How we make authorship decisions

Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s supervisor, employer, organisation, committee or any other group or individual.

By Laura Sharpe

When publishing papers, it’s important to get the authorship right. It’s important because it can affect people’s PhDs, careers, and funding outcomes, but also their happiness and therefore motivation. If Person A feels they got less authorship credit than they deserve, they may feel undervalued and resentful. Worse, if Person B is receiving more credit than Person A feels they deserve, this can make things even more unpleasant. 


There is at least one case I know of where the paper was retracted because the authors could not agree on the authorship order. There are a number of guides out there on how to assign authorship (e.g. this) but the two most interesting methods I’ve come across are playing a game of croquet, or choosing based on proximity to tenure decisions. More bizarrely, a cat was included as an author when the sole author realised they had written “we” and “our” throughout the paper and did not want to rewrite it (to be fair, it was 1975, so this was probably non-trivial). As another scary prospect, it’s rumoured that someone was fired because they questioned their boss over the authorship order of a paper destined for Nature.


All of this really helps put things in perspective when thinking about how authorship decisions are made in our lab. We don’t play croquet or include animals, but in general people are also more reasonable. I can think of a few times where people have been unhappy with their allocated authorship (and I think all of these were related to equal first authors), and at one stage I was told by a PhD student that they thought I should be equal first author on a paper rather than second author – I didn’t agree, and I told them so. The concept of “equal first authors” is a difficult one, because it indicates that both people have contributed equally. However, in most cases, it has been fairly clear who should be listed as “first first author”, which then begs the question “are they *really* equal first authors?”. Because it is next to impossible to determine whether two people have exactly equally contributed, this is a compromise – they both get to be listed as first author, but one still gets physically listed first. How do you choose, if it is not mutually obvious, who should be first? 

Of course, you could do it alphabetically, but this would be unfair for those with surnames later in the alphabet (and would likely prompt me to switch to publishing in my married name – Amos trumps Sharpe!). You could flip a coin. You could play croquet. It could be done as a “who needs this more” situation. You could take turns. There are never ending possibilities for how to choose. What do I think is best? If you genuinely feel that two authors have contributed equally, and it is unclear who should be first, then I think the best solution is to list first the person who needs it more. This is because the person who needs it more is likely to be the person who is leaving first, and therefore you will be giving them the best chance of securing a good position elsewhere. The remaining person then has more time to earn authorship on additional papers, which will also benefit them. And, in the next round of authorship discussions, they are more likely to be given a favourable position.


Next, onto the less prestigious “middling” authors. These are still important, but are perhaps even harder to designate, particularly in long lists of authors. If there’s a list of ten authors, how can you possibly discern who belongs in fifth vs sixth position? The only thing I can suggest is that if you have a large number of authors, it is likely to be across multiple institutions, and therefore you could group people together based on location. The slightly more prestigious “middling” author positions of second author, and second-to-last author, are usually easier to decide. Second author will generally be whoever did the most experimental work for the project other than the first author, and the second-to-last author is typically the second most senior person, who would usually provide intellectual input. In our lab, this is sometimes me, and sometimes another group leader with whom we are collaborating. Sometimes it is just whoever ends up there after listing the other authors!


I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules on how to determine authorship, but I’d encourage everyone to discuss it openly as needed. Although some people suggest talking about authorship at the very start of the project, in most cases I think this would be a waste of time. As projects develop over time, different people come and go and contribute in different ways and it is really only when the project is nearing publication that authorship can be discussed effectively. Having said that, it is usually worthwhile having a main person as the driver of a project – usually with the assumption that they will be first author.

This was some insight into how our lab makes these decisions, and I think we do a really good job of making sure things are fair overall.
How do you make authorship decisions in your lab?

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