academia. But try to make clear in your writing whether you are referring to a particular paper (singular) or to the work, more generally, of its authors (varies).


I believe the opposite to a highly upvoted answer:

I consider it wrong to write "Gemma et al. describes the ants of Southeast Asia" (emphasis added), because "Gemma et al." means people, not a paper, hence, it is plural. Thus, use describe (as opposed to describes) in the following

Gemma et al. describe the ants of Southeast Asia.

I don't believe "Gemma et al." can refer to a paper, unless it is quantified as such, e.g.,

Work by Gemma et al. describes the ants of Southeast Asia.

Returning to the question, "Gamma et al." is plural.


When discussing citations in general, you can have a singular citation: when a paper has been cited only once (by another). However, use of in text citations themselves varies widely between disciplines. You should follow the conventions of your field. These should be evident from other publications in that field. Different fields refer to previous publications by findings of the authors, a study, or an observation that has been shown (in the passive voice).

Regarding use of the citation with respect to English grammar “Gamma et al” is Latin for “Gamma and others” so you use it just as you would fit referring to the findings of multiple authors in English:

Gamma and colleagues have described the ants of South East Asia

If it is acceptable in your field, you can avoid this entirely with the passive voice:

The ants of South East Asia have previously been described [Gamma et al., 1984]

Unless it is the convention in your field or you want to draw attention specifically to the authors (such as discuss multiple works from the same group), then it is not necessary to use the citation in a sentence.

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