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In chemistry and physics, there are now a number of scientists who appear as authors on over 1,000 papers. Famous professors can have good funding and then a large research group where their research fellows work in parallel while they apply for more funds.

However, when it comes to 1,000 papers, to me it no longer seems possible for a person to make a legitimate contribution to each paper. In other words, it seems the famous professor's contribution must be trivial to many of these papers. I even wonder if there is time to read all of their papers carefully.

Do these authors simply get authorship in return for getting funding and running a group, or is it possible for them to be a full author in the normal sense of the word for most or all of their papers?

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    The easiest answer would be, that his contribution is the money and the lab space. That's most of the time enough. – Julian Apr 21 '15 at 16:08
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    @Julian money is not enough! – StrongBad Apr 21 '15 at 17:52
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    @StrongBad Form my experience, I learned that especially in the really big groups, the profs use really a lot of time to wirte proposals for funding, give talks and interviews. They have post docs or employes (in germany e.g. akademische Räte) which help/guide the phds. They more ore less divide theit groups in smaller fractions which are superivsed by the post docs/etc. and If they are really great profs, they supervise the group leaders. But there are enough, who are "just" on the paper for money/name and field of science. If its really enough contribution to matter is a different topic. – Julian Apr 22 '15 at 12:20
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    @StrongBad It is unethical. But if the student is working for and in the lab of the professor, normally (as far as I know in natural scieneces) the prof is on the paper whather or not he did wiggle with his little finger for the paper or not. – Julian Apr 22 '15 at 12:32
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    Erdős and Shelah immediately come to mind, when I see the title of this question. – Martin Apr 28 '15 at 19:37
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It seems like a single person could make a meaningful contribution to 1000 papers. Assuming 40 years of high publishing productivity (35-75 years old), 1000 papers requires 2 a month. With an 80 percent time commitment on a 50 hour work week, that is 80 hours of contribution per paper. I think 80 hours is enough time to make a contribution to a paper worthy of authorship. Simply discounting papers because someone has published a lot seems unfair.

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    40 years without teaching? – Stephan Kolassa Apr 21 '15 at 11:56
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    @StephanKolassa if you bring in enough grant money, there is not much risk of being on a soft money research only contract. – StrongBad Apr 21 '15 at 12:06
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    Meaningfully contributing to 1000+ papers is rare but not unheard of, especially in disciplines like math. I think the record holder is Erdős with 1500+ papers, and some other prolific authors (e.g., Euler) are not that far behind. Near-misses (i.e., authors with a number of publications in the high hundreds) are also more common than you think. – Koldito Apr 23 '15 at 6:04
  • @Koldito I can offer one data point: I was lectured in Galway by a mathematician who has (at last count) 1106 papers. While most of them seem to be co-authored, I'm pretty sure his contributions to them cannot be dismissed as trivial. – Shane O Rourke Apr 28 '15 at 19:46
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To answer the title question: Yes, it is possible, as shown by the following convincing example.

Logician Saharon Shelah has written over a thousand papers (in addition to a number of books). The inner workings of collaborations are never public, but the norms of the field and the fact that the papers have very few coauthors strongly suggests that he did indeed make substantial contribution to all of them.

[ Whether most scientists with over a thousand papers to their name "earned" them is a different question. ]

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While it is possible (as other answers show), there are also professors whose name could be considered as the collective pseudonym of their PhD students: The students publish papers with the author "Prof X" (and their own name), so that they can write grant proposals for "Prof X", citing all his papers.

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