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4.1 Writing informative titles, abstracts and book blurbs

4.2 The issues around self-citation

4.3 Working with co-authors and research teams



A key reason why academic work is poorly cited is that the authors make virtually no effort to encourage citation. In pursuit of an obscure ideal of making their work appear ‘academic’ researchers seem go to enormous lengths to make their work impossibly hard to find and understand. A key reason why work remains hidden is that it cannot easily be found or assessed by a reader who is undertaking a literature review, especially from knowing the title of the piece or reading the abstract for a journal article or the blurb description for a book. The first part of this chapter explores some straightforward solutions to these problems, focusing on using titles and abstracts for journal articles that will better inform readers, and writing book descriptions in a similarly more informative way.

Academic work by any one researcher or team often hangs together in a web of connections, for which the ‘natural’ solution is for the author or team to cite their previous work, so as to build up a cumulative picture economically without repetitions. Yet the whole issue of self-citations is also hemmed around with conflicting norms suggesting that they are boastful, illegitimate or count less than normal citations. In section 2 we explore some of the issues here.

Citations are in part the product of networks of intellectual contacts, and on the whole academics who write with others in research teams might be expected to have more access to more networks as a result. The social sciences have conspicuously lagged behind the development of co-authorship in fields that are better cited, like medicine and the physical sciences. Our third section accordingly looks at whether working with co-authors offers a route that will tend to produce better cited work.

4.1: Writing informative titles, abstracts and book blurbs

Academics often remember and pass on recommendations about works to others in conversation (a form of ‘viral marketing’, but often only if the title has memorable or distinctive words. And when researchers search for articles on Google, ISI or other sources they will generally do so in formats that only show the most abbreviated details of a source, especially its author and title/sub-title, plus maybe a few lines of the abstract or book blurb. These ‘snippet’ entries are quickly scanned for useful gold-dust in building the searcher’s intended argument. Student searchers will normally scan only the top two screenfuls of information before giving up, and they will rarely alternate search words. Academics, research assistants and PhD students are usually more persistent and professional. They will quickly appraise (say) the top 50 (or perhaps 100) Google or ISI entries that they have in front of them, but then also try alternate search words. Only the most conscientious researchers will scan say the top 200 to 300 possibly relevant items from searches.

One of the key tasks for an article author who wants to be cited is to quickly persuade people to click on the title of their piece and learn more from the abstract or book outline. From there, the next task is to persuade searchers to download the whole article or to look for a copy of the book in a library or order it from a bookshop (now usually also online). At each stage there will be an ‘attrition’ loss of people searching through:

  • not finding the title of the piece in their searches at all;
  • not recognizing the title of a piece as relevant for their needs;
  • not clicking through from the title to learn more from the abstract or book outline;
  • not recognizing from the abstract or book outline that the piece is relevant for their needs.
  • not being motivated enough to pursue the full text, always a considerable hassle for a book, but in principle for an article easily accessible to university searcher.

Even when a piece is found and downloaded or read in full, the next stage involves the reading academic in deciding to cite the piece or not. Often this decision may be a completely separate one, made perhaps weeks or months (or even years) after the person involved first read the piece. So here the key determinants of whether an article or book is now cited are usually:

  • whether the potential citer remembers the existence of the piece or not;
  • how much the person remembers of the key ‘take-away’ points that they found valuable in the piece when they first read it, which may often be its ‘bottom-line’ conclusions, or alternatively only one or two specific points or pieces of data within the text;
  • whether they can find the piece again easily on their often voluminous PDF library on their PC or on their crowded book shelves so as to confirm its details;
  • whether they can quickly re-access the argument or details of the piece so as to accurately cite or characterise it when citing.

