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I was recently reading a paper on which the author list had an interesting twist: both the first and second author had an asterisk next to their name, with the footnote "these authors contributed equally."

I'm curious about the practical implications of such a scenario. Obviously, one is listed first and one is listed second (in this case, alphabetical, by last name), and that's how it'll be displayed in citations. However, can the second listed author—who is supposed to be given equal weight to first author regarding credit—list their name first on their CV, even though its listed differently in the journal? Are there any other implications I'm not considering?

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+1 I have wondered about that recently. Some journals require (and publish) an explicit statement by the authors describing their respective contributions. But most journals (at least in my field) don't. Yet, there is a recent trend that some authors include such a statement even when not required, and I have wondered about that. –  F'x Dec 19 '12 at 14:05
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You can't change the citation--changing the order of authors results in the wrong citation! You can replicate the note in the C.V. so it is clear that there are co-first authors. –  Rex Kerr Dec 19 '12 at 19:02

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I would see such a step as a clear indication of authors contributions for the record, so as to make sure this gets accepted as truthful also in the future during promotions, job applications, etc. Technically speaking, in a CV one can write stuff even dishonestly disregarding co-authors (e.g., arbitrarily indicating the percentage of own contribution). This kind of public indication of the contribution tackles the problem once and forever. In some fields the alphabetical order is a standard (mathematicians I know have that as almost a strict rule) and then you need a tool to make your contribution visible. Especially if your name is at your disadvantage in this game. E.g., when you are called Zhang and co-author paper often with some Adams or so. Also, if alphabetic order is desired for whatever reason and the more senior co-author happens to precede the student who did the actual work, such an indication might be desirable.

Another point is, some journals require such an explicit indication. E.g., Nature does that, although the statement of individual contribution comes as a paragraph at the end of the paper.

Finally, some national schemes for evaluation of research output require such an indication made in a publication archive system. Having it included in the paper also indicates that authors try to avoid any future disputes regarding individual contributions.

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In a sandwich PhD thesis, the PhD candidate might indicate their contribution to each paper. –  gerrit Dec 19 '12 at 14:09
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In some fields the alphabetical order is a standard (mathematicians I know have that as almost a strict rule) and then you need a tool to make your contribution visible. — The standard fiction in theoretical computer science, which inherited alphabetical author order form mathematics, is that 100% of the authors each contributed 100% of the paper. That's our story and we're sticking to it. (And, yes, every recommendation letter I write has a short paragraph about alphabetical author order.) –  JeffE Dec 19 '12 at 19:07

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