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Author et al.,

Order of Authorship for Academic Papers


Black Cat Blog:

Issues in academia, research, & publishing

Lydia Barza, PhD

Recently, I questioned a colleague who listed me as last author on a manuscript for a psychology journal. Surprised to see my name last on the list, having contributed to the work significantly, I considered it a demotion. I wrote to her and asked why I was listed last, while expressing that I would honor her decision if she felt the other authors had contributed to the work more than I. She replied that she moved me to last author precisely because she thought I had made the most significant contribution. Having come from a tradition of most-to-least authorship, I was confused.

Fairly listing author names is the most commonly occurring problem associated with co-authorship (Macfarlane, 2017). Variation in conventions between fields only add to the confusion. The increasingly interdisciplinary and cross-institutional nature of many research endeavors have highlighted inconsistencies in the conventions of academic authorship (Elliot et al., 2017).

In most studies, some authors make greater contributions to the project than others (i.e., the principal investigator(s) who often conceptualized the study versus an undergraduate research assistant who contributed to data collection only). But, what’s the standard for authorship order?

1, 2, 3, Don’t Forget Me

The issues with alphabetical ordering are clear. It is arbitrary and provides no information as to who contributed most to the work. In addition, most citation formats list the first 1-3 authors only (e.g., Barza et al.,). Therefore, the first author and perhaps the next 2 are most visible.

On the other hand, some studies may include dozens of authors. In 2015, a new record for the largest number of authors on a single research article was set by a High Energy Physics publication, co-signed by more than 5,000 individuals which took up 24 pages to list (Castelvecchi, 2015). In such a case, teasing out who contributed more than others would be futile. Alphabetical ordering is also considered a fair way of recognizing contributors when all authors are said to have contributed equally.

“authorship depends on the situation: if one makes the highest contribution his/her name goes first. If everybody contributes fairly equally, then the names are listed alphabetically. But there is no set in stone rule.” – P. Iren, personal communication, May 25, 2018 - Business professor from Turkey

Don’t change your name just yet. The highest to lowest degree of contribution is familiar to those in social sciences and the most common method used between fields. With few authors who work closely, this is often negotiated early on with little fuss. With more authors or potential authors of varying status and responsibilities, it can get more complicated and even contentious. Some lead researchers even use a point system which is laid out as soon as someone joins their team. This is considered a way to more objectively justify whether the researcher has made contributions to the project substantial enough to merit authorship.

Since one’s publication record is used to determine promotion and tenure, authorship order is exceedingly important. The coveted first and second author positions infer that you contributed most significantly to the work. After the first few spots, to what degree your work was essential to the project becomes murky. This is especially true given the prevalence of guest and ghost authorship.

The trend in laboratory sciences is to highlight the first and last authors as the greatest contributors. The first author is said to have added the most value to the project, while the last author is typically the most senior researcher who played a leadership role, hosted the research, or even the principal investigator (Corrêa, Silva, Costa & Amancio, 2017; Smith, 2017; Tarkang, Kweku & Zotor, 2017).

“The first author is always the person who does the writing and who coordinates the team of co-authors. The last author is usually the senior member of the team and is often the person who conceived the initial idea for the study and/or obtained funding. It is a common policy that the authors in between the first and last are ranked in order of the magnitude of their input into the paper” (Savitz, 1999).

Despite some trends within and among fields, there is no universal guideline for authorship order. Therefore, some may assume a last author was actually the driving force behind a study when, in fact, that person may have been the researcher who contributed the least to the project. Depending on who is evaluating your portfolio “interpretation of author sequence can be like a lottery” (Tscharntke, et. al., 2007).