Article Titles

Many academics do things that effectively ensure that the title of their work makes it hard to find initially in literature reviews and very hard to cite later on:

  • Choosing an obscure, formal or completely vague title for an article or book, one that essentially gives readers no useful clue as to what the publication covers. Academic titles commonly convey not the slightest idea of what the author’s substantive findings, ‘bottom line’ conclusions or line of argument may be.
  • Choosing a title that is positively misleading, digressive or at a tangent from what the publication actually covers. Often in the humanities and ‘soft’ social sciences authors choose a ‘clever’ or ‘learned’-looking main title which they then explain in the main text. The trouble is that this form of words is not one that anyone else doing an online search will put into a search engine, or indeed associate in any way with the actual content. For example, in 2004 a committee from the British Academy produced a report on the role of the humanities and social sciences in the UK economy and society. They chose as a title a quotation from Hume, That Full Complement of Riches, which does not provide any clues to the report’s content. This might explain why the report has not received the number of citations it deserved in this important field.
  • Choosing the same title words as many others works, so that your own title has no memorable or distinctive words that might stick in searcher’s brains and cause them to find your piece. For instance, titling an article ‘Mill on liberty’ would make it completely indistinguishable from literally thousands of others.

It is useful to consider here some specific examples of social science article titles and what can go wrong with the, shown in Box 4A.

Box 4a: Good and bad practice for choosing article titles

Is your title:Example (and comment)
A full 'narrative title' that clearly summarizes the substance of what the article argues or what has been found out? (Very good)'New public management is dead: Long live digital era governance' - the whole argument of the paper in 10 words
An ambiguous title but with at least some narrative or substantive hints about your line of argument or findings? (OK)Modernist art: the gay dimension' -probably highlights themes about homosexuality, but might deny them instead
A title that perhaps contains some cues as to the author’s argument, but where you’d need to read the piece first to understand these hints? (Poor)'One for All: the logic of group conflict' - actually this is a book title about solidarity pressures in ethnic groups, (and not Alexander Dumas' 'The Three Musketeers' which it apparently references)
An overly general title that could lead to multiple conclusions or lines of argument? (Poor).'The Economic Institutions of Capitalism' - probably related to organizational /institutional aspects of economics

In choosing article titles it is worth remembering that articles have compound identities, because the journal title itself often gives many clues to what the work is about. Academics and researchers in the field will know well what a top journal covers, and what type of work it generally publishes. It is fine for your title to have some of the key words used by other authors, but preferably in some distinctive combination with other words.  Your title must include some key words likely to be typed into search engines by potential readers.


When it comes to writing article abstracts, most academics then compound the problem by being as uninformative as possible in the 150 to 300 words that they are typically allowed. Most abstracts say very little about what authors have found out or what their key findings are, what they are arguing as a ‘bottom line’, or what key ‘take-away points’ they want readers to remember. A conventional journal abstract will be structured as follows:

  • the opening sentence argues that the topic of the paper is an important one;
  • however, the next two or three sentences argue that the previous literature has neglected an aspect of the topic or has used approaches with some limitations that need to be improved on;
  • the abstract may now define what the author’s particular focus is, without saying what is being argued substantively;
  • for empirical articles, the abstract will almost always expound at length on what methods have been used, or what data coverage has been achieved;
  • the abstract ends by stating that following this approach the author has indeed reached certain (unspecified) conclusions. Perhaps the author even lets it be known via hints that their conclusions are different in some way from the previous literature. But the abstract still ends without giving the slightest real glimpse of what the substantive findings are, nor does it indicate what argument the author herself makes at the end.
  • There is also no clue as to what the ‘value-added’ of the article is in theoretical or empirical terms.

Often these problems reflect the fact that abstracts are rather casually written, perhaps at the beginning of writing when authors don’t yet really know what they want to say, or perhaps as a rushed afterthought just before submission to a journal or a conference. Once an abstract exists, authors are also often reluctant to reappraise them, or to ask critically whether they give the best obtainable picture of the work done and the findings achieved. To counteract these problems the checklist in Box 4B offers a structured set of suggestions for what an abstract should include, and what should be kept to a small presence.

