10

The field of research is the biological sciences.

Graduate student B worked on the project for 2 years: he did experiments to gather genome-wide data and analyzed part of that data. He defined the direction and feasibility of the project, and developed the methodology; if it were not to him, there wouldn't be a paper.

Post-doc A picked up the project for 1 year after graduate student B left the lab, analyzed the data, wrote the paper, contributed 4 key figures (exactly half of the figures) and at least half of the scientific conclusions.

It was agreed upon that A and B would be co-first authors, but currently they are listed as B, A, et al.

Do you think A would be entitled to feel some kind of injustice at not having his name listed in alphabetical order? Is there a consensus that co-first authors should be in alphabetical order and is the editor likely to point this out?

[edit] Additional information: In this field, you can specify 'co-first authors' at the time of submission, and it is written as such under the author's list on the final publication as "X an Y have contributed equally to this work". Which of course is a big source of conflict.

Thanks :)

  • If the authors of a paper are listed as Bravo, Alpha, Charlie.... then what does it mean to assert that Alpha is a "first author"? If you list someone as unalphabetically second, then that doesn't that imply precisely that they are not a first author? – Pete L. Clark Feb 21 '14 at 7:19
  • Yes, this is precisely why A is feeling left out. Because it means his contribution as a co-first is not properly acknowledged, and he is expecting the scientific community will see right through this. – biohazard Feb 21 '14 at 7:24
  • Expecting the scientific community to see through this suggests that there is some other possible way to view this. But to me it sounds strictly contradictory: does B in fact feel that listing the authors as B,A,C,... is compatible with the agreement that A is a co-first author? Why?? – Pete L. Clark Feb 21 '14 at 7:29
  • B isn't participating in writing the manuscript at all and has no clue what is going on at the moment. He is just contacted from time to time to make sure about this or that or where some files are on the hard drive. Advisor agreed to co-first authorship but then listed the authors as such in the draft. A is hesitant to speak out. My speculation is that advisor wants to "stay loyal" to B because he was there before A and spent the "most time" on the project. – biohazard Feb 21 '14 at 7:32
  • Thank you. The whole affair does sound suspicious to me. 'A' should try to talk to the advisor. – biohazard Feb 21 '14 at 7:39
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I don't see any way to view this other than as a misunderstanding or miscommunication. (Not necessarily an innocuous misunderstanding: perhaps someone is trying to pull a fast one of some sort.)

I am a mathematician, so maybe I am especially sensitive to logical issues, but I can't think of a situation in which someone tells me something that sounds like a logical contradiction in which I wouldn't just say, "I'm sorry: I must be confused because that sounds contradictory. Could you please explain it again?"

My only guess at the resolution of the contradiction is that someone is in fact trying to change their mind about the ordering of the authors. I know little about the conventions and nuances of author ordering (because in pure mathematics the order is almost always strictly alphabetical), but I do think I understand the meanings of all the terms involved, so I can only imagine that if you submit a paper to a journal saying "by Bravo, Alpha, Charlie....Please note that Bravo and Alpha are co-first authors" then the editors will respond by calling attention to the contradiction. What else?

2

Should co-first authors be listed in alphabetical order?

How is being co-first authors supposed to work in general? I come from a field where authors are typically ordered by contribution, but, by definition, there has to be exactly one first author. Being the first author of a paper is not some honorary title that can be split - it is simply the first gal/guy on the author list. Hence, by convention in my field, this is also the gal/guy that the authors have agreed upon has contributed most to the paper and should receive most recognition.

What is important here is that just because "A" is the second author of the paper, it does not imply that he did not do anything substantial. It merely means that the authors have agreed that her/his intellectual and technical contribution was at least a tiny bit less central to the paper as "B"s.

Do you think A would be entitled to feel some kind of injustice at not having his name listed in alphabetical order? Is there a consensus that co-first authors should be in alphabetical order and is the editor likely to point this out?

No, "A" has no right to require alphabetical ordering. The editor will not care, because how would he even know that "B" was supposed to be a co-first author?

The more important question here is whether "A" has a right to feel injustice because she/he in fact believes that her/his contribution was in fact larger than "B"s, hence, that "A" should be the first author. This is a question that we cannot answer. Note that the number of figures contributed per author does not seem extremely important. Likewise, who ultimately submits the paper is not the deciding factor. That "B" has spent multiple years working on the project sounds like she/he had in fact a lot of impact on the work, though (assuming that she/he did in fact not just idle around and procrastinate, which we cannot tell of course).

  • 3
    The editor will not care, because how would he even know that "B" was supposed to be a co-first author? >>In my field, you can specify 'co-first authors' at the time of submission, and it is written as such under the author's list on the final publication as "X an Y have contributed equally to this work". Which of course is a big source of conflict. – biohazard Feb 21 '14 at 10:19
2

When talking about Grad Student B, you said

if it were not to him, there wouldn't be a paper.

If that's not a good definition of "most important contributor", I don't know what is. B should be the first author. If you want to make sure that A gets due credit, and the journal in question allows this, I would suggest adding a footnote specifying who did what (I typically ask my undergrads to do this when they write joint term papers).

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    I actually think that is not a good definition of "most important contributor" because it can apply to more than one coauthor. In fact, in my field (mathematics), many people feel that "if not for me there wouldn't be a paper" is what it takes for one's contribution to merit coauthorship at all. This standard applies to most or all of my collaborative work with non-student-coauthors. – Pete L. Clark Feb 24 '14 at 14:36
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    But +1 for the suggestion to actually explain what people did: I find this to be a remarkably direct solution to these issues of "author signification", practice it myself when relevant, and wonder why it is not more common. – Pete L. Clark Feb 24 '14 at 14:40
  • Very nice suggestion! Actually, A explained the contributions succinctly in the Acknowledgments section, as should be common practice, but the advisor suggested deleting it because the journal doesn't "require" it (by the way I would be very surprised if a journal doesn't "allow" it). – biohazard Feb 25 '14 at 1:56
  • Actually, I would say that this is precisely what alerted A and made him start to feel that his contribution may not be properly acknowledged. – biohazard Feb 25 '14 at 2:03
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I've been in a similar situation. Getting offended won't help anything. Alphabetical order is just as arbitrary as random order.

But on your personal CV and website, feel free to list yourself first if you are indeed a co-primary author.

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    NO, your CV needs to list authors the way they are on the paper. You are free, and should, however, denote the co-first authorship. – StrongBad Sep 17 '15 at 1:09
  • Changing the order of authors on your CV is a major no-no. Many scientists I know would disqualify a candidate who did this, even with a co-equal list. – AJK Oct 1 '16 at 1:11

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