A little bit about information and society

On Politics of Citations, Acknowledgements and Co-Authorships


Having Blaise Cronin, Dean of the School for Library and Information Science at Indiana University give a talk, was as usual an inspiring and intellectual experience.

Did you ever wonder how the industry (in many cases but not always, a non-profit industry) of citations work? Who becomes a co-author on a masterpiece and who doesn’t? What can we learn from the acknowledgments about the politics of creating a masterpiece? Who are those inventors and who are the informal collaborators that usually are not mentioned formally and vanish as time passes? These and some more related topics were discussed in his talk (His powerpoint can be download here). I will try to bring some of them with my comments.

Michelangelo -Capella Sistina

Michelangelo -Capella Sistina

Just to give small examples – Michelangelo’s genesis on the ceiling of the Capella Sistina, was the work of many apprentices and students under the mentoring of Michelangelo. Today, 500 years later, can we name even one of them? why no credit was given to them, although they took part in creating this masterpiece? Who was Robert Boyle’s mysterious partner, that we know was the technician of most of his inventions? why he was never credited? Who should be credited for the invention of cloning Dolly? The technicians that worked on Dolly complained that their contribution is ignored.

Here are some statistics before analysis and speculations:

According to ISI data, published papers which involve multiple authors, specifically 50, 100 and 200 authors have increased tremendously from1981. I would have a wild guess, that if you check social science vs. exact science, you would find that these numbers applies mainly to exact science.

Can anyone imagine Foucault’s book “The Archeology of Knowledge” written by 50 different people simultaneously? And indeed most of the examples Blaise gave were from the exact and life sciences.


Multi-authored papers from 1981-2003
Multi-authored papers from 1981-2003


Is there a connection between the number of authors and the number of acknowledgments? Take a look at the two tables for example taken from JACS (Journal of the American Chemical Society).

Single & Multi-authors Papers in JACS
Single & Multi-authors Papers in JACS
JCAS 1900-199 - Acknowledgment Trends
JCAS 1900-199 – Acknowledgment Trends


Two parallel trends –  the number of multi-author papers has increased and so the number of acknowledgments. Looking only at this table, one cannot conclude whether the increase in acknowledgments is bigger than the increase in the number of authors.

BTW, while most of the acknowledgments deal with thanks to financial supporters, and help in tools and technology in JACS, this changes when moving to other disciplines.

So the next figure below shows that the number of acknowledgments did increase more than the average number of authors.

So does it mean that people became more polite now and they mention anyone who saw even one word of their manuscript? or does it mean that the increase in the number of authors during the years should have been higher and maybe some of these acknowledgments should have been co-authors? so not politeness, but political consideration of reducing potential conflicts with co-workers?

Average number of authors/acknowledgees
Average number of authors/acknowledgees

But there are few problems with acknowledgments. Nobody remembers them, they are not recorded anywhere in a systematic way, and in the academia there is no system of incentives that will acknowledge the acknowledgments. So it is more profitable and worthwhile for a colleague to be cited than be mentioned in the acknowledgment. With citations researchers are being more evaluated. More citations more status. Blaise gave a wonderful example that when we use someones’ publications to develop an idea or to describe the literature we cite them, and therefore they are being rewarded. But if we ask a colleague to help us with a statistical analysis, and this colleague might even spend hours and hours the maximum we would do in the profession is to acknowledge them, not even one citation as a cure.

So if the world is going toward interdisciplinarity – maybe it is time to create also a system that will acknowledge the acknowledgments and by this reduce the politics behind them?

Blaise gave the example of Rob Kling. If you look at the following figure you will see that Rob Kling collaborated mostly with people who were in his environment (UCI), not necessarily people he preferred to work with. When he moved in 1996 to Indiana he stopped working with most of his UCI colleagues.


So who do we co-author with? are these researchers that one is really interested to collaborate with? or is it merely a matter of convenience and geography ? If one looks at the citations which Rob Kling used in his publications from 1972-2005 you will find that most of his top-citations were people who he co-authored with. The mechanism of the “rich gets richer” is quite evident here.



So do we tend to cite people we think their work should be cited or do we prefer to cite people we work as matter of convenience?

Some final words: as usual there are more questions than answers. But this lecture was an eye-opener with the way in academia one progress and a little bit about sharing intellectual properties in different ways and the meaning of them. It is time to consider diverse forms of contributionship, influence and impact.




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There Are 11 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Jeff Hemsley says:

    Interesting. Concerning the increase in multi-authored papers, new technology could be making it easier for folks to work together, even at a distance. This could have two relevant effects.

    First, we’d expect to see the proportion of single-to-multi authorship fall as the cost of working together falls.