Box 4b: Good practice guidelines for writing informative abstracts

1. How long is the abstract? [Generally it should be 200 words minimum, 350 maximum] Does it have paragraphs? [No more than 2]

How much information does the abstract give aboutNoneA bitA lotSuggested number of words (for a 300 word abstract)
Other people's work and the focus of previous research literature?No more than 50-60 words
What is distinctive to your own theoryposition or intellectual approach?At least 50 words
Your methods or data sources/datasets?From 50 words minimum to 150 maximum
Your bottom-line findings ( i.e. what 'new facts' have you found? Or what key conclusions do you draw?As many words as possible within your limit
The value-added or originality of your work within this field?At least 30 to 50 words

2. Does the abstract systematically follow the sequence of elements in 2 to 6 above? [good] Or does it have some other sequence? [bad] Is the progression of ideas clear and connected?

3. How many theme/theory words from the article title recur in the abstract? Does the abstract introduce any new theme/theory words, that are not present in the article title? Do the two sets of words fit closely together? [good] or suggest different emphases? [bad]

4. Style points: How many words are wasted on ‘This article sets out to prove..’ or ‘Section 2 shows that…’ Is the description of your own research in the present tense? [good] or the future tense?[bad]

5. Look carefully at the ‘ordinary language’ words in the title. Are they ‘filler’ words only? In which case, are they needed? If not, do they have a clear and precise meaning or implication that you want your title to express? (Most ordinary language words with substantive content will have multiple meanings).

6. Suppose that you have read on the Web (in a long list of other articles and items) the article title and the first three lines of the abstract. Do they make you want to download the full article? What kind of academics elsewhere will be able to reference this article usefully in their own work, from the information given in the title and abstract alone?

7. Type the whole title (in double quotes “ ”) into Google Scholar and check against the table below. Then type the three or four most distinctive or memorable title words separately into the search engine, and check again.

 Full title in quotesThree or four most distinctive title words
How many items show up?- None (good).
- Many (poor).
- None (bad).
- Very few (bad)
- Modest number(good)
- Lots and lots (bad) - it's an inverted U curve here.
How do most of the other references or items that show up relate to your topic and subject matter?-Very close (good).
-Close (OK).
-Remote (bad).
-Completely different topic (very bad).
Does the search show that you are using terms, phrases or acronyms that- Have the same meaning as you are using (good).- Or have a number of different meanings from your sense (bad)

Note: Articles have compound identities because the journal title itself often gives many clues to what the work is about. Hence article titles need to be less distinctive than books. It is fine fore your title to have some of the key words used by other authors, but preferably in some distinctive combination with other words.  Your title must include some key words likely to be typed into search engines by potential readers.


Beyond the title and abstract, the introduction to a paper also has an important role to play, not so much now in being a condensed record of the whole paper’s argument (since the title and abstract should already fulfil this role), but rather as a piece of text that motivates readers to read the whole paper (or at least to read further into it). A useful suggested mnemonic for the opening paragraphs suggests that they cover the four M’s of

  • motivation, why the article is important and worth readers spending time on;
  • methods, what analytic approach is employed
  • measurement, what data or sources of evidence are used; and
  • message, what implications the article has for the key issues or controversies considered.

To engage readers’ attention, and to persuade them to read the whole paper, it can also be useful to begin with a ‘high impact start’, one that expresses issues or key findings in an especially engaging or interesting fashion. Ending the introduction or lead-in passage with a clear set of signposts to the structure of the remaining sections of the article can also help readers to gauge in advance what is being argued. Lastly, most professional academics will also turn immediately to the paper conclusions to assess whether it is worth their while investing the time needed to work through the whole paper in detail, or to cite its key results and argument. Hence a succinct but clearly expressed conclusion is very useful. It should always give the most salient details of the findings or argument in an accessible way, but more precisely and substantively expressed than in the abstract, and accompanied by a clear author evaluation of their own work.


Turning to research books, one might expect that their titles and back-jacket blurbs and outlines on publishers’ sites or Google Books would be much better written than article abstracts, since publishers as well as authors are involved in what gets chosen here. After all, while most articles will be available online with a few clicks to researchers or students via their university library, gaining access to a book will often entail higher transaction costs. Potential readers need to be persuaded to check through more of a book on Google Books, to go look for the book in the library or to order the book from a retailer like Amazon – each fairly time-consuming operations. Yet despite this, much the same obscure academic approach is often adopted to choosing book titles and giving a summary of their contents as to choosing articles. Completely formal or vacuous book titles are prevalent in STEM disciplines and in the ‘hard’ social sciences. And in the ‘soft’ social sciences and humanities, deliberately obscure, idiosyncratic or even actively mis-directing titles are often used to try and create a particular intellectual impression. However, the costs of this gambit is again that internet searchers probably never find the book.

