Many years ago I conducted an experiment. I asked several sets of friends who had written joint math papers what they thought their individual contributions were. I asked them separately, of course. As the result of this experiment I formulated the conjecture:
The total of what joint authors estimate their contributions to be is always more than 100%.
Here is an actual example of answers I received from the two authors of a joint paper.
Author 1: My contribution is 80%. I suggested a breakthrough idea that made this paper possible. He just typed everything.
Author 2: My contribution is 80%. I did all the work. She just suggested a good idea.
You can see how the answers are synchronized. It is clear that both are telling the truth. People just tend to over-value their own input.
In other cases each author thinks that she or he generated the main idea. It doesn’t mean that one of them is lying. Very often they are absolutely sincere. Take this example of Alice and Bob, who are working on a paper together. Alice suggests that they might have better progress on their theorem if they consider graphs with symmetries first. Bob is engrossed in his thoughts and doesn’t register Alice’s suggestion. Next day, he comes up with an idea to add a group action on graphs. He sincerely believes that this was his own idea. It would be hard to know whether this had been provoked by Alice’s suggestion, or had come to Bob independently. Alice assumes that they are working on her idea.
When you acknowledge other people’s contribution, keep in mind that their perception might be different from yours. If you do not want to hurt other people’s feelings, you might consider inflating your gratitude.
The conjecture doesn’t apply to single-author papers. First of all, mathematicians never claim their contribution is 110% as non-mathematicians do. In many cases, especially when there are acknowledgements in the paper, it would be illogical to claim 100% contribution. Most mathematicians are logical, so if they are gracious enough to acknowledge the help of others, they are unlikely to claim 100%.
I would be curious to continue the experiment and either prove or disprove my conjecture. I’d appreciate your help. If you want to be part of this experiment, you can provide the following numbers in your comments: your average contribution to your own papers; and also your weighted average contribution to your joint papers.Share: