This is in the field of life sciences, i.e. a field in which the order of authors is not determined randomly but reflects author contributions (whatever that means); in other words, being first author is better than being second, which is better than third etc - except for the very last authors, who are generally the lab heads.

We're publishing a paper and two teammates have a disagreement on the order in which their names should be listed. We basically explored several strategies that were at the time all quite reasonable, so there was really no way to determine if one made more sense than another. We found that testing strategies one by one rigorously (one person per hypothesis to validate/debunk) was the most productive way to move forward. Our paper describes several mechanisms that we demonstrated could work for a certain problem.

Team member A tested several hypotheses, including one of the four that made it to the final paper.

Team member B tested more hypotheses (they were working on the project full-time, as opposed to A), and demonstrated that they were not scalable / valid strategies for our purposes. Interesting, useful for us, but not paper-worthy.

Each one of them has a pretty strong claim for having a better authorship position:

Teammate A designed and 100% tested one of the strategies that did work and that we chose to report in the paper, so their contribution is quite obvious. On the other hand teammate B spent more time on the project, debunked working hypotheses (not publishable but it had to be done at some point) and helped with the validation of other designs that worked - a contribution of 40-50% of the work on two different parts of the project.

Obviously results include a part of chance (picking the correct hypothesis/molecule/group/dataset), but time spent on the project is not a perfect metric either (working smart matters more than working long hours).

Without asking for a definite answer, how do you generally weight the importance of "what the paper shows in the end" vs. "the important but not article-worthy preliminary work"? In other words, how do you measure "contribution"? I would like to come up with a rational and objective way to determine who contributed more significantly - at least by the journal's standards.

  • 6
    I feel your question is off-topic, because answers will be "primarily opinion-based: Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise." I haven't voted to close. Perhaps you can edit your question to avoid subjectivity?
    – user2768
    Dec 12, 2018 at 8:29
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    Thanks for the feedback; I'm not sure why this question calls for opinions though - at least not more than most authorship-related questions. I'm precisely asking for a rational, objective and neutral way to weight contributions. Don't all questions about authorship order fall under the umbrella of "primarily opinion based" then? See eg here and here
    – Mowgli
    Dec 12, 2018 at 8:38
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    I think you should add your field to the question title; the answer would be totally different for instance if this were mathematics (although in that case it's typical to just use alphabetical order). Dec 12, 2018 at 10:29
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    @DavidKetcheson I thought the OP said that in the opening sentence.
    – Nobody
    Dec 12, 2018 at 10:48
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    This questions shows beautifully everything wrong with the current system
    – Hakaishin
    Dec 12, 2018 at 15:14

6 Answers 6


In my field, this would clearly be shared (first) authorship.

As for the exact positions, in my experience one of A and B would also have been spending a lot of time as a de facto project lead that determines the course of the project and does most of the writing. In fact, in my field this would almost always be B, unless A somehow has the capabilities of effectively leading multiple projects and delegating vast proportions of the work in those projects.

I don't place a lot of value on happening to find the right solution for a problem. The way you describe this, it seems almost stochastic: A proposed four solutions and got lucky, B proposed more solutions but didn't get lucky. Obviously the situation and value of contributions changes if B could not have found the solution, but A (possibly because of greater experience) could have.

Two other considerations: first, exact position on a paper can have very different values for different people. A first first authorship can be absolutely vital for scientists who are rounding off their PhD or postdoc, whereas scientists who aren't rounding off could also obtain this in a next project. Second, maybe there are ways to even out the author contributions? One way would be to do another project together and flip author positions for that one. Another way would be that the person who doesn't get author precedence can present the work at conferences for the first year. And maybe there are better ideas that someone in your lab can come up with.

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    I agree with this sentiment, but what if one of the potential shared authors objects heavily against this (yes, it happens)?
    – Bas Jansen
    Dec 12, 2018 at 22:34
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    @BasJansen Then you work it out, like adults.
    – JeffE
    Dec 13, 2018 at 5:02
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    @BasJansen One thing is clearly missing from my answer and that is the role of the supervisor. I agree with JeffE's suggestion that scientists (and other adults) should be able to work something like this out between themselves. The whole discussion should also be guided and, if push comes to shove, decided, by the supervisor. Dec 13, 2018 at 8:18

I think the explorations that failed can be as valuable as the one that succeeded, and should be reported along with the success.

