It’s rare that an article is authored by only one or two people anymore. In fact, the average original research paper has five authors these days. The growing list of collaborative research projects raises important questions regarding the author order for research manuscripts and the impact an author list has on readers’ perceptions.
With a handful of authors, a group might be inclined to create an author name list based on the amount of work contributed. What happens, though, when you have a long list of authors? It would be impractical to rank the authors by their relative contributions. Additionally, what if the authors contribute relatively equal amounts of work? Similarly, if a study was interdisciplinary (and many are these days), how can one individual’s contribution be deemed more significant than another’s?
Why does author order matter?
Although an author list should only reflect those who have made substantial contributions to a research project and its draft manuscript (see, for example, the authorship guidelines of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors), we’d be remiss to say that author order doesn’t matter. In theory, everyone on the list should be credited equally since it takes a team to successfully complete a project; however, due to industry customs and other practical limitations, some authors will always be more visible than others.
The following are some notable implications regarding author order.
- The “first author” is a coveted position because of its increased visibility. This author is the first name readers will see, and because of various citation rules, publications are usually referred to by the name of the first author only. In-text or bibliographic referencing rules, for example, often reduce all other named authors to “et al.” Since employers use first-authorship to evaluate academic personnel for employment, promotion, and tenure, and since graduate students often need a number of first-author publications to earn their degree, being the lead author on a manuscript is crucial for many researchers, especially early in their career.
- The last author position is traditionally reserved for the supervisor or principal investigator. As such, this person receives much of the credit when the research goes well and the flak when things go wrong. The last author may also be the corresponding author, the person who is the primary contact for journal editors (the first author could, however, fill this role as well, especially if they contributed most to the work).
- Given that there is no uniform rule about author order, readers may find it difficult to assess the nature of an author’s contribution to a research project. To address this issue, some journals, particularly medical ones, nowadays insist on detailed author contribution notes (make sure you check the target journal guidelines before submission to find out how the journal you are planning to submit to handles this). Nevertheless, even this does little to counter how strongly citation rules have enhanced the attention first-named authors receive.
Common Methods for Listing Authors
The following are some common methods for establishing author order lists.
- Relative contribution. As mentioned above, the most common way authors are listed is by relative contribution. The author who made the most substantial contribution to the work described in an article and did most of the underlying research should be listed as the first author. The others are ranked in descending order of contribution. However, in many disciplines, such as the life sciences, the last author in a group is the principal investigator or “senior author”—the person who often provides ideas based on their earlier research and supervised the current work.
- Alphabetical list. Certain fields, particularly those involving large group projects, employ other methods. For example, high-energy particle physics teams list authors alphabetically.
- Multiple “first” authors. Additional “first” authors (so-called “co-first authors”) can be noted by an asterisk or other symbols accompanied by an explanatory note. This practice is common in interdisciplinary studies; however, as we explained above, the first name listed on a paper will still enjoy more visibility than any other “first” author.
- Multiple “last” authors. Similar to recognizing several first authors, multiple last authors can be recognized via typographical symbols and footnotes. This practice arose as some journals wanted to increase accountability by requiring senior lab members to review all data and interpretations produced in their labs instead of being awarded automatic last-authorship on every publication by someone in their group.
- Negotiated order. If you were thinking you could avoid politics by drowning yourself in research, you’re sorely mistaken. While there are relatively clear guidelines and practices for designating first and last authors, there’s no overriding convention for the middle authors. The list can be decided by negotiation, so sharpen those persuasive argument skills!
As you can see, choosing the right author order can be quite complicated. Therefore, we urge researchers to consider these factors early in the research process and to confirm this order during the English proofreading process, whether you self-edit or received manuscript editing or paper editing services, all of which should be done before submission to a journal. Don’t wait until the manuscript is drafted before you decide on the author order in your paper. All the parties involved will need to agree on the author list before submission, and no one will want to delay submission because of a disagreement about who should be included on the author list, and in what order (along with other journal manuscript authorship issues).
On top of that, journals sometimes have clear rules about changing authors or even authorship order during the review process, might not encourage it, and might require detailed statements explaining the specific contribution of every new/old author, official statements of agreement of all authors, and/or a corrigendum to be submitted, all of which can further delay the publication process. We recommend periodically revisiting the named author issue during the drafting stage to make sure that everyone is on the same page and that the list is updated to appropriately reflect changes in team composition or contributions to a research project.