Here’s what some major professional organizations have to say about authorship order:

“Researchers should be aware of the authorship practices within their own disciplines and should always abide by any requirements stipulated by journals as part of their instructions to authors.” (Guidelines on authorship, 2018)

Preventing Battles over Authorship Order

Determining authorship is the collective responsibility of authors and not journal editors (Tarkang et al., 2017). Editors are sometimes asked to intervene and this is not their function. Even changing authors or author order is highly discouraged once a paper has been submitted. Publishers view such requests with skepticism and often require a detailed explanation that justifies any changes. It’s a red flag for ethical misconduct.

Discussion about author order and specific contributions to a paper encourage transparency and the opportunity to better define project tasks and responsibilities. This must occur as soon as possible, when a project is being conceptualized and before the research is underway. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) recommends, “researchers discuss authorship order from project initiation to manuscript submission, revising as necessary, and record each decision in writing”.

"Where no journal or discipline-specific norms apply, authorship criteria should be agreed by all investigators at an early stage of the research. Where possible, it is advisable to keep written records of decisions regarding authorship and these should be revisited where roles and contributions change over the lifecycle of the study.” (Guidelines on authorship, 2018)

When a contributor initiates a plan for dissemination, the issue should be reviewed again. If researchers contribute equally or if they take the lead on different aspects of the study, alternating first authorship among team members is a common practice when more than one paper will come out of a project.

“Without any internationally recognised standard criteria for author order,

no system seems fair” (Tarkang, Kweku & Zotor, 2017).

What to Do When a Conflict Arises

  • Outline each co-author’s contributions to the project. This increases transparency and brings a discussion about expectations and core issues that resulted in the conflict to light.

  • Ask a mutually agreed upon third party to mediate – It’s probably best if this person is a senior colleague but need not be a Department Chair or Dean.

  • Keep an open mind about compromising. Maintaining good relationships with colleagues is imperative for your well-being and job satisfaction. While advocating for yourself, think about the big picture and how the resolution to this conflict may affect your work environment.

  • Discuss, discuss, discuss. Be respectful. Listen. Discuss some more.

  • Conclude with a written statement of the consensus reached. This need not be formal, an email will do.

  • Don’t let the issue linger. Reach an agreement as soon as possible.

“There is no specific, generally accepted guidance regarding authorship distribution in multidisciplinary teams, something that can lead to significant tensions and even conflict.” (Smith, 2017 p.371).

A Possible Solution: Contribution Statements

A study by Sauermann and Haeussler (2017) delineated 4 components to determine author contributions:

(1) breadth of contributions made,

(2) type of contribution,

(3) level of involvement in each type of contribution, and

(4) the importance of different contributions for achieving project objectives.

They concluded that “authorship order provides some information about the underlying number and types of scientists’ contributions. However, the required inferences will often be wrong, suggesting that explicit contribution disclosures provide important additional information” (pp. 14). So, the contribution statement is meant to be specific regarding who did what.

For example, the author contribution form for one Elsevier journal asks for author last names for each of these categories:

(a) Study conception and design

(b) Acquisition of data

(c) Analysis and interpretation of data

(d) Drafting of manuscript

(e) Critical revision

Journals are increasingly asking for researchers to detail their contributions. This trend has been arguably pushed by those who have researched ethical authorship practices (Smith & Master, 2017). Top medical journals such as JAMA, The Lancet, British Medical Journal, and Radiology adopted this practice proposed by Drummond Rennie (deputy editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association) in 1996. The journals Science, Nature, and PNAS also now require a description of each author’s contributions prior to acceptance but are not routinely published. This makes it helpful for editors but not for readers.

An article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) recommended the adoption of the Contributor Roles Taxonomy (CRediT) ( (McNutt et al., 2018). It defines 14 roles of contributors to scientific output.

Although there is a significant relationship between author order and contribution statements, the detail provided in contribution disclosures makes it less likely that authorship order will be misinterpreted by the reader. This is especially important given the fact that authorship order conventions differ between fields. Perhaps more standardization of contribution statements and inclusion in more journals would defray some of the current confusion.

Recommendations for Determining Authorship Order

  • Talk to senior colleagues in your field about established practices.

