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We are six co-authors in an applied CS paper (AI). This paper has a "strong" first author who worked on this project for years. Two student authors (let's call them Alice and Bob) contributed to the paper, and the other co-authors are seniors.

Since Alice and Bob have roughly the same contribution, we use a lexicographic tiebreaker, and placed Alice before Bob. While Alice is (unsurprisingly) happy with this solution, it bothers Bob.

I thought of several solutions:

  1. We stay with the lexicographic tiebreaker between Alice and Bob.
  2. Flip a coin to determine the order.
  3. Put an asterisk suggesting equal contribution to the second and third authors.
  4. Other creative solutions?

My question is about option 3. I've yet to encounter an "equal contribution" remark that is not about the first author. Since there is a sole first author, is it reasonable to remark that the second and third have equal contribution? Any other thoughts?

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    #3 is a thing in biology-related fields and has been for a while. It's not nearly as common as co-first authorship though.
    – user120011
    Apr 4, 2020 at 21:15
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    @omerbp In my field (computer vision), it's absolutely normal to indicate that several authors other than the first have made an equal contribution. You just put a * next to their names and add a footnote. For example: openaccess.thecvf.com/content_cvpr_2017/papers/… Apr 4, 2020 at 22:51
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    My advice would be that Alice and Bob go back to doing something useful. The additional value of being second author instead of third is minuscule. Apr 5, 2020 at 4:07
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    @AnonymousPhysicist I'm not sure I would direct all of my fire at Alice and Bob in this scenario to be honest. It hardly seems fair to (i) set up an incentive structure that focuses on silly things like author order, (ii) penalise the careers of people who ignore that, and (iii) blame people who take it into account. In an ideal world, researchers would focus only on the topic at hand and not on credit - but senior academics have a part to play in setting up the incentive structure to encourage that. People care about nonsense like this only because they're incentivised to care about it. Apr 5, 2020 at 7:54
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    @StuartGolodetz, no, I think I'm the only one.
    – Buffy
    Apr 5, 2020 at 10:34

2 Answers 2

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To answer your question nr. 4 ("Other creative solutions?"):

Making explicit each contributor's role based on CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy) may solve some issues.

Many publishers already support the integration of such formalized contributor statements.

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I have been second and third author on several AI papers in recent years. The distinction between the two is minimal. There is no impact on how important second- or third-author papers are on one's further career. The impact of first-author or last-author papers may be different, but the other positions in the author list are relatively unimportant.

I would just flip a coin, in the presence of both Alice and Bob. If the loser of the coin toss has a problem with the outcome, I would never write a paper with this person again, because life is too short to bother with such trivialities.

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