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Recently, I noticed that some of the papers actually had their author names listed in the alphabetical order.

Say Mr. Smith contributed more than Mr. Black. Then without noticing the tiny footnote, one will simply take Mr. Black as the first author.

I am wondering whether there exists some certain such scenarios where the authors have to be listed as such. Will it be unfair for the first-author-should-be?

Update:

I am talking about EECS field. I see most of the papers list the authors according to the contributions. But only occasionally, I see alphabetically-listed authors.

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    Strongly related to academia.stackexchange.com/questions/535/… – F'x Aug 24 '13 at 8:57
  • I agree with F'x, this question could be closed as a duplicate. – user102 Aug 24 '13 at 8:59
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    Sometimes it's just a coincidence, surely? – JeffE Aug 24 '13 at 13:42
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It happens when the authors chose to do so!

Journals do not impose the order of authors in the authors list. They usually give guidelines (or policies) on authorship standards, i.e. who should be co-author and who should not, but they leave the ordering up to the authors themselves.

Now, different fields have different customs. In physics and chemistry, alphabetical ordering is very rare (used for example in consortium publications), while in mathematics alphabetical ordering is more commonly, but not exclusively, used. Unless there is a footnote clarifying the authors’ respective contributions, you cannot definitely tell which system they used.

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    In mathematics alphabetical ordering of author names is used "exclusively" rather than "commonly". The exceptions are so few as to be essentially zero (the most famous one is probably the paper of Beurling and Ahlfors). – Dan Fox Aug 27 '13 at 8:54
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In mathematics authors are almost always listed in alphabetical order. This works, among other reasons, because work groups are organized less by a lab structure so you get more rhetoric of equality between all authors.

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    Moreover, all authors of a multiple-author math paper are "first" authors. – JeffE Aug 24 '13 at 3:26
  • @JeffE THanks for both of you! Any idea in EECS field? – Sibbs Gambling Aug 24 '13 at 5:53
  • Alphabetical authorship is also standard in some subfields of EECS, like algorithms (my area), but in most subfields, the norm is order-of-contribution. (On preview: What Aaron said.) – JeffE Aug 24 '13 at 13:40
  • And because of this rule, if they are not listed alphabetically it usually means that the first author had the most important contribution to the paper. But from my experience, the alphabetical rule is broken only when one author contributed much much more to the paper, and even in those situations is up to the authors to decide :) – Nick S Aug 24 '13 at 14:31
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In CS, it varies by subfield. Theoretical Computer Science follows the math tradition and (almost) always uses alphabetical ordering. Many other subareas use some form of order-by-contribution.

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In my field (Atmospheric Physics) it does not happen - the principal researcher is first author, then the list is in order of contributions.

According to this section of a Wikipedia article, it really depends on the field of research, and these seem to be relatively well established within those fields, so I would imagine that there would be very little feelings of unfairness (though I would imagine that such conflict would still occur). It would get trickier in interdisciplinary studies, where this would have to be negotiated, once again depending on the policies of the journal.

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