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A fellow researcher shared with me his notes where he attempts to solve an open problem in maths/computer science. Both he and his student have been trying to solve it for over a year, and by now they are not actively working on it anymore.

Shortly after he shared with me his notes, I found a trick to solve a crucial step they were struggling with, leading to a resolution of the open problem.

Who qualifies for first authorship in this situation if this leads to a journal/conference article (where the authors are not listed in alphabetic order)?

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    As someone who works in a CS field with non-alphabetical ordering, I think the question description requires more context: How original was their framing of the problem statement? How original was the solution approach (the "steps" that they came up with)? How original are their ideas for the steps that they solved without you? Was there any implementation and evaluation performed, and how much non-trivial effort did it involve? Ideally, one would need to hear their perspectives, too, since the answer to each question may vary. – lighthouse keeper Dec 16 '19 at 7:06
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    Up to the step where they got stuck, their approach was original enough in my opinion---they did good work. I also think that they spent most of their time trying to solve the ''crucial'' step. I guess what I am trying to find out through my question is whether there is an obvious/accepted thing to do in situations like mine, which from the replies here, does not seem to be the case. – user6952886 Dec 16 '19 at 7:47
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    That's a valid conclusion to make from the answers so far. By the way, one possible option not mentioned so far would be a co-first authorship. – lighthouse keeper Dec 16 '19 at 8:45
  • The fact that you are asking suggests that you want to be the first author. No problem, just ask/ discuss with them by giving short arguments on why you prefer that. It may be they have counter-arguments. But a discussion (even per email) is a good thing in any case. Be ready to accept/respect their point of view too. – yarchik Dec 17 '19 at 22:57
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My gut feeling (I don't work in CS or TCS but I talk a little with people in adjacent areas) is that 1st authorship should go to the person who shared their notes with you; you say yourself that you solved "a step that he was struggling with", which indicates that he and his student had already done significant work to attack the problem. Of course it may be the case that your contribution is somehow the decisive one.

All this said, if you have a diplomatic way of asking this person "who did you think should be first author" I would do so: he may offer 1st authorship to you, or he may not. It is hard to say more at this level of generality.

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  • Despite my answer: if there is a good/useful/suitable publication venue which does not require authors to be listed "in order of contribution", I would go with that, for the reasons outlined in Buffy's answer. – Yemon Choi Dec 15 '19 at 21:21
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    I think it's more important to consider the order which is used for most papers in the journal, rather than a required order (which is rarely specified anyways). In a journal where most papers are ordered by contribution, an alphabetical order may be interpreted as: "Author A contributed more than author B who contributed more than author C, which happens to match alphabetical ordering". – lighthouse keeper Dec 16 '19 at 7:13
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My advice is to use alphabetical listing and detail the history of the solution in an acknowledgements paragraph. This may be overly generous, but will likely lead to a better relationship with everyone in the future. This can pay more dividends than the momentary rush of being first author.

I especially recommend this if you and your colleague are a bit established and this won't be a first paper for anyone but, perhaps, the student.

Collaborative relationships are an asset and they should be carefully managed.

Where I have deviated from alphabetical listings is in closely collaborative relationships where one of us (not myself) was clearly the leader/driver throughout. But it was obvious to all of us that he should be listed first. (Computer Science, where alphabetical listing is pretty common).

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    @Buffy I take your point, and indeed I dislike ordering of author-names, for the reasons you mention; but nowadays in terms of career evaluation (tenure/probation/the dreaded REF in the UK) people -- perhaps not the OP -- will care and fight about such things, sadly. – Yemon Choi Dec 15 '19 at 21:24
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    Thank you for your answer. The points you made are exactly what makes it hard for me to know what is the best strategy. I should mention though that I am a PhD student, and first authorship matters quite a bit at this stage I guess. – user6952886 Dec 15 '19 at 21:28
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    Tongue-in-cheek comment, obviously, but "alphabetical listing" works really well when your name is "Buffy". Not so well when it's "Yates". – Tasos Papastylianou Dec 16 '19 at 10:32
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    @mai, the reason that alphabetical (or random) name listing works is that in the fields that use it, there is an assumption that we all contribute "equally" even if differently. We are a collaboration, not a hierarchy. No one in my field cares whether I'm listed first or last. And we do make exceptions, occasionally, when there is a need to do it. But alphabetical listing won't work in a hierarchical system, or in one where people feel they need to battle their colleagues to be on top of the pile. Sad. – Buffy Dec 16 '19 at 13:34
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    @Buffy, what I meant is that in a field where author order matters, and I know my name comes first, suggesting alphabetical ordering to my co-authors will make it look like I simply want the first-authorship. – mai Dec 16 '19 at 13:43
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Who qualifies for first authorship in this situation if this leads to a journal/conference article (where the authors are not listed in alphabetic order)?

First of all, from the conditional phrasing of your question I will take a wild guess and speculate that this scenario is entirely hypothetical (more so than you may realize) and will never actually happen. In all of math, and essentially all the parts of computer science where “solving an open problem” is a thing, the convention is that authors are listed alphabetically. Thus the easy answer for you would be to follow the norms of the discipline you are publishing in and likewise list the authors alphabetically. The question of who contributed “more” in a situation like you are describing will never have to be answered, and indeed most people (myself included) consider it nonsensical and would never even think to wonder about such a thing.

