It's been about 2 years since I've left academia, partly because of the kind of deeds that I'm about to describe to give a bit of context to the question.

About a month ago I was CCed in an email exchange involving my former PhD supervisor and one of our collaborator, a Post-doc in Mathematics (from now on referred to as the Post-doc). The email said that one of our papers, that we submitted to a journal about 2 years ago (that's right) was finally rejected (better late than never I suppose).

Recently, I have received a letter from the Journal of Functional Analysis that informed me that I have been indicated as a co-author of a publication recently submitted by my former supervisor. It is of course yet another attempt to get the paper published somewhere. Although the fact that the choice of journal is a questionable one (JFA is published by Elsevier, which I would gladly boycott, but this is a whole different matter I won't get into), what startled me was the fact that the Post-doc has been indicated as First Author.

Now, a clarification about the paper is due in order to understand the situation better. Most if not all of the original draft of the paper was written by me, and it pretty much contained most of my research work, which then turned into my PhD thesis together with some later results that I have obtained. There have been times when I got stuck on some points, in which cases a few chats with my supervisor helped overcome the problems. The contributions from the Post-doc towards the final version of the paper are, to say the least, very questionable. One way to summarise them is perhaps with the expression unintentional sabotage. The Post-doc kept changing sentences in the paper because he thought we was improving it. I'm not an English native speaker and nor is the Post-doc, but his English was definitely worse than mine and, as a consequence, I had to spend hours reverting his changes, over and over again. Not to mention his competency with the mathematical content of the paper itself. A good part of the time we spent in meetings to discuss the contents at the board, it was basically me (a PhD student in Pure Math with a degree in Physics at that time) recollecting basic school maths facts (literally) for the sake of the Post-doc who didn't seem to remember them (or know them altogether).

Don't get me wrong on this though. I am in no way implying that there is an voluntary attempt at bad deeds here. Knowing my former supervisor, this is what I think it is going on with the paper submission. Given that I am no longer in academia, it benefits nobody if the paper is submitted with me as first author. Hence it would make more sense to indicate the Post-doc as first author since he is still somehow making his way in the academic world.

Whilst I would totally support this decision in general as very sensible, I find it hard to go by it in this particular case, given the scenario I have described above. By allowing the Post-doc to be first author, my former supervisor is (I believe inadvertently) helping someone to be where he's probably not supposed to be, taking the chance away from someone who is more qualified. You wouldn't believe how many successful applications the Post-doc has had, given his actual knowledge on the subject. The only explanation that I could come up with is that, somehow, people are happy to offer the Post-doc a place at their departments to enjoy of his buffoonery (possibly his only positive aspect).

Now, after this long introduction, here comes the question: Should I notify the journal that I am the actual first author?

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    Authors in mathematics are almost always listed alphabetically. Is that the case here? Jul 2, 2018 at 13:49
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    It is, and the Post-doc would figure out first. Perhaps I should have mentioned in the OP that the journal in question asks for a First Author explicitly.
    – Phoenix87
    Jul 2, 2018 at 14:13
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    I see. Are you sure this isn't just a misunderstanding? My experience with math journals is that they always ask for "first author", "second author", etc. But if the authors want alphabetical order, then you're expected to put the alphabetical first author in the "first author" blank, and so on. If so then Postdoc is doing it exactly right. And even if that's not what the journal intends, it could be an honest mistake on Postdoc's part. Jul 2, 2018 at 14:56
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    It might be informative to go through a dummy submission and see what the form looks like. I haven't submitted a multi-author paper to JFA myself, but again, my experience is that to a journal, "first author" just means "who should be listed first", nothing more. It's up to the authors to decide on their own who gets listed first, whether it be alphabetical or something else. Jul 2, 2018 at 15:10
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    @NateEldredge and OP, there is no need for a dummy submission. Just look at the latest issues of the journal. In the couple of issues I looked at, all authors were listed alphabetically. I believe this confirms that the journal has no concept of a “first author” as it is understood in other parts of academia.
    – Dan Romik
    Jul 2, 2018 at 16:07

3 Answers 3


You may want to return to Academia in the future so the fact that you are now working otherwise shouldn't carry a lot of weight.

You may not want to burn bridges on this. I'd actually suggest that you contact your PhD supervisor and ask for clarification. You may get an interesting reply that solves the problem or pushes you to seek a solution with the editors. I don't think that a journal will like to adjudicate a conflict and might respond by simply rejecting the paper doing no one any good. Try the most collegial approach at first and see what you learn.

If the core of your dissertation is published elsewhere, your work should stand on its own whether or not this paper is published as is or not. If it isn't yet published, then you should attend to that, of course.

  • Thanks for your answer. It sounds very sensible to me. My PhD thesis is deposited with the University and contains more than what's currently in the paper. In fact, further, more general results are already published in a paper of which I'm the sole author.
    – Phoenix87
    Jul 2, 2018 at 13:41
  • And does this current paper that's causing the issue, cite your thesis and especially your sole-author paper? I would say it certainly should.
    – CCTO
    Apr 20, 2020 at 20:53

I think you've misunderstood the situation. It appears to me that this is being handled properly by your co-authors, and any action on your part would be inappropriate.

As you've clarified, you and your co-authors are following the usual authorship convention for pure math, which is that authors are listed alphabetically, with the corresponding assumption that all authors contributed equally to the paper. (Of course, this is often a polite fiction, but you're on board with it now and so it doesn't behoove you to denigrate their contributions.) You say the alphabetical order here is Postdoc, RecentStudent (that's you), Supervisor.