As for book blurbs, authors and publishers often do little more than write out in joined-up text form the sequence of titles for the chapters, which are also generally quite formal or obscure. At best this lets readers know what topics are being covered, but usually without any ‘narrative cues’, without in any way hinting at what the authors’ conclusions or distinctive contributions are. Book blurbs and outlines may also indicate a readership group, and publishers often insert vague promises about how valuable or accessible the analysis is, again often without saying anything substantive.

Choosing a book title intelligently can again radically increase the ability of other academics and researchers to first find out about the piece of work, then to remember it when needed, and hence to retrieve its details and cite it, perhaps months or years later. Box 4C provides a checklist that may be helpful to work through here. In the current digital era all authors should also run their potential titles through main search engines, as suggested in point 7. A book title has got to be good for the book’s lifetime, so spending some time in getting it right is always worthwhile.

Box 4c: Good practice ideas for choosing a book title

1. How many words are there in the title? How many of these are theory or theme words?

2. Is there a main title and sub-title separated by a colon or other device? [usually a good idea] Or is integrated in one piece? [less good]

3. Is the book meant to be of interest
A: primarily for theory reasons? Is it solely theoretical?
B: primarily for empirical reasons? Does it have any theory interest?

Conventionally this is signalled as follows:

 Before the colonAfter the colon
Primarily theoretical bookTheory or thematic wordsEmpirical or field words
Primarily empirical bookEmpirical or field wordsTheory or thematic words

In choosing words bear in mind that the sub-title may often be left off by other authors citing your work. It also may not show up in   many abbreviated internet listings.

4. Does the title accurately characterise the book as a type of academic work, making clear its discipline and approach?Are the thematic or theory words included in the title fashionable or recent? In which case, will they endure? Or are they familiar or long accepted? In which case, are they already over-used? Who will like these words and who dislike them?

5. Look carefully at the ‘ordinary language’ words in the title. Are they ‘filler’ words only? In which case, are they needed? If not, do they have a clear and precise meaning or implication that you want your title to express? (Most ordinary language words with substantive content will have multiple meanings).

6. Type the whole title (in double quotes “ ”) into Google Books and check against the table below. Then type the three or four most distinctive or memorable words separately into the search engine, and check again.

 Full title in quotesThree or four most distinctive title words
How many items show up?- None (good).
- Many (poor).
- None (bad).
- Very few (bad).
- Modest number (good)
-Lots and lots (bad)- it's an inverted U-curve here.
How do most of the other references or items that show up relate to your topic and subject matter?- Very close (good).
- Close (OK).
- Remote (bad).
- Completely different topic (very bad).
Does the search show that you are using terms, phrases or acronyms that - Have the same meaning as you are using (good).
- Or have a number of different meanings from your sense (bad)

It is a very good idea that wherever possible your book should not have exactly the same title as any other volumes. However, your title (and to a lesser degree sub-title) should include some words used by other authors, preferably in some distinctive (or even unique) combination with other words. Your title and sub-title must include if possible those key words that are most likely to be typed into search engines by the book’s potential readers.

Since books are much longer and less accessible than articles, the summary provided by a book ‘blurb’ (its back-cover description, also included in the publisher’s catalogue) is ultra-condensed. Hence it is correspondingly easier in writing a blurb to mask what the book’s contribution or value-added is supposed to be. If the book is extensively viewable on Google Books (in preview mode) then potentially readers may look more widely to try and find out what it covers: here a poor title and an obscure outline may not matter so much. Even if the book can only be viewed in ‘snippet’ mode, the most persistent would-be readers can often find out a little more about its style, approach and contents using the excellent search facility in Google Books to look for how often keywords occur. (How successful this strategy is depends on how much of the text the publisher has required to be blanked out). But otherwise, the book titles and descriptions on the publishers’ site or Google may be all that readers have to go on in deciding whether to go through the considerable sweat of trying to get to read a copy.

