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I have just submitted revisions for my first single-author paper, and it was awful (pronounced with all the exaggerated fervor of a whiny millenial). Nothing triggers feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt more than making your own decisions about what should be included in the greater body of science. (Perhaps it triggers feelings of empowerment in others-- good for you!)

Since more eyes means catching more mistakes, better word choices for a wider readership, and overall more awareness of what's a good idea, I'm wondering if it is even good for science to publish solo-author work.

In question form: do single-author papers benefit scientific research as a whole? Or mostly just the individual's personal development as an author and independent researcher? It would be great if you could endorse your answer with some kind of study.

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This paper by C. E. Shannon in 1948 was the founding work of the whole field of information theory, which deals with the ultimate limits on reliable communication over arbitrary channels and which today still occupies thousands of people worldwide.

That said, the average number of authors per paper has steadily increased from about 1.5 in 1940 to about 5.4 in 2013, according to this study. The study mentions the increasing complexity of science and the increased difficulty to get funding as possible reasons for the trend.

This means that single-author papers (and therefore highly-influential single-author papers) are much rarer now than they were in 1940. If we measure the impact in number of citations (which has its own caveats), there are still a few highly influential recent papers with a single author, such as this one (2007) with 71588 citations or this one (2002) with 14348 citations.

Though they are rarer nowadays, single-author papers can advance scientific progress in the same way as multiple-author papers. They still go through peer review, and ultimately what is important is the content. If you have some results that would be interesting to the scientific community, the number of authors should not be a factor in deciding whether to publish it or not.

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    You provide an good example, but it might be worth citing something more recent. The average number of authors on a scientific paper in 1948 was below 1.5, so it was still an era of individual scientific contribution - over half of papers were single-author at that time. The average number of authors today is over 5, and single-author papers are relatively rare. You rightly answer that single author papers have indeed furthered scientific process, but it's quite rare for them to do so nowadays. Single author studies today are rarer, less likely to be published, and less likely to be cited. – Nuclear Wang Nov 22 '19 at 17:00
  • @NuclearWang you are completely right, see updated answer. Though I did find a couple of highly cited, single-author recent papers, single-author papers are much rarer nowadays. – wimi Nov 23 '19 at 10:06
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do single-author papers benefit scientific research as a whole?

Well, yes.

Albert Einstein had several single-author papers https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein#Publications

John Nash wrote the most influential paper in game theory on his own:

https://www.pnas.org/content/36/1/48

So, if the question is "are there examples of influential single-author papers" I think the answer is demonstrably yes. At least, if you think Albert Einstein and John Nash are good scientists (I do!).

If the question is "do single-author papers advance science more than multi-author papers?", then I think that the answer is probably no. Research is, at the end of the day, a collaborative endeavor. It is much easier (and fun in my opinion) to work with others rather than alone.

  • So the answer is "yes" if those single-author papers are authored by geniuses... what about if you're just some average bloke? – artificial_moonlet Nov 22 '19 at 9:43
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    How do you know you’re not a genius? I’m sure neither of them knew it at the time! – Spark Nov 22 '19 at 13:12
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This article in Nature reinforces the anecdotal answers, although it doesn't focus on single authors precisely: "Large teams develop and small teams disrupt science and technology." I guess the best a single author could hope for is to introduce "disruptive" innovation, like Shannon, Einstein, Nash, etc.

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  1. The vast majority of published research papers don't advance research or only very marginally, whether from single or multiple authors.
  2. The only recognized way to evaluate the quality of a research paper, i.e. to evaluate its potential for advancing research in general, is the peer-review process. Since the peer-review process does not care at all about the number of authors, one can only assume that the number of authors is not an indicator of quality in any way.

Working solo or with a team is not a matter of quality of the outcome in general, it's a matter of:

  • research topic: some topics require a diversity of skills or an amount of work which cannot be carried out by a single person. On the other hand some topics require a deep thought process which is more likely to happen in a single brain.
  • personal preferences and finding the right collaborators: in research like in many other things, things often happen in this way or that way just because of circumstances.
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Since more eyes means catching more mistakes, better word choices for a wider readership, and overall more awareness of what's a good idea, I'm wondering if it is even good for science to publish solo-author work.

I think you are confusing two issues here.

One is the writing -- mistakes, word choices, formatting, organization, etc. As you say "more eyes" is better: you have made good arguments for why there should be many editors. Even excellent authors are often "too close" to the work to see the bigger picture and explain it coherently (and most authors are not excellent - a lot of published papers, even in good journals, have substandard writing in all areas, including simple English language mistakes). Even beyond the language, a scientific editor should be able to identify weaknesses and mistakes in the paper as a whole.

The other is the authorship. An author makes an intellectual contribution. The requirement to be an author has been discussed ad nauseum here. Adding more authors does not always make the paper better (in fact, "too many cooks" often makes it worse), and language editors would not meet the bar for authorship. The advantages of multiple authors means that the work can be divided, and different areas of expertise can be brought to bear on a related problem. Sometimes this makes sense, sometimes it doesn't.

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Assume that you are not a genius (Einstein, Nash, as mentioned in other answer).

  1. If you can able to write the whole paper, in particular a decent paper (starting from ideas, implementation, analysis, and discussion) by your own, excellent, you can survive in this world, in fact, you have a good time ahead.

  2. Once you wrote this paper as a single author, unless and otherwise, you have some job requirements, it is a better choice to have some co-authors (either experts or who is actively involved in the same research as yours) to improve the quality. Apart from the choice of words (what you mentioned), you will really get benefits from the technical qualities from others. Finally, based on their contribution, you can decide to put them in either acknowledgment part or co-author list.

  3. At last, your single author work will get more chance to be extended or validated if your co-authors are happy to collaborate. Shannon is the father of capacity theorem in communications, there are a huge number of scientists who are spending time to reach Shannon capacity or beyond that, and these scientists/researchers are working together. Who knows, one day, my assumption at the beginning will be invalid for your case.

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