    Second, we might expect to see the total number of papers rise as authors experience an efficiency gain due to specialization. For example, an author who is strong in modeling, but weak in writing might actually find co-authors to do more of the writing, letting him focus on model building. The resulting papers ends up stronger and with a higher probability of being published.

    The ‘Single & Multi-authors Papers in JACS’ chart seems to show some evidence for this: note that in the last decade there’s a big jump in overall quantity of papers, and yet the number of single author papers actually fell (indicating a large decline in the proportion of single-to-multi authorship).

    With respect to co-authors getting citations, couldn’t part of this be that when you call on someone to work with it’s because they have done some work, or have ideas of interest to you, and as such, it informs your work to some degree. Of course, I realize there’s a large incentive to “pay” each other with citations too.

  2. karineb says:

    My first thoughts were – yes people would prefer to work with people they cite, because they probably work on things that interest them. But this is why I thought the figure about Rob Kling publications and co-authorship is so interesting. It basically shows that in this case, first you work with someone due to proximity, and only then you cite and not vice versa.

  3. BobM says:

    Interesting summary of Blaise’s presentation and provocative questions. What does the new capabilities for social networking provide in the way of answers for scholars? Would scholars be as happy with acknowledgments as citations? Does a pointer on Facebook to a provocative blog carry as much academic weight as a citation? Certainly not now, but I can imagine it growing in importance–after all, it’s about reputation, and Facebook can spread the word much faster than a journal. Yes, a journal is ‘archival,’ but how significant is it to archive information and knowledge that may be functionally or even conceptually obsolete in 50 years…or even 10 years?

  4. Gad Barzilai says:

    Highly provocative and stimulating. Obviously, one possible interpretation is to look more at the capitalization of science that spurs more cooperation among and between teams of scholars, especially in life sciences where getting the funds is unfortunately more important than doing a good research. Blaise’s findings point to our need to comprehend better the politics of science and mainly how human knowledge is reproducing itself.

    Professor Gad Barzilai
    University of Washington

  5. Sheryl A. Day says:

    A very timely and political topic considering the power and uprecedented capability we have with the web to search and aggregrate text in just about any manner one can conceive of. Acknowledgments in collaborative science are often seen as courtesies to those whose contributions were significant but that did not warrant the status of authorship – a way of maintaining the goodwill of those whose contributions to future work would likely be necessary.

    As Blaise pointed out during his lecture, if all who contributed to a research project in any way, large or small, were to be considered authors, the list of authors would be incredibly long – perhaps longer than the paper itself. So, in this sense, acknowledgements play an important role.

    But, acknowledgements are also important when considering the career tracks of those peripheral contributors. Many valuable individuals are just not progressing towards becoming PIs or towards authoring papers. For them, a system of acknowledging contributions similar to citations is much more than a gesture of goodwill or a pat on the back – it becomes critical to their career growth.

    I am looking forward to seeing more of Blaise’s work in this area, and I’m sure that many others will be, too.

  6. Lee Dirks says:

    Fascinating! As Jeff Hemsley astutely points out (above), technology is greatly facilitating the ability of disparate collaborators to work together on scientific projects/endeavors like never before…and it isn’t unusual to see 100+ author papers. At the end of the day, however, we know only a small handful of those actually authored the text, while the vast majority compiled the data or assisted in the analysis. Crucial contributions, yes – but legitimate co-authors? I’m skeptical. But, until scholarly communication methods are able to appropriately accommodate recognizing and rewarding these contributors in some meaningful way – shared authorship is the only way to acknowledge their work. Since all academic/scientific domains are still grappling with how best to reward and incent the authors. As alluded to above, with the arrival of the internet and social networking, the fields of bibliometrics and citation tracking has been reset almost to zero…and impact factors need to be rethought. (The best work I’ve seen to this effect is the MESUR project: http://www.mesur.org/MESUR.html – by Johan Bollen & Herbert Van de Sompel.) However, in my estimation – it will be a very LONG time before acknowledgments and contributors (as opposed to authors) will ever be accommodated or recognized in any material way.

  7. Dima says:

    Thank you, Karine! It is definitely thought provoking. I agree with you that the political economy of academic publishing is an interesting domain in itself. You may want to take a look at this blog. One of my colleagues, who is studying academic publishing, is writing there.

  8. Hey Lee –
    Unfortunately, I agree with your pessimistic assessment 🙂

  9. PB says:

    My first thoughts were – yes people would prefer to work with people they cite, because they probably work on things that interest them. But this is why I thought the figure about Rob Kling publications and co-authorship is so interesting. It basically shows that in this case, first you work with someone due to proximity, and only then you cite and not vice versa.

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