As with articles, one of the most important reasons why people choose poor titles for books, and write such poor summary descriptions of them, is a drive towards academic respectability, often construed as being small ‘c’ conservative in academic terms. Younger researchers who still have to win tenure-track jobs, or who may want to move to a different university in future, often believe that the key thing for them is not to look in any way ‘flashy’, ‘accessible’ or ‘popularizing’ in their approach. Hence they choose article titles exactly like their thesis chapters, and use only slightly shorter versions of their PhD title for their books, accompanying them with abstracts or blurbs of oracular obscurity. This imperative towards poor professional communication is not usually well thought-through. Younger researchers perhaps may not yet have come to terms with the remorseless battle to secure any recognition and make an impact on the discipline and to secure citations that tends to be more important to older academics. And people who have so far been preoccupied with research may also underestimate the importance of being able to communicate in teaching and to achieve external impacts to departments.

To help put such attitudes in a better perspective, it can be useful to imagine that you are a member of a university department’s appointment committee and you are reviewing a large pile of applications for a junior academic post, with a view to identifying a shortlist of people to interview. You see this book or article title on an applicants’ CV or resumé.

  • Does the title motivate you to look further so as to find the book outline or article abstract, ideally included somewhere along with the CV or alternatively online? Or does it leave you none the wiser, or make you want to move onto the next candidate in the pile?
  • How would a young researcher who has investigated this topic fit into your department’s teaching portfolio? Would they be able to teach a wide range of courses, or only a few? Would their courses be of wide interest for your students, or restricted to covering only a specialist subject?
  • In research terms, what kind of project would you expect the person who completed this article or book to do next?

4.2: The issues around self-citation

The distrust of self-citations is completely misplaced. Anne-Will Harzing

In the social sciences self-citation is often considered problematic – some scholars see it as a case of ‘blowing your own trumpet’, while others may argue ‘If I don’t cite my work, no one else will.’ For similar reasons, official bodies often ask for citations data to be adjusted so to exclude self-citations, as if these were somehow illegitimate when measuring academic performance. Some bibliometric scholars also concur that self-citation should be excluded from citation counts, at least in undertaking comparative analyses of the research performance of individuals, research groups, departments and universities. In this view self-citations are not as important as citations from other academics when determining how much of an authority an academic is within a field (Fowler and Aksnes 2007, 428). To meet this demand to filter out self-cites some producers of bibliometric indicators have begun to identify and publish the proportion of self-citations in order to compare them with the number of citations to other authors.

However, there are also good grounds for objecting to this approach and for recognizing self-citations by individuals and research teams as a perfectly legitimate and relevant aspect of disciplinary practices in different parts of academia. Figure 4.1 shows that there are very large and systematic differences between discipline groups in the proportion of all citations that are self-citation, ranging from a high of 42 per cent for engineering sciences, down to a low of 21 per cent for medical and life sciences.

Figure 4.1: Self-citation rates across groups of disciplines

Source: Centre for Science and Technology Studies, 2007.

The social sciences and the humanities generally have low rates with a fifth to a quarter of citations being self-cites, whereas in the scientific STEM disciplines the rate is around a third. It seems deeply unlikely that this pattern reflects solely different disciplinary propensities to blow your own trumpet. Rather the extent of the variation is likely to be determined most by the proportion of applied work undertaken in the discipline, and the serial development nature of this work. Many engineering departments specialise in particular sub-fields and develop the knowledge frontier in their chosen areas very intensively, perhaps with relatively few rivals or competitors internationally. Consequently if they are to reference their research appropriately, so that others can check methodologies and follow up effects in replicable ways, engineering authors must include more self-cites, indeed up to twice as many self-cites as in some other disciplines. Similarly quite a lot of scientific work depends on progress made in the same lab or undertaken by the same author. In these areas normatively excluding self-cites would be severely counter-productive for academic development. And doing it in bibliometrics work is liable to give a misleading impression.

