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I have just started a post-doc. So far all of my papers have had small author lists (4-5 people). I have just been invited as a co-author on several papers with hundreds of authors. The papers are pitched as community-wide collaborations: some being white papers describing a future experiment that the community plans to engage in, others being the results from first data from such experiments. My contribution, and the contribution of 99% of the authors whose names are already there, have been negligible. What are the pros and cons of agreeing to be on such a paper?

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    Pros: papers for your CV; being a member of a collaboration; meetings. Cons (conditional): if you don't publish anything outside the collaboration, you are considered as a free-loader. Doesn't apply if you regularly publish papers not directly related to the collaboration. – user68958 Dec 29 '18 at 14:17
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    If there are hundreds of authors, realistically how big a contribution can one author make? Be a part of it if you are in the field. The field will understand the level of contribution. – Jon Custer Dec 29 '18 at 17:11
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    @corey979 I'm not sure that meetings should always count as pro. – Andreas Blass Dec 29 '18 at 20:46
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    @smci Rather than necessarily being dodgy, this sort of arrangement is completely routine, particularly in fields like genetics, where dozens or hundreds of sites must pool data to reach the numbers required for meaningful analysis. Rather than being dodgy, such papers are often published in prestigious journals and can receive thousands of citations. Also look at large physics collaborations, like the Large Hadron Collider paper on the Higgs boson in Nature: it had 5000 authors. – Michael MacAskill Dec 30 '18 at 5:00
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    @smci It's extremely common in physics as well. Far from being predatory, these papers are published in the very best journals of our field, led by the top experts of our field. Surely it is field-dependent, but given that these papers often have many thousands of authors, it is a question that affects many academics. – rhombidodecahedron Jan 1 at 11:40
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What are the pros and cons of agreeing to be on such a paper?

Pros

  • Your contributions to the collaboration are formally acknowledged, both incentivizing you to continue working on it as well as putting the candle under your butt to get up to speed on anything you should be getting good at.
  • Leaders in the collaboration see you listed as a contributing member, allowing your candidacy for the next round of projects that need attention by working group members. Generally, people reach out to include you going forward.
  • You will be put on mailings that automatically include all researchers on the paper, keeping you up to speed as developments happen in real time.
  • Your association with the project is beneficial to both your career (i.e., Look at this thing I worked on!) and the project itself (i.e., Look at this great contributor we have!).

Cons

  • None. Literally none.

There is a related problem in academia called illegitimate co-authorship, or sometimes authorship inflation, but that is a problem to be tackled by policy. If this problem bothers you, find ways to contribute to the policies and incentives that systematically reinforce this behavior. Boycotting it personally will only serve to harm your career and be a drop in the bucket of the larger problem.

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    Cons: they will always be highly-cited papers which will inflate your citation count and other metrics. People will interpret your citation counts with more skepticism or a "correction factor", so your individual work may get lost in the noise. – user71659 Dec 29 '18 at 22:29
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This sort of thing is common in many fields and unheard of in others. I suspect that in your field there are many such papers and, among other things, they establish your connection to a group of researchers who will, in the future, become leaders in the field.

So, yes, do that. And, as your career progresses your contributions will improve and increase.

There is at least one example of a paper in which the list of authors is longer than the paper itself. Possibly in a field like biochemistry, but I don't remember the details.

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    Large particle physics collaborations used to have a full author list in the paper. Fortunately that did not count against the page limit in, e.g., Physical Review Letters. Now the ‘author’ of those is a ‘collaboration’, the members of which can be found online. – Jon Custer Dec 29 '18 at 17:10
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    @JonCuster You likely refer to the (current) champion with 5154 authors (journals.aps.org/prl/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevLett.114.191803, open access). Which is set in context to a few other "hyperauthorship" papers in a nature publication (nature.com/news/…) -- equally accessible by open access. – Buttonwood Dec 29 '18 at 21:35
  • @Buttonwood - even back in the 80's there were PRLs with an author list longer than the actual paper (nominally limited to 3 pages only at that time!). Somewhere around 1988 or so they switched to listing just the 'collaboration', thereby keeping everyone to the 3 page limit. – Jon Custer Dec 30 '18 at 1:31
  • @JonCuster The varying discern of 'collaboration' and 'co-authorship' (e.g. the related drosophila paper with ~900+ contributing undergrads), which may be a problem already within much smaller groups of authors, too is a reason why I like a section "Author Contributions" in PLoS One's publications. And why the OP should seek to publish his/her results, if reasonable, separately, where his/her contributions may be more visible & influential to others. As reading body and SI of nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06185-8, the "management style" in such "enterprise-like" groups varies. – Buttonwood Dec 30 '18 at 2:32

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