  • Review authorship policies for relevant scholarly societies (i.e., APA: psychology, AERA: education, ICMJE: health sciences).

  • Review the authorship guidelines of the journal to which you plan to submit your work.

  • Talk with collaborators from the start about authorship order and revisit the issue as the project progresses and changes.

  • Be prepared to write a contribution statement for journal submission.

  • Develop a consensus on authorship order among colleagues at your institution to increase transparency and consistency for promotion and tenure.


American Counseling Association. (2014). ACA Code of Ethics. Alexandria, VA: Author.

American Educational Research Association. (2011). Code of ethics. Educational Researcher, 40(3), 145-156.

All European Academies. (2017). The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity. Retrieved from

British Educational Research Association. (2011). Ethical guidelines for educational research. Retrieved from

Castelvecchi, D. (2015). Physics paper sets record with more than 5,000 authors. Nature News.

Committee on publication ethics (COPE). How to handle authorship disputes: a guide for new researchers. Available from:

Corrêa Jr, E. A., Silva, F. N., Costa, L. D. F., & Amancio, D. R. (2017). Patterns of authors contribution in scientific manuscripts. Journal of Informetrics, 11(2), 498-510.

Elliott, K. C., Settles, I. H., Montgomery, G. M., Brassel, S. T., Cheruvelil, K. S., & Soranno, P. A. (2017). Honorary authorship practices in environmental science teams: structural and cultural factors and solutions. Accountability in research, 24(2), 80-98.

Guidelines on authorship. (n.d.). In University of Cambridge Retrieved from

International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. (1997). Uniform requirements for manuscripts submitted to biomedical journals. New England Journal of Medicine, 336(4), 309-316.

International Sociological Association. (2001). Code of ethics. Retrieved from

Macfarlane, B. (2017). Co-authorship in the Humanities and Social Sciences: A global view [White paper]. Retrieved May 28, 2018, From Taylor & Francis Group:

McNutt, M. K., Bradford, M., Drazen, J. M., Hanson, B., Howard, B., Jamieson, K. H., ... & Swaminathan, S. (2018). Transparency in authors’ contributions and responsibilities to promote integrity in scientific publication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(11), 2557-2560.

Savitz, D. A. (1999). What can we infer from author order in epidemiology? American Journal of Epidemiology, 149, 401-403.

Sauermann, H., & Haeussler, C. (2017). Authorship and contribution disclosures. Science Advances, 3(11), e1700404. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700404

Smith, E. (2017). A Theoretical Foundation for the Ethical Distribution of Authorship in Multidisciplinary Publications. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, 27(3), 371-411.

Smith, E., & Master, Z. (2017). Best practice to order authors in multi/interdisciplinary health sciences research publications. Accountability in research, 24(4), 243-267.

Tarkang, E. E., Kweku, M., & Zotor, F. B. (2017). Publication practices and responsible authorship: a review article. Journal of public health in Africa, 8(1).

Tscharntke, T., Hochberg, M. E., Rand, T. A., Resh, V. H., & Krauss, J. (2007). Author sequence and credit for contributions in multiauthored publications. PLoS biology, 5(1), e18.


Related blog posts

Burgess, S. (2017, September 14). When Pigs Fly — Changing author lists on scientific papers. [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Liboiron, M. Equity in author order. [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Brandt, F. (2013, November 7). Author ordering. [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Hodgkinson, H. (2017, December 8). Authorship disputes: How do we avoid “cutting the baby in half”? [Blog post]. Retrieved from


APA Citation of entire blog: Black Cat Editing blog (

APA Citation of this blog post: Barza, L. (2018, December 3) Author et al.,: Order of authorship for academic papers. [Blog post]. Retrieved from …



What do you think about the authorship order convention for your field?

What type of authorship order conflicts have you experienced? How was it resolved?

What convention for authorship order would you suggest and why?

To what degree do you thing contributor statements solve the issue?

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