From the journal's point of view, "first author" just means literally that: whose name should be printed first on the title page? And since you've decided to use alphabetical order, Postdoc is indeed the "first author" in that sense. So it is absolutely correct that he's identified as "first author" in the journal's paperwork. Nobody is playing any funny games here.

Any significance attached to the ordering of the authors, or who comes first, is in the minds of the authors and the readers. The journal doesn't want to get involved in the question of who is the "primary" author, or who did the most work, and they really don't care. They just want all the authors to agree on what should go on the title page, and which name should be printed first, second, third, etc. Any way is fine with them so long as the authors all approve.

If it helps, the submission form for JFA has a section that looks like this:

enter image description here

You click the little arrows to change the order. Note that "First Author" is automatically attached to whoever is first on the list.

You definitely should not tell the journal that you're the "actual" first author. They'll interpret this as a sign that you want to be listed first, and thus the authors are not in agreement about what should appear on the title page. They'll put the whole submission on hold until they can be assured that the three of you have worked it out. This will greatly annoy your co-authors, especially since it seems to have already been understood that alphabetical order was to be used.

If you really wanted to be listed first (i.e. out of alphabetical order), in principle you could open that discussion with your co-authors, but I think it would reflect poorly on you, especially at this late date. I don't advise that. In any case they'd have to agree. The journal won't settle such disputes for you.

As a side remark, your co-authors really should have asked you before submitting to a new journal. It sounds like it's not worth making a fuss about it now, but you might ask them politely to involve you in the journal selection process in case it needs to be done again (which is not unlikely; JFA is pretty selective). They may have assumed that, since you're no longer in academia, you wouldn't really care and would rather not be bothered - not really a valid assumption, but perhaps understandable. As for the boycott, it's a fine point to bring up in a discussion, but I think most people feel it would be poor form to insist if your co-authors don't feel the same - especially if, as in the Postdoc's case, they're at a career stage where "getting published in the best journal" has to take precedence over idealistic considerations.

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    @Phoenix87: I don't think your interpretation is correct. The journal does not have any way to specify an "actual first author". The form is to allow you the freedom to have the authors listed in a different order than alphabetical, if that is what the authors have decided. Alphabetical order is widely followed in math, but it isn't mandatory, and if the authors choose something else the journal will allow it. Jul 2, 2018 at 16:40
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    @Phoenix87: indeed your interpretations are different, but Nate Eldredge's interpretation is entirely standard for pure mathematics (and various other fields). I don't see why you think anything is different here. I took a random sample of some recently published articles in the journal, and I see nothing in any of them that indicates "First Author". They show a list of authors (in alphabetical order) and designate one of them as Corresponding Author. Jul 2, 2018 at 16:54
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    In case it helps, I have published in JFA (though a solo paper); I know people who have published multi-author papers there; and I'm personally acquainted with some of the editors. I've never had any indication that their policies around authorship are anything other than the standard. And the standard is so standard in mathematics that I would expect any deviation to be widely known. Jul 2, 2018 at 17:01
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    @Phoenix87 I'll add my voice to that of Nate and James. I mean no offense, but someone needs to say it explicitly: it looks very much like you are misinformed about publishing norms in math. Moreover, you seem strangely resistant to having those norms clarified to you by professional mathematicians with many publications to their name. Once again: "first author" means "author who is listed first", nothing more or less. If the authors are listed alphabetically, then the "first author" (or "actual first author", if you insist - that means exactly the same) is the one who is alphabetically first.
    – Dan Romik
    Jul 2, 2018 at 19:25
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    ... And as for your beef with academia and its "funny games": I'm sorry if you had a bad experience in your PhD. Certainly not everything is perfect in academia and all sorts of weird things do happen, and if you are suspicious of your supervisor's intentions, that may well be justified given your experiences. But this has nothing to do with the issue at hand involving your question about the first author. The answer Nate gave is correct, and your skepticism on this particular issue is simply misguided. Anyway, good luck with the journal submission!
    – Dan Romik
    Jul 2, 2018 at 19:30

If it is you who obtained the central data and wrote the manuscript, there is no doubt that you should be the first author.

I think before you contact the journal, it is better to first talk with your former supervisor about your concern.

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    This is simply not correct in pure math. Jul 4, 2018 at 6:24
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    in my limited experience, most articles in math have few authors (two, sometimes three) and generally citations include all of them. I don't recall seeing the "et al." abbreviation in math.
    – Rad80
    Jul 4, 2018 at 10:40
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    @wdxueren In my experience, most citations in math are of the form "[12]", and when you go to item number 12 in the bibliography all authors are written down explicitly in alphabetical order, be they one or ten. Jul 4, 2018 at 11:50
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    Also, in math there is the unspoken assumption that all authors have always contributed equally to the paper. Unrealistic as it might be, this is the 'default assumption' in math. Certainly everyone is expected to have read and approved every single word in the paper. Jul 4, 2018 at 12:10
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    @DenisNardin I don’t think that’s an unspoken assumption - indeed if it were it would be unrealistic and often dramatically false. Rather, the unspoken assumptions are that 1) each author contributed enough to merit coauthorship, and 2) unless explicitly stated otherwise, the author order is alphabetical and carries no information about the relative contributions of the different authors.
    – Dan Romik
    Jul 4, 2018 at 16:52

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