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Recently, I was involved in an engineering research project where I significantly extended the main functionality of the work. As my other team-mates were not involved in that aspect of the project, I thought I would leave them to do the write-up. I don't want to complicate things but lets just say their contribution matters less, at least according to my advisor.

This work is now being readied for publication and there's the matter of ordering the authors. Initially I thought we may be doing things alphabetically, but on the recent draft the order appeared to prioritize those who are doing the write-up, listing them first. My advisor raised no objection to this. If we are going down this road, it seems to me those who have done the most work should be first authors (i.e. me), rather than those who are doing the write-up.

I'd like to avoid any potential conflict with the people involved, and so I wonder if one acceptable compromise here is to specify the contributions of each author in the paper. Alternatively, we can do the alphabetical thing and make explicit mention of this as a footnote. I don't have any problem with either of these options.

First, am I correct in thinking that the ordering here is misplaced?

Second, are the compromises I list reasonable enough to propose?

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Did you discuss the order issue with your advisor ? –  Suresh Jan 4 '13 at 20:02
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6 Answers

You must discuss this issue with your advisor and all coauthors as soon as possible. The right time to have the discussion would have been before the first draft is started, but unless you have a time machine, you have to have it now. Since there are differing opinions, and the outcome matters, conflict is inevitable. Welcome to adulthood.

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And when discussing, keep in mind that some journals allow for shared first authorship. Perhaps this might be a solution for you. –  Ana Jan 7 '13 at 15:27
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I thought I would leave them to do the write-up

In my experience, the person who writes the initial draft is first author when the author order depends on contribution. There may be discussions/"fights" over who deserves to write the initial draft, but it is generally understood that this person becomes the first author.

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I have been in the situation where I have been the primary author on a few papers where others have been the primary personnel involved.

In one of those cases, the PI was the primary worker, and therefore allowed me to be first author. In the other case, the primary worker was still the first author, and I was the second author. I was fine with this, because I was getting the credit in exchange for making sure the work got published.

However, I do agree that the primary person whose work is being presented should be first author. At the same time, if you do not have an active hand in writing the manuscript, the claim that slightly less scientific work plus more work preparing the manuscript could be persuasive.

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I think you should had discussed this issue before starting the research. For example you could have agreed that anybody who solves the main part of the problem (project) will be the first author. But now that it is done, I think you should talk about it with your advisor and you might have to be a little flexible about the order of authorship.

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Ordering names in publications is a very delicate matter and should always be discussed among the research team before submission.

Typically, every co-author needs to have taken part in each part of the research:

  • background research
  • methodology
  • experiment
  • analysis
  • paper writing
  • proof-reading

The importance of those elements determines who will be the first author. The most important parts are definitely the experiment itself and the paper writing. Whoever didn't take part in both of those can hardly be considered an author. This might be considered a bit controversial sometimes, but other researchers who only took part in a small part of the process should be added in the acknowledgements instead.

Now, in many cases nowadays not everybody takes part in each part of the research process. This usually creates ambiguities, that should be solved in the best way, asking for advice from a research authority, with the enough experience and information to judge on the situation.

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In my opinion, whatever the order of authors, the contributions should be individually stated, as it is common in some fields and journals. This avoids problems like yours, and also (real cases):

  • The first author just provided the research money, but did no actual work.
  • The first author is the PI in a collaboration. He overseed the research and gave orders, but the bulk of the job was done by his PhD students.
  • Someone is important in the group, so he gets to be amongst the first authors, even though he did nothing. Students that actually did work have their names after him.
  • The data was processed using a program that has been in use for three years. The programer was not involved in the paper, or finetuned the program for the purpose of the particular study, but he gets to coauthor.

But also, situations like:

  • Three or more researchers designed independent critical steps, all of them equally important to the results.
  • Multidisciplinary collaboration, where new analysis techniques suggest new experimental techniques, that are implemented for the first time.

Where they all deserve large credit, and it is impossible to order them fairly.

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