Is the PEG model paper an indicator of changing authorship criteria?

To freshwater ecologists, the PEG model paper is a foundational paper (current citations: 1064) that lays out a model of seasonal succession in the plankton. It starts out with a verbal model comprised of 24 statements/stages; for example, the first is “Towards the end of winter, nutrient availability and increased light permit unlimited growth of the phytoplankton”. It then goes on to compare data on seasonal succession from 23 lakes around the world, comparing these with what the PEG model predicted. The paper has four authors: Ulrich Sommer, Z. Maciej Gliwicz, Winfried Lampert, and Annie Duncan*.

“PEG” stands for Plankton Ecology Group, which is explained in this footnote:
PEG paper footnote

As you can see, a LOT of people were involved in contributing data and ideas to the manuscript. I count 29 people in the footnote. Table 1 lists data contributions; in there, I see 25 names, only two of whom are authors on the paper.**

Reading this paper again recently, I was struck by how different this is from the way authorship works for working group papers now. (Given that I’ve never been part of a working group, it’s possible I’m off base here, but I’m pretty confident that things work differently now.***) My guess is that, if this paper appeared today, it would have many, many more authors. Here are Jeremy’s general guidelines for authorship:

My own approach, which I think used to be fairly standard in ecology and is still pretty common, is to think of a paper as arising from three main activities: conceiving and designing the study, conducting the study (e.g., collecting and analyzing the data), and writing the paper. You’re an author if you make a substantive contribution to at least two of those three.

By those criteria (which I agree are reasonable and commonly used), the PEG paper would have 6 times as many authors. Part of what was so interesting to me when I realized this is that the PEG paper isn’t that old – it appeared in 1986.****

Was the PEG paper exceptional for its time in having so few coauthors, given the size of the working group and the number of people who contributed data? (Were there other working groups of this size at that time? I don’t know, but that likely reflects my ignorance.) Or has there been a shift towards including more people as coauthors?

My sense is that it’s the latter. I don’t know anything about the workings of the Plankton Ecology Group other than what the paper indicates, but, in my opinion, today it would be appropriate for the other people who contributed to the conceptual framework and contributed data to be coauthors. If that means there has been a shift towards including more people as coauthors, I think that’s a good thing.

Do you know of other similar examples? Certainly there are lots of examples of current papers with lots of coauthors. What I’m unsure of is how many older papers there are from working groups, and whether they had similarly few authors. If you know of some, please mention them in the comments!


*The full reference for the PEG paper is:
Sommer, U., Z. M. Gliwicz, W. Lampter, and A. Duncan. 1986. The PEG-model of seasonal succession of planktonic events in fresh waters. Archiv für Hydrobiologie 106(4): 433-471.

** People who contributed data, according to Table 1 (underline indicates author on paper): Bangerter, Fott, Frankhauser, Garnier, Geller, Gliwicz, Gulati, Hart, Herzig, Hofmann, Horn, Lair, Langeland, Larsson, Lescher-Moutoué, Moreau-Wattiez, Okamoto, Pechlaner, Rostan, Rott, Ruttner-Kolisko, Schober, Sommer, Spodniewska, Vijverberg

PEG paper table

*** This post by Florian Hartig points out that author lists for working groups have gotten so big in some cases that authors accidentally get left off the publication.

**** I suppose someone could argue that 30 years is really old, but, since I was alive when the paper came out, I maintain that it’s not old.😉

6 thoughts on “Is the PEG model paper an indicator of changing authorship criteria?

  1. I think this has happened often. For example:

    Preston, Caroline M., JA, and the Trofymow, and the Canadian Intersite Decomposition Experiment Working Group. “Variability in litter quality and its relationship to litter decay in Canadian forests.” Canadian Journal of Botany 78.10 (2000): 1269-1287.

    From a quick Google Scholar search of “Working Group”

  2. Interesting questions and very interesting case study.

    There is no doubt (papers with empirical studies show it) that the average number of authors per paper is trending up fairly quickly. Much of this is just the drive to interdisciplinary science, more advanced tools requiring specialists, etc leading to more 3-5 author papers. But some of it is definitely the 20+ author working group papers.

    My own hypothesis is that the rise of the working group has driving this. While working groups certainly have existed for ever they tended to take the path of PEG. FAUNMAP assembling paleo data on mammal distributions is an example as is COHMAP (a paper in science on paleoclimate reconstruction).

    But with the rise of NCEAS in the 1990s (and more generally the rise of metaanalyses and big data) working groups became a major way of doing business and for whatever reason people were no longer willing to take the PEG/FAUNMAP approach. The fact that in the early days Ecology Letters actively recruited NCEAS working groups to produce synthesis papers certainly helped this. And having been in working groups, it is very common to agree that all attendees will be authors on at least the main review paper, and there are some very good reasons for this. ON the practical, drawing lines of on or off the paper is very arbitrary and just hurts feelings so its easier to include everybody. And on the scientific, you really want a working group to be a place where everybody is open and sharing their best thinking, and people do do this, and they should be recognized for their contributions. This has placed pressure on journals to increase or remove limits on number of authors in several cases that I know of. And of course the working group model has proliferated with 3 other synthesis centers in the US (NimBIOS, NESCent and SESYNC) and synthesis centers in France (CESAB), Germany (iDiv), Canada (CIEE), Australia, and etc (see

    So yeah – 1986 is definitely still recent in my book! – but the world has changed a lot. Various people have opinions on whether this is a good change or not, but I’m very firmly in the camp of good.

    • Yes to all of this. I’d only add that in a funny way, still more-recent changes to authorship practices are moving things back towards the PEG model. Formal statements of author contributions are now required at some journals, and I include them in the Acknowledgements even if they’re not required. Which is exactly like that footnote to the PEG paper.

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