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I'm wondering generally how can I identify the authorship of a paper? Some papers might have specific signs such as an asterisk or a dagger after an author's name, but for those who don't have any signs, is the name with first authorship usually listed at first also? Here's an example I found on PHYSICAL REVIEW LETTERS: https://journals.aps.org/prl/pdf/10.1103/PhysRevLett.126.230404

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Who is the first author, and who are the second of this paper?

Update: I'm asking this question because I want to know if the order of authors matters. Usually the first author is listed in the beginning, but if I want to assign all of my collaborators as the second author (there are 5-6 of them), do I need to worried about the order their names appear on the paper? Thanks for the help!

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    Why do you care? – mmeent Jun 11 at 20:13
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    @mmeent I'm new to academia and I'm planning to write my first paper. I want to know if I need to specify the authorship on my paper and if so how I can do that:) – IGY Jun 11 at 20:17
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    This is field dependent. You should ask your advisor about the conventions in your field. For some papers/fields, you need to actually read a "contributions" section. For others, a footnote or such. – Buffy Jun 11 at 20:20
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    I am confused by this question. The first author is the first one reading left to right, so Skov. The second is the second one, so Skou. What is the underlying question? – Azor Ahai -him- Jun 11 at 20:35
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    "but if I want to assign all of my collaborators as the second author" This doesn't make any sense... the second author is the second one in the list. The third author is the third one in the list, and so on. In the field the paper you showed is from, usually this goes in descending order of contribution, until the last author, who is almost always the advisor / person in charge / person who got the grant funding. – knzhou Jun 11 at 22:21
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There are many conventions and they are mostly field dependent. I'll try to list a few of them, along with a bit of the possible reasoning. I'll also give some personal preferences about such questions, but they are, perhaps, influenced by my own education and career.

In pure math and theoretical computer science, authors are generally listed alphabetically. The intent is to say that all contributed equally to the ideas, if not to the (quantity of) work itself. A seemingly minor comment in a meeting can lead to a big insight in a paper. My experience in those fields is that advisors don't add themselves to the list of authors, though I'd guess there are exceptions. Perhaps many. I'm very uncomfortable with a convention that the advisor is always an "author" even if they contribute very little.

My personal practice (math, CS) is that I won't be a co-author with a student on their thesis work, even if I contribute the problem and give them extensive advice along the way. The work that solves the problem is theirs. And while I prefer alphabetical listing of authors in work I contribute to, I've been on at least one paper that followed a different convention since two of the group were the clear drivers of everything in the work. And the person among us who actually put the words in place was not one of the "first" authors, just the best writer.

Note that collegial relationships such as I just described makes it desirable to work with those same authors on future work. So, while I might be a "minor" author on a work, those people are happy to work with me in the future.

In some lab sciences author order is considered very important but the convention varies. In some, the advisor is always listed last in order, but some people assume they did all the "real" work and just carried the other along. In some fields, the advisor is listed first, with the same idea behind it.

In those fields that list advisors on student works it is sometimes justified by noting that the paper may get more visibility if a prominent name is among the authors. The association with that person might also have some value. But such can also be indicated in other fields by having an acknowledgement section, thanking advisors or others who helped but are not authors.

In those fields in which the advisor adds themself by convention, it may make sense or not. If the field, such as a lab science fundamentally depends on grants written by and labs managed by PIs, it may make sense since many of the ideas developed in such a lab may flow from meetings in which the PI is a fundamental participant.

Note, however, that it should be the case that the authors are the ones that contribute ideas to the papers, not just "work". Someone can spend a lot of time and effort on a paper that is actually driven by the ideas of others. But I think that idea is not especially well followed, certainly not universally.

In those fields that worry about and fight over author order, relationships can be destroyed when people bicker over priority. It is, in my view, a selfish attitude.

However, having said all that, looking at a particular paper, it can be difficult to know from the list of authors alone who was the primary driver of the ideas. A few of the authors in a longer list might have been more or less equal contributors. Some fields will explicitly list "co first" authors if they feel it is important, though it may not be obvious from the listing and you might need to get the paper to see if it has a section or note on contributions.

It should also be noted that there are several papers with thousands of "authors". The list of authors is longer than the paper itself. CERN produces such papers, for example, just by the nature of the work there.


I hope I didn't go too far off-topic here, but these are things that I think a new academic should consider. Be generous with your colleagues.

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  • That's extremely helpful. Thanks a lot for the comprehensive answer:) – IGY Jun 11 at 22:39
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    One other consideration: authorship credit isn't just a credit. It's a de facto endorsement of the paper, or at least relevant parts of it, and that can occasionally be a liability if the paper has potential for controversy/etc. I doubt this is a big issue in pure math/comp sci, but in my biomed research days I had one senior colleague whose "generosity" with co-author credits extended to putting our names on content that we considered unsound, in a context where legal repercussions were possible. It got ugly. So giving somebody sole authorship is not always a kindness. – Geoffrey Brent Jun 12 at 3:40
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"Does author order matter" is one of those questions best answered "sometimes". There is variation between fields, and sometimes subfields. Since you're asking about a PRL, I will assume you're asking about conventions in physics. There e.g. high-energy theory tends to use alphabetical order, whereas e.g. condensed matter and AMO do not. You probably know what's the case in your subfield just from reading relevant papers. Assuming alphabetical order isn't used, as has been pointed out in the comments, and assuming no co-first authors etc., the author who's literally listed first (second, third, ..., last) is considered the first (second, third, ..., last) author. The first and last author positions are special - the first author is typically the author who's been the driving force in carrying out a project (often a student or postdoc), while the last author is more likely to be a supervisor or the principal investigator who may have proposed the project. At some point during a career you may transition from having mainly early author positions to more late-author positions.

So what about the positions in-between? Well, there are diminishing returns. Having first-author papers can be a big deal, so the concept of co-first authors (e.g. designated with a footnote along the lines of "these authors contributed equally") is fairly common. However, beyond that, the benefit or perceived difference between being second, third or fourth author is rather small. Often it's possible to pick out who made the second biggest contribution to the project, but further down the list it's hardly an exact science. As a result, physics has not developed any tendencies to listing co-second or co-third authors. (I'm told some other fields have.) Thus there'll be a range of middle authors, but they won't all be called second authors.

As a rule of thumb, junior authors and especially those who contributed most to the results tend to go early in the author list, and supervisors last. In between is an area for people who maybe contributed a smaller part. If you're writing a paper with 5-6 co-authors, and this isn't clear to you, it may be best to ask your advisor what they think the author order should be. Other times it can be useful to just propose an author order and see if people are happy with it. (Again, usually people don't care too much whether they're third or fourth author.) Of course, in reality there's sometimes various "political" pressures that can affect the author order too in ways unrelated to contributions.

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