In the unlikely event that you will need to specify an ordering to the contributions of the different authors, a simple solution would be to include the statement “all authors contributed equally” in a footnote somewhere. Again, this seems to me to be the closest approximation to the truth. Of course, from a practical standpoint you and your coauthors will need to have a discussion about this and come to an agreement, and hypothetically speaking this could be a source of some contention. But given that you’re working in the context of the (fairly healthy) publishing culture of math and CS, I see a good likelihood that this won’t happen.

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    "In [...] essentially all the parts of computer science where “solving an open problem” is a thing, the convention is that authors are listed alphabetically." A counterexample would be software engineering, with an example for a now-solved problem being "Typecheck all variants of the Linux kernel". – lighthouse keeper Dec 16 '19 at 6:54
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    @lighthousekeeper thanks. Yes, that’s why I added the weasel word “essentially”... – Dan Romik Dec 16 '19 at 8:33
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    My last CS journal experiences - granted a few years back - were all that the order did matter and was not alphabetical. I think the weasel problem is rather that "solving an open problem" is way too broad, allowing any weasel to find counter-examples in virtually all branches of CS, while you might have meant it in a math focused sense - and for very 'mathy' areas your 'essentially all' might be true. – Frank Hopkins Dec 17 '19 at 18:46
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    Downvoting. All cases of Maths and CS papers were not alphabetically ordered. I know from friends, that they use the ordering. But your statement, even with "essentially" it is IMHO wrong. – usr1234567 Dec 18 '19 at 9:28
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It is hard to assess who actually deserves first authorship, as much depends on how big that one step is, what else was done etc. However, you clarified in a comment that you want to know if there is a standard way to deal with such situations. There is:

Standard solution - TALK with each other

  1. Find out who of the involved parties wants to write a paper on this - the original question statement and a solution involving your trick for that step.
  2. Once that's clear discuss with all involved parties what each party contributes and how the authorship order should be.
  3. If there is disagreement, you can shift around some of the remaining work, either to shift someone's opinion towards yours or to make the remaining work fit the majority authorship order. For instance, if the others agree one of them should be first author, not you, you might want to leave all or most of the write-up to them. If it hangs in the balance between you and someone else, you might offer to write several parts, like introduction, state of the art overview etc. in addition to describing your little trick to shift the amount of contribution in your favour (make sure the others agree this will also affect the author ordering). (Aside from that a not recommneded ultimate step that will burn bridges is always to disagree and withhold your consent to write that paper).
  4. Write the paper.
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I found a trick to solve a step

To me, that doesn't sound like first-authorship-level contribution.

...journal/conference where the authors are not listed in alphabetic order...

Other answers claim that maybe you're being hypothetical here. I'll assume that is actually the case - but suggest that you change it! If you three are all in accordance, I suggest you list the names alphabetically despite the accepted norm, and add a small (foot)note to that effect. Maybe others will take your example too and we'll get rid of author ordering in another venue.

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    I think finding the "trick" could very well be the main contribution in a paper, especially math or CS. But it has to be a really good trick. – nomen Dec 16 '19 at 16:58
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    @nomen: But it's a "trick" for just one step. Also, OP did not say it was a deep and heavyweight trick. – einpoklum Dec 16 '19 at 16:59
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    Agreed, I'm just saying. :-) – nomen Dec 16 '19 at 17:00
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Obviously the one who puts in the work to write it all together gets to be first author.

Who that is, you have to decide together. Collaboratively.

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    My understanding is that in subjects where one has a concept of "first author", this is not necessarily how the system works. FWIW I work in a subject that doesn't have a concept of "first author" and am very glad of that, but your answer is not going to help the person asking this question – Yemon Choi Dec 17 '19 at 20:18
  • @YemonChoi Hm, I come from such a subject, and yes it is. Except that some profs think its a waste of time and prefer to order a postdoc to do it instead of letting the student (who gets to be "first" author) learn how to do it. – Karl Dec 17 '19 at 21:10
  • Well, anecdotally I've seen stories of profs ending up as first author by virtue of being the "lab director" rather than the person "who puts in the work to write it all together". But you speak from direct experience and I don't, so fair enough – Yemon Choi Dec 18 '19 at 0:36
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At my college, authorship is done in order of contribution (if evident) or alphabetically. Generally, to prevent conflicts, its done alphabetically, but that's not the case here.

In that case, then you would only be considered an author if your actually wrote any of the paper. It's difficult to tell if you actually wrote part of the paper, or if you just solved the problem and they wrote the paper, but either way they did more work on the paper. You could be listed as a contributor, but not as an author. This article explains the difference.

New researchers who aspire to official authorship status may see the title of “contributor” as a relegation or demotion in rank, but for other, more experienced researchers, it may simply be a pragmatic recognition of the fact that you may have provided valuable resources but didn’t actually contribute to the writing or editing of the research paper.

Basically, you made a contribution, but you did not author all or part of the paper. That would put you as the last in-order at most, or a footnote at the least. So, we go like this:

[Name, Student], [Er, Research], [U, Yo], [Tor, Edi]

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