In this view the lower levels of self-cites in the humanities and social sciences may simply reflect a low propensity to publish applied work in scholarly journals, or to undertake serial applied work in the first place. The low proportion of self-cites in medicine (arguably a mostly applied field) needs a different explanation, however. It may reflect the importance of medical findings being validated across research teams and across countries (key for drug approvals, for instance). It may also be an effect of the extensive accumulation of results produced by very short medical articles (all limited to 3,000 words) and the profession’s insistence on very full referencing of literatures, producing more citations per (short) article than any other discipline.

The ‘serial development of applied knowledge’ perspective on self-citation gains some additional evidence from the tendency of self-cites to grow with authors’ ages. Older researchers do more self-citing, not because they are vainer but simply because in a perfectly legitimately they draw more on their own previous work than do young researchers who are new in a sub-field. Older academics also do a great deal more applied work in the social sciences than younger staff, and as a consequence we show in Part B they also have far larger external impacts. So they may have to cite their own corpus of work more for reasons similar to those dictating higher self-cite rates in engineering – namely that their work draws a lot on reports, working papers on and for external clients, or detailed case studies that may not have great journal publication possibilities.

So are self-citations a good or bad idea for academics? Our advice here is that all researchers should prudentially ensure that their own self-citation rate is not above the average for their particular discipline. Figure 4.2 shows that there is some detailed variation within the social sciences, with political science and economics at a low 21 per cent, but with psychology and education high in their rates of self-cites at 28 and 26 per cent, respectively.

Figure 4.2 Self-citation rates for social sciences plus law

But it is equally not a good idea to ‘unnaturally’ suppress referencing of your own previous work. Some research has tested whether citing one’s own work tends to encourage other people to cite it as well. After controlling for different factors, Fowler and Aksnes (2007) found that each additional self-citation increases the number of citations from others by about one citation after one year, and by about three after five years. Other scholars have also found that self-citations can be a useful promotion mechanism to increase citations from others. These empirical studies reveal that self-citations can increase the visibility of someone’s work. One possible logic behind this is that ‘Conscientious Scholar A’ doing a literature review may see ‘Author B’ in one of her best-known works including a citation to some of B’s lesser known pieces of research. Hence A becomes more likely to look at and cite B’s less well-known work – whereas if they were directed also to B’s better known works A’s citations would perhaps have more impact in growing B’s h score and g index.

We therefore recommend that academics do not actively avoid or minimise self-citations, as long as their level of use is in line with their discipline’s average rate. Self-citations may be useful to promote relevant original work that may otherwise pass unnoticed by others. For senior academics, citing their own applied research outputs (such as research reports, client reports, news articles, blog posts, etc) makes sense because such outputs are often missed in standard academic sources. For young researchers and academics, who are lesser-known in their field and have a smaller corpus of work to draw on, self-citations need to be handled carefully.  They can be legitimately used to get visibility for key or supportive works that may not yet be published (such as working papers, research reports, or developed papers under review etc). However, self-cites must only ever be used where they are genuinely needed and relevant for the articles in which they are included.

4.3 Working with co-authors and research teams

Modern research is becoming an ever-more complex and specialised business in many disciplines. In the STEM disciplines, and some of the ‘hard’ social sciences, it is increasingly difficult to carry out purely individual scholarly work. Most research is carried out in teams here, because forefront research demands expertise in methodologies, analysis capabilities, increasingly advanced IT expertise, and often specialist statistics and mathematics, as well as substantive knowledge of a topic or field. It is increasingly hard for any one person to master all these specialised aspects alone, hence the shift to team production.

Figure 4.3: The growth in the number of authors per journal article in the United States, across selected science fields from 1988 to 2008

Science fieldAverage number of authors per journal article inPercentage change 1988 to 2008
Medical sciences3.
Biological sciences3.
Average for all 'science' fields3.
Agricultural sciences2.
Other life sciences2.
Computer sciences1.
Social sciences1.

Figure 4.3 shows that the number of co-authors per journal article across all science fields in the US grew by half in the last decade, from just over three in 1998 to somewhat under five in 2008. Co-authors are especially numerous in astronomy, medicine, physics and biological sources, all of which have more than five co-authors on average per article. Again the growing size of science research teams in these disciplines partly reflects the need for increased numbers of researchers, each handling different technical aspects. It also responds to the increasingly inter-institutional and often international character of modern research. For instance, research on a new drug or treatment may often need to take place across many countries simultaneously if the drug once assessed is to secure regulatory clearances.

