Photo: snapshot from the Wolf of Wall Street.

Photo: snapshot from the Wolf of Wall Street.

I’m not referring to the world’s billionaire elite, but to an exclusive group of researchers that have become so prolific they are now dominating the scientific community. To be more precise, fewer than 1% of researchers publish one or more papers a year. Moreover, this elite is responsible for publishing 41% of all papers, according to recent findings published in the journal PLOS ONE. These numbers are definitely surprising, but in the end they may raise more questions than answers.

The science elite

John Ioannidis of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California led the study which mined the Elsevier’s Scopus database  and looked at which names popped out more often and how frequent. In total, the team analyzed countless paper authored by 15 million scientists worldwide in many disciplines between 1996 and 2011.

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“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 said.

Publishing papers is both the most desirable and daunting task a scientist can ask for, yet there are very few researchers that can hope to churn out papers year in, year out. However, even the team that made the meta analysis was caught off guard by this disproportional amount of scientists who are simply dominating the whole community. The ranks thin out even more as the study filtered out for authors who published more than one paper a year, as follows:

  • Two or more: 68,221
  • Three or more: 37,953
  • Four or more: 23,342
  • Five or more: 15,464
  • 10 or more: 3269

So, what do these numbers tell us? Well, if we wouldn’t know better, it would mean that most of the world’s  scientific contributions come from a tiny fraction of the community, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. There are only a couple of people who genuinely have the time, patience and dedication to publish more than two or three papers a year. What typically happens is a lead researchers will supervise the work of his doctoral students and often drop his name in the paper, and thus get indexed. Then there’s always the case of doubtful quality. There are millions of papers published each year, some in top journals, while other in rather modest journals. Considering the kind of articles get across, even in peer-reviewed journals, it’s no wonder we see so many ‘prolific’ authors.

To me at least, this means either millions of students all over the world are getting exploited or there’s genuinely a 1% elite that’s responsible for less than half of the world’s scientific contributions. I’m leaning towards the first.