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As in the question, let's say that a paper has four authors. Clearly, all authors contributed something to the work. However, can I deduce that only the first person wrote the physical paper? Or do authors normally write different sections of a paper? For instance, is it possible that author 1 writes the first part of the paper and author 2 writes the second part of the paper? Or, can it be the case that the first author listed contributed the most to the work stated in the paper but did not write the actual paper?

Main questions:

  • Given a paper with multiple authors, on average, how many people wrote the physical paper?
  • Is the first author always the person who wrote the physical paper?
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    You can't deduce anything. The authors may have split up the writing in any of these ways, and the author ordering doesn't tell you what they did. – Nate Eldredge Feb 1 at 1:13
  • How about if it is a Ph.D. student and an advisor? Can I deduce that the student wrote the physical paper under the supervision and assistance of the advisor? I.e., would an advisor ever write a paper with work done with a student? – Tori Feb 1 at 1:20
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    It is not clear to me why this question is getting downvoted. The answer might be obvious to those of us who are established, but for someone new to academia this is legitimately something they might be confused about. As far as I can tell this question doesn't violate any rules of this site. – Darren Ong Feb 1 at 1:44
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    @Tori: Again, you can deduce nothing. Even with a PhD student and an advisor, it could have been either of them who actually wrote most of the paper, or they could have shared it in any proportion. – Nate Eldredge Feb 1 at 2:02
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    If you really want to know who wrote what, the only reliable way is to ask the authors, though it would be sort of an invasive question coming from a stranger. I'm kind of curious why you're asking this question. Why is this something you need to know? – Nate Eldredge Feb 1 at 2:09
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This depends on the field and what is customary there. In mathematics you can assume (generally) that all contributed equally. In lab sciences it may not be the case. It is customary in some that the PI who created the lab is on all publications as a co-author but may not have contributed anything to the writing and possibly very little to the ideas. But the PI makes the work of the lab critters possible, so gets on every paper. In some such fields, it is also customary that some fairly low level technicians get on some papers, though didn't contribute to the writing, but they managed the experiments for the actual authors.

Ideally, papers in which people don't contribute "equally" (whatever that means) have a Contributions section to detail the contributions of each as well, possibly of some who weren't listed as co-authors.

The actual writer of the paper may be listed first or not. Sometimes the PI is listed first and sometimes last.

But be aware that intellectual work is hard to measure. Someone may have only spent a few moments thinking about the problem at hand, but provided the crux of the solution that was then written up by others. Flash of insight.

Someone who writes a lot in the field in question can probably answer questions about what is customary in that field. In CS we tend to list authors alphabetically and don't worry much about such things. But we also tend to list only people who actually contribute something meaningful.

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    What Buffy said. While you can't tell exactly, the norm in the experimental sciences is that the first author is the student, main writer, and main worker (all three). You don't even know that for sure. But it is the stereotype. After the first author, you have no idea the relative contributions and definitely should not assume they are ordered in rank order (often for example if there are collaborating groups, the names are ordered so the groups are together.) – guest Feb 1 at 1:46
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    In math, "all contributed equally" is often a polite fiction to cover up the fact that we don't want to attempt to make public comparisons between their contributions. It certainly does not mean that each of the, say, three authors wrote exactly one third of the paper. They might have independently written different sections. Maybe two wrote sketchy notes and the third drafted it into formal English. Maybe they took turns making extensive revisions to each other's drafts. There's no way to know unless you ask them. – Nate Eldredge Feb 1 at 2:05
  • @NateEldredge, actually, I am referring to the work behind the words, not the one(s) who did the typing. But even there the contributions might be different in kind. – Buffy Feb 1 at 11:42
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No. The first author is often (but not always) the person who has done sufficient work to deserve credits for the contents, but this does not necessarily correlated with the actual writing of the paper.

Traditions vary widely with fields but - just like in a parade - the first and last positions are usually the most prestigious, so these are the spots where you should look first a first guess. However, this is not a hard-and-fast rule: I have written papers where I’m middle author because the paper had to be rearranged following revisions and I was best placed to deal with this, or because co-authors who obviously did more than I struggled with English. I myself often work with a true wordsmith to whom I will gladly pass the writing because he can “sell” stuff so much better than I: he is often middle author.

Moreover, traditions have evolved. When I was a student the first author was with high probability the writer, but this has really changed as the number of authors has increased and the work of each co-author has specialized.

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