By contrast, in the American social sciences the number of co-authors for journal articles still did not reach two per article by 2008. It started the decade at just under half the sciences average, and ended it at two fifths of the new higher STEM disciplines average. In other words, the social sciences moved backwards in co-authoring terms relative to the physical sciences Co-author numbers grew by a third in the social sciences, the second lowest growth of any science field, closely matching mathematics.

Figure 4.4: Co-authorship and the number of outputs in the IPD across five social science disciplines

Turning to the UK social scientists covered in the IPD, Figure 4.4 shows that the somewhat less than half of the 10432 outputs we recorded were single-author works. The bulk of the remainder had only two or three authors.Outputs produced by larger teams account for only less than a tenth of all outputs. Clearly outputs become less common the greater the number of co-authors involved. Some commentators have suggested to us that this reflects the difficulties of team authoring unless a hierarchical ‘research laboratory’ structure is in place, which we have already noted is rare in the social sciences. A frequent comment made is that teams of two are the optimal size.

However, Figure 4.5  also shows that analysing the number of citations received by the number of co-authors shows that outputs with one co-author actually receive the highest number of citations around 40 per cent of the 11,500 citations in our database. This suggests that co-authorship may actually pay-off, since two-author or three-author pieces are cited at more than twice the rate of those that are single-authored. Four-author pieces are strongly cited but there are fewer outputs. The relationship between numbers of co-authors and being better cited does not persist in the tiny fraction of outputs with five or more co-authors.

Figure 4.5: How outputs with different numbers of co-authors are cited in the IPD across five social science disciplines

Why should co-authored pieces generate more citations than those that are single-authored? There are a range of possible explanations, some technical and others of potentially substantive significance. A technical issue is that book reviews and shorter pieces (including ephemeral or non-lasting articles, such as those in the press and magazines) are mostly single-authored, and such brief pieces normally are never referenced by others. By contrast, co-authored works tend to always be longer and more substantive research outputs, which generate many more references.

More substantively, we see that citations tend to reflect networking effects. Each author in a team will have their own contacts in a discipline. If the team is a hierarchy of a professor plus contract researchers, who are located in a single university or laboratory, then the addition of extra team members does not much expand the network of author contacts beyond those that the research leader would have on her own. However, if the co-authors are co-principals on a piece, they are more likely to come from different universities or different countries, or from different areas of the discipline, bringing with them their own distinctive networks of contacts. All these factors will mean that the authors’ contacts and networks will only partially overlap, which clearly expands the chances of other researchers learning of the article or book, since each author has their own unique links to other people and other debates that are not shared.

Looking a bit more closely at the social science disciplines covered in our database so far, Figure 4.7 shows that co-authoring is most common in geography and economics and least common in law, with sociology and political science n the middle. These discipline differences clearly hold across different academic ranks and seniority.

Figure 4.7: Average number of co-authors by discipline across five social science disciplines in the IPD

SubjectLecturerSenior LecturerProfessor
Political Science0.51.00.9
Overall Average1.01.21.4

Source: IPD

Figure 4.7 also shows that professors (and in a less clear-cut way, also senior lecturers) generally co-author more than lecturers. Various factors may be involved in this seniority effect. Professors may co-author because they work in teams more with research officers and assistants who do detailed implementation, data collection and analysis. Here professors’ roles may be more orientated towards major ideas, themes and opportunities, or towards project direction, management issues and fund-raising. Senior academics may also tend to have developed better inter-university linkages and international links over time, even if their style of research does not strictly require team efforts. They may also co-author more because they can more easily keep these links alive – e.g. by getting travel funding to make overseas research visits. Senior academics are also more desirable partners for other academics to want to co-author with.

