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There's something I've never really understood about authorship order for papers.

  1. If the contributions of the authors are more or less equal, they are often listed alphabetically, as is standard
  2. Sometimes if an author had outsized contributions, they are listed as the first author, and so on for second, third, etc. authors.

It means that if you see the authors as A,B,C, there's no way of knowing whether A had outsized contributions, or if the order was just following the typical alphabetical order.

How do people in academia treat this? I'm in CS/Math if this is one of those things that differs wildly by field. I have an A name so I will be "first author" on most papers I write that just list alphabetically. I'm thinking that someone looking cynically at my publications can assume I'm always at the front for having an A name and never for contributions. On the other hand, someone looking generously can assume I'm at the front for always being the significant author.

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    Yes, the field matters, a lot. Generally, researchers know the convention in their field and interpret the order of authors accordingly (or not at all, as seems to be the case in pure maths).
    – user9482
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 8:22
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    Please see this answer and that answer and another answer
    – Nobody
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 8:23

1 Answer 1

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Traditionally, in many fields, academic contributions to papers have been usually treated as being equal across all co-authors unless there is evidence to the contrary. In other fields, author order can give information on the contribution level. Major research breakthroughs and other important papers in a field may attract further attention where people in the field come to know the contributions of the individual authors through interviews, conferences, etc., but often people simply assume that the contributions were roughly equal. As you point out, idiosyncratic use of authorship order as a marker of contribution-level has the drawback that there is usually no way to identify if an author has made an outsized (or undersized) contribution.

Largely for the reason you have identified, some journals are now moving to a system where the authors specify their individual contributions and this statement of contributions is included as a part of the paper. For example, the Lancet requires a statement of author contributions to be included in submissions; each author is listed with a set of tasks they did on the paper. I suspect that more and more journals will move towards this system eventually, but it is a slow process.

Once you have been in academia for a while you will find that there is a whole raft of silly and inequitable practices in relation to assessing the research contribution of individual academics. Far more blatant than ambiguities over authorship contribution is the fact that many departments assess academics based on citation metrics that do not even adjust for co-authorship (e.g., rating an academic on their raw H-index instead of their author-weighted H-index). In this regard, academia is still pretty much in the stone age, largely resisting change to more rational metrics as a result of inertia and vested interests.

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  • Sounds like this is a plus for people with alphabetically terminal names. If you appear at the end, well that's just the standard alphabetic order, no evidence to the contrary that you were a minor author. If you appear at the front, that's evidence of outsized contribution.
    – CSSTUDENT
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 10:07
  • As I said in the answer, I think the more usual assumption when names are in alphabetical order is that contribution was (at least roughly) equal. So if your surname starts with Z, it is unlikely that people would infer that you were minor author on your papers.
    – Ben
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 10:10

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