The 1% of scientific publishing

Aaron Logan/Wikimedia Commons

The 1% of scientific publishing

Staff Writer

Publishing is one of the most ballyhooed metrics of scientific careers, and every researcher hates to have a gap in that part of his or her CV. Here’s some consolation: A new study finds that very few scientists—fewer than 1%—manage to publish a paper every year.

But these 150,608 scientists dominate the research journals, having their names on 41% of all papers. Among the most highly cited work, this elite group can be found among the co-authors of 87% of papers.

The new research, published on 9 July in PLOS ONE, was led by epidemiologist John Ioannidis of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, with analysis of Elsevier’s Scopus database by colleagues Kevin Boyack and Richard Klavans at SciTech Strategies. They looked at papers published between 1996 and 2011 by 15 million scientists worldwide in many disciplines.

“I decided to study this question because I had seen in my life a large number of talented people who just did not survive in the current system and with the current limited resources,” Ioannidis wrote to ScienceInsider in an e-mail. He suspected that only a few scientists are able to publish papers year in, year out. But the finding that less than 1% do so surprised him, he says.

The ranks of scientists who repeatedly published more than one paper per year thin out dramatically.

  • Two or more: 68,221

  • Three or more: 37,953

  • Four or more: 23,342

  • Five or more: 15,464

  • 10 or more: 3269

Many of these prolific scientists are likely the heads of laboratories or research groups; they bring in funding, supervise research, and add their names to the numerous papers that result. Others may be scientists with enough job security and time to do copious research themselves, Ioannidis says.

But there’s also a lot of grunt work behind these papers that appear like clockwork from highly productive labs. “In many disciplines, doctoral students may be enrolled in high numbers, offering a cheap workforce,” Ioannidis and his co-authors write in their paper. These students may spend years on research that yields, then, only one or a few papers. “[I]n these cases, the research system may be exploiting the work of millions of young scientists.”

If he could pick one thing to do, Ioannidis wrote in an e-mail, he would recommend spreading resources "to give more opportunities to a wider pool of scientists, especially younger ones, to help them secure continuity of productivity and excellence."

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