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I am a second-year Assistant Professor in an engineering department at a US university. I did my Ph.D. in a non-US university and post-docs in the USA. I have a two papers that my Ph.D. students are about to submit, with 5 and 7 authors respectively. A Ph.D. student of mine will be first author in each of those, since he contributed the most, no doubt whatsoever with this.

But what is best for me? I am definitely the person who contributed the most after my student. I had always assumed that I should be the second author. A colleague in Europe told me, however, "Are you crazy? You should be the last author of the list, which is the most prestigious spot after the first author! The main PI or person who helped most the student is always the last author in the list!" So now I am doubting my choice.

Where should my name be on the list, given that I am the main PI and I helped the most? I know it is surely not the main factor for tenure, but I'd like to do this in the most correct way.

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    The "most prestigious" position in a list of authors is field dependent. Sometimes first, sometimes last. Sometimes immaterial. You can use the acknowledgments section to detail contributions if needed. – Buffy Dec 29 '19 at 20:30
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    Be distrustful of anybody who freely uses the word "always" when it comes to such things. Basically nothing is really agreed-upon outside of, sometimes tiny, regional and disciplinary bounds. The truth of the matter is that I have heard both versions (plus some other variations), and there is no way of using author ordering alone to communicate that you did most of the advising to an imaginary future reader with an undefined background. – xLeitix Dec 30 '19 at 10:36
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    That said, it also usually doesn't matter that much - people rarely care that much who did the "second-most" work on a paper. For your tenure case, the fact that your student is first author will mean that most people by default assume that you did most of the advising, unless there is strong indication to the contrary. – xLeitix Dec 30 '19 at 10:38
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    How did you become assistant professor without knowing how the ordering of authors is usually handled in your field? Have you had a look at your own papers from when you were a grad student? – Karl Dec 30 '19 at 17:18
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The answer for appropriate author order is very dependent on the culture of your (sub)field. For example, if you are a computer engineer, you should probably be second author, while if you are a biological engineer, you should probably be last author. Follow whatever you see others doing in the venues where you are submitting.

That said, these days it is often possible to make the contributions explicit so that there are no questions about contribution. Many journals now request or require an "author contributions" section that attributes specific work to specific authors. Even if the venue that you are submitting to does not have such a requirement, you can still add that information into the acknowledgements section. Furthermore, the CRediT taxonomy provides a set of standard widely-recognized roles that are useful for describing such work.

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Your colleague was right. Whatever your contributions or advice/information aimed at resolving a problem are important but all that thing was done by your student so you should be always at second position. Moreover, if there have another CO-PI in their research then their name would be the last.

The order should be

  1. Student or researcher
  2. PI
  3. CO-PI
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    This is incorrect, see answer of jakebeal or comments for more correct info. – Snijderfrey Dec 30 '19 at 12:44

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