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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”.


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