This is a guest post composed by Keith B. Rodenhausen and Stefan Schöche at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln NSF Messenger workshop.
“We are not students of some subject matter, but students of problems. And problems may cut right across the borders of any subject matter or discipline.” -Karl Popper
Gauss may have written his papers by himself, but today academic publications are steadily gaining a larger author list. Why is this? Mott Greene discussed this trend in Nature. To the writer go the spoils of credit, and the question of who invented a process or discovered an important phenomenon can be a messy business! The policy of one author to a paper (and accurate postmarking) neatly handled these controversies. But as time passes, the sheer amount of knowledge scientists must accumulate before they can begin contributing, themselves, has grown. To some extent, we compress knowledge by having students learn more material for the same period of schooling. But the high degree of specialization means we no longer have polymaths like Newton, Faraday, or Bernoulli who could dabble and make progress on whatever scientific problem met their fancy. Think about what it takes to make a marketable semiconductor device. There needs to be solid state physicists to develop an idea for the new device, materials engineers to characterize and improve the structure, logic engineers to integrate the device into a computer, and chemical engineers to make the synthesis processes more efficient and troubleshoot production failures. This is only a short list. Interdisciplinary research is therefore on the rise. And with that comes longer author lists to acknowledge the wider breadth of expertise required to make novel, game-changing results. The rewards for authorship are great. A faculty member gets closer to Almighty Tenure with each publication, so the possibility for dilution of publication value is a real and present danger. As we encounter more extreme cases (see this publication for the Large Hadron Collider), some kind of academic consensus on the matter of what constitutes legitimate, meaningful authorship is in order.