Managing complex arrangements amongst co-authors for crediting academic work is another area where difficulties sometimes arise. In the STEM subjects because author numbers have increased sharply, well-recognised conventions have emerged to signal the role of different authors in the production of an article, albeit there are disciplinary variations also. Common elements include:

  • First name: the person who actually undertook the key research and who is often the main author of the final text.
  • Second name: the second most important contributor, either in research or writing terms.
  • Third etc names: people who made particular inputs on empirical work, data preparation or assisting with the analysis.
  • Last name: the team leader or head of the lab or research unit, who may or may not have been closely involved in this particular piece of research.

In the social sciences and humanities there are no equivalent well-recognised name order conventions. Instead only two basic configurations operate:

  • Alphabetical name ordering denotes that all the authors made an equal input to the work. Where two or perhaps three authors collaborate on a series or sequence of connected papers, then the order of names can be rotated to ensure that one author does not benefit overly from having an early alphabet surname, without moving out of this convention.
  • Variable name ordering indicates the ranking of authors’ contributions, with the most important contributor first, the next most important second, and so on. Sometimes there is a tension between distinguishing within a long list of contributors those who actually wrote the paper or designed and conducted substantive research (say authors A, B and C) and acknowledging others who made more specialist or routine inputs (say researchers D and E). A two-part name list may be used here to indicate this distinction – as ‘A, B and C with D and E’.

Both the STEM conventions and the social science/humanities conventions are open to potentially serious abuse, usually caused by a senior author (who has control of the final submission of an article to journals) rearranging the name order so as to give themselves more credit or prominence than is merited. Sometimes senior authors do this because they genuinely and innocently over-value their own contribution, or have lost sight of how crucial was work actually done by other team members. Reputationally this is a poor course of action to embark on, however, and one that will reduce the efficacy of team-building in future.

There are other sources of strain in the author-crediting system, however, that are worth briefly enumerating, since they may cumulate in further changes in the near future in how conventions apply:

  • The ability of some citations and indexing systems to find and attribute items to author names that are not first or second on the author lists is quite problematic.  ISI, for instance, only works excellently for first authors, OK for second authors, and poorly for third and subsequent contributing authors. (If you are an author low-down in the sequence, you may need to search additionally by title for papers where you have contributed). Harzing’s Publish or Perish (HPoP)/Google Scholar is generally better at finding lower-placed authors, but is not perfect, especially on books.
  • The increasing numbers of authors has caused science journals especially to be less willing to include long author lists in citations. Many will now only list the first x number (usually 5 to 10) names for multi-authored works in reference lists, where previously they would name them in full. For heads of labs in STEM disciplines, traditionally listed last, this new restrictiveness threatens to severely reduce their citations, which may lead to the emergence of a new convention, listing them second or third.
  • In medicine and life sciences journals external regulatory pressures have lead to increasing requirements that any senior investigator listed as an author has played a distinct role in drafting initially and in revising the paper, and is not there for window-dressing – especially important for drugs trials papers funded by ‘big pharma’ companies.
  • At the same time in medical areas the increasing requirements for multi-country drugs trials has tended to increase author numbers, and lead to a convention in some areas of only listing the most senior investigator per country, and not their research staffs as well.
  • Virtually all journals will abbreviate in-text references to the first author (sometimes first two or thee authors) plus et al.

In short, author naming conventions remain in flux in parts of the physical sciences, and even with fewer authors in the social sciences there are sources of strains. For instance, for publicity and contract simplification reasons, book publishers often only want to list one or two senior authors on a volume, and not whole teams as co-authors. So this is an area where researchers need to tread carefully. It is best to think ahead to how research will be billed at the time when team research efforts are first set up.


  1. Academics who wish to improve the citation rate of their journal articles should ensure that title names are informative and memorable, and that their abstracts contain key ‘bottom line’ or ‘take-away points’.
  2. Book authors should ensure that their titles and sub-titles are distinctive yet appear in general ‘Google Book’ searches around the given theme.
  3. There are a number of schools of thoughts regarding self-citations. In general academics should aim to ensure their own self-citation rate is in line with academics in the same discipline.
  4. Co-authored outputs tend to generate more citations due to networking effects between authors in a given research team or lab, especially if the co-authors come from different universities or countries.

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