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This is related to advisor selection for North American universities, STEM majors.

I noticed some profs tend to have a lot of "solo" publications, meaning that he or she is the sole author of a journal/paper for over the span of quite a few years. This tends to be from earlier on during his or her career as a researcher.

Is this common in academia? What would cause this to happen (not saying that it is a bad thing) and does it hint at anything about the particular researcher?

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    Trivia: the Belgian mathematician Lucien Godeaux (1887-1975) has written 600+ papers, all of them as the sole author. mathoverflow.net/questions/28947/… – Federico Poloni Aug 9 '15 at 12:14
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    Can you specify the field? The typical number of collaborations, as well as expectations for co-authorship, vary a lot by type of research (as mentioned in at least one answer). – Kimball Aug 9 '15 at 14:36
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There are a lot of reasons why a professor may publish a paper without co-authors: (1) he did the research by himself and wanted it to get all the credit for that research instead of sharing it with some co-authors that he could have invited on his paper, (2) he did not have students, (3) he does not have good social skills or his project appear uninteresting to others and thus he could not find collaborators...

In general, it is beneficial to have collaborators. They have different ideas which can improve the quality of the paper, and they can help carrying the reearch and writting and thus reduce the amount of work by the main author. Thus the main author can then do more research. Some researchers will see it as a negative point if an author has too many papers by himself and do not collaborate.

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    This must be heavily field-dependent. In mathematics, people do often work on their own, and it's not an issue of "getting credit" or "inviting people". In mathematics, the style (at least) is that students should have "their own" projects. The issue of "finding collaborators" doesn't really make sense, either. As in "why?". Also, having co-authors does not reliably "reduce the amount of work", in my experience. In what field do you make these observations? – paul garrett Aug 10 '15 at 13:09
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    I'm from Computer Science (CS) but I can see it in some other fields too. Papers in CS often have 3 or 4 authors. I agree that it may not always reduce the amount of work. For example, it is common in CS for a student put the name of his supervisor and a co-supervisor, and a co-supervisor may sometimes not do too much. But in my experience, having collaborators helps. For example, the co-author can check the writing and improve the text or paper organization, help with carrying the experiments, or provide ideas for improving the solution that one may have not thought of by himself. – Phil Aug 10 '15 at 15:19
  • Sometimes, one can also split the task of writing the paper : one write the introduction and related work and method and the co-author take care of the experiments and references (or some other ways). – Phil Aug 10 '15 at 15:21
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    About collaborators: I doubt that @paul is disagreeing that it can be beneficial to have collaborators (since that seems quite evident). However, collaborators are useful when they bring expertise that you lack, thus "he could not find collaborators" sounds slightly strange. Also in mathematics there is no "main author"; without this kind of model it is hard to see how adding collaborators inherently helps with the routine tasks you mention.... – Pete L. Clark Aug 10 '15 at 15:26
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    (There are other benefits of collaboration, e.g. (i) It can be pleasant to interact with others. (ii) It can be encouraging to know that others are so seriously interested in what one is working on. (iii) In math, usually no one knows what you're working unless/until you finish it, after many months (usually) or years (not that rarely). So it's easy to put things in a drawer indefinitely if you're all alone. My jointly authored papers tend to get finished in a more regular, alacritous manner than my solo papers.) – Pete L. Clark Aug 10 '15 at 15:32
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The normal number of co-authors, if any, is very specific to the different (sub-(sub-))disciplines. In my specific sub-discipline it is normal to have a number of solo publications and a number of publications with one, maybe two, co-authors. But in the same department we have people who do primarily qualitative research and they tell me that it is very unusual to have co-authors and they cannot imagine how that would work. From the outside we would both be sociologist, but even within disciplines there are big differences. In other disciplines it is normal to have 5 or more co-authors. So the number of co-authors per se does not say much without also considering the sub-sub-sub-sub-discipline that that person works in.

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What a number of single-author publications means will depend entirely on what field, and as other people have noted, what sub-field you are in. In my own experience, in a field (Epidemiology) where single author papers are extremely rare, I have a modest number of them all of which fall into a single category:

"Methodological Musing"

These are small papers with a single idea, usually which can be addressed with a single illustrative example. Essentially they are "Dear Field, Stop Doing This. Love, Me."

Those papers don't need a second person. They are amusing side thoughts. Those don't necessarily reflect anything on the number of students I have, how friendly I am as a collaborator, or what stage of my career I'm in. The only thing they're possibly indicative of is that I'm interested enough in methods development that if that's not what you're interested in, we should possibly not work together. But the answers to what this means are too varied by field, sub-field, personal style and "Well, what's in those papers" for there to be a meaningful, general answer.

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    +1 For the voice in the wilderness with "Dear Field, Stop Doing This. Love, Me." Though some such do have a big impact, like the infamous dead salmon fMRI. – jakebeal Aug 10 '15 at 3:34
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It means the Prof. is self-reliant. In other words, he/she doesn't need to wait for some bright students to come along to be his/her research brain/arm. The key thing to look for is the quality of his/her solo publications. Are they good? Usually, a Prof. will have lots more solo publications earlier on in his/her career; he/she doesn't have the gravitas to pull students in yet. This is especially true in the US where I believe you really need to have $ or funding before you get students. So without funding, you're a one man team.

The other side of the coin are Profs. who ride the coat tail of big Profs.

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    It is also possible the person is somehow hard to work with, and therefore has (close to) zero students. – mrm Aug 9 '15 at 8:44
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    If one doesn't have students, publishing solo is not the only option. I am an assistant professor in applied maths in my early career, and many of my current projects are with colleagues of a similar age and career status, on a peer-to-peer basis. – Federico Poloni Aug 9 '15 at 9:24
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    @FedericoPoloni: To reflect mrm's comment, if you were somehow hard to work with, it is of course quite possible that colleagues of a similar age and career status would turn their backs on you just as well as (or maybe even more so than) possible students. – O. R. Mapper Aug 9 '15 at 11:48
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    @O.R.Mapper Absolutely. Working alone can be either a personal preference, or a consequence of being "hard to work with". It is difficult to tell which without knowing the person. – Federico Poloni Aug 9 '15 at 12:11
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    I find this answer rather obnoxious. You seem to be suggesting that the typical modus operandi of professors is to push their names onto the papers of students who do actually do all the work. This is not typical of any of the people I've ever worked with. – David Richerby Aug 9 '15 at 19:03

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