See What to do when you spend several months working on an idea that fails in a masters thesis?

This argues for B as lead author. which, along with the fact that they worked harder/longer might settle the question.

(I am fortunate that in mathematics the convention is alphabetical order.)


Weighting contributions in a fair way can be all but impossible. As you noticed, contribution is a vector with many dimensions (time, effort, results, novelty, and whatnot). All attempts on sorting complex contributions on a single dimension axis will need agreement

  • not only about the respective extent (which is difficult to measure),

  • but also about the weighting of the elements (which needs mutual consent, as there is no "correct" answer).

If the authors disagree about ordering of their names, they are obviously assuming different matrices for projecting the contribution vectors to a one-dimensional value (or are greedy).

To resolve conflicts like these, you can always mention the authors in alphabetical order - maybe including the dept. chair (and add a tiny notice to the paper in order to show you did that).

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    The problem is that in your resume & cv it might be problematic to explain that. There are even departments demanding only "first author" papers of the graduate applicant to their Ph.D. program for this reason. And this is only one of the problem. Sorry but this can never be a solution in many departments, including but not limited to Chemistry and Environmental Engineering.
    – user91300
    Dec 12, 2018 at 9:52
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    @GürayHatipoğlu if someone needs to be first author "to make it count" (e.g. for obtaining some degree), obviously this question should have been settled beforehand. The prospective "first author" should have made that claim earlier, and see if the others were still willing to contribute on that condition.If he didn't do that... he'll might have to settle with "less" than first authorship! In the worst case, the other authors still might retract their contribution, leaving the would-be first author with a completely different situation.
    – jvb
    Dec 12, 2018 at 11:08

If we took a generic view of research, it could be argued that both positive and negative results can be worthy of the top billing. However, each paper usually has a single focus. Whoever's work is most closely associated with that focus would be the lead author; everyone else provides substantiating or supporting material.

From that perspective, Person A sounds like the lead author and Person B is a supporting author - although perhaps worthy of special mention in the acknowledgements, subject to faculty policies on acknowledging authors in papers they authored. It might seem unfair to the work B put in, but if B's contribution is "not publishable" as you put it, it would seem odd to publish the work with B as lead author.

  • @EthanBolker It was just a light-hearted comment :) , though in an intractable dispute about name order, it would probably determine the outcome. I also acknowledge the benefit of having heavy-weights listed among the authors, especially when one is just starting out.
    – Lawrence
    Dec 12, 2018 at 22:47
  • @EthanBolker It's not central to my answer, so I've deleted the distracting introduction.
    – Lawrence
    Dec 12, 2018 at 22:49
  • OK I'll delete my comment. Dec 12, 2018 at 22:49

Who actually wrote more of the paper? If there's a measurable difference in terms of who put how much down on the page, then the person who wrote more gets authorship priority. Nothing gets published until the paper is written, so this can be a good and equitable tie-breaker in this kind of scenario.

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    Nothing gets published until all the experiments are run either...
    – FooBar
    Dec 13, 2018 at 9:25
  • Not disagreeing with that, but that's why anyone who ran substantive experiments should get authorship. My point is just that if you perform the task of literally authoring the paper, it gives you a decent claim to first authorship. I usually look at the author order as mapping to "wrote the manuscript," "did lab work," "ran a fancy instrument," and "paid for it all." But, like I said, "tie-breaker." This isn't about phrasing complete, iron-clad rules, but rather looking for the minor factors that tip the scale one way or another.
    – EAdrianH
    Dec 14, 2018 at 17:52

You have answered your own question: 'working smart matters more than working long hours.' In your example you state one person 'made a contribution of 40-50% of the work on two different parts of the project', presumably less than the other person. This is telling.

The only metric that is accepted is the contribution to published work. This is supported by the fact that we never include all the contributions by people which made a publication possible; if so then your authorship would be several billion names long [reference every paper written since the mid-20th century].


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