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I have some questions regarding authorship. We are preparing an important biomedical paper with a list of over 10 authors, and the authors are ranked by contribution.

My name comes after someone who I think contributes way less than I do. But I wonder if I should let people know I am not happy with the ranking.

My concerns are:

  1. Does it really matter being the 4th or 5th author? I wonder if it is worth being the "peace-breaker" for something not important.

  2. I am the most junior one in the team. I guess that is the reason they put one person who contributed way less than me in front of my name. Is it common practice to give less experienced people lower rankings.

  3. Since I am only unhappy with one person's ranking. How to raise this issue without targeting one particular person.

  4. My boss is the corresponding author. And the first author is an external collaborator. Should I discuss this directly with the first author who put everything together directly or check with my boss first?

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    Sounds like a great way to make sure you aren't included on collaborations going forward. Two authors might (and I mean only might) manage to agree on who did more than the other. By 10 authors, I can pretty much guarantee you would get at least 12 different orderings if you asked each author to give a list.
    – Jon Custer
    Feb 2, 2022 at 20:33
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    What field? ....
    – user151413
    Feb 2, 2022 at 23:41
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    @JonCuster And many people will overvalue their own contribution, even if they try their best to be scrupulously fair. You know everything that you did and every bit of effort you put in. You know what you threw away, what editing you did. For other people, you can only see what they shared with you. Feb 3, 2022 at 9:46
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    @DavidSchwartz - indeed, and some people bend over backwards to assign more credit to others. As an old advisor of mine said once, "Glory is not a thermodynamically conserved quantity" - there is enough to go around.
    – Jon Custer
    Feb 3, 2022 at 14:34
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    "I am the most junior one in the team. I guess that is the reason they put one person who contributed way less than me in front of my name. Is it common practice to give less experienced people lower rankings." So the 6th author, as well as the 7th, and the 8th, as well as the 9th and let's not forget about the 10th are less experienced than you and therefore got a lower ranking, right? or is a common practice only when it affects yourself, but is not affecting the others?
    – user149718
    Feb 3, 2022 at 15:25

8 Answers 8

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We are preparing an important paper with a list of over 10 authors, and the authors are ranked by contribution. ... Does it really matter being the 4th or 5th author? I wonder if it is worth being the "peace-breaker" for something not important.

No, I wouldn't pick this fight. It will not matter down the line at the risk of upsetting people you work with. And really, authorship assignment is noisy as it is. Obviously I don't know your situation, but junior people don't always have a full picture of everyone's contribution and their relative importance.

Regardless of issues with order, you can always suggest a contribution statement, like CRediT so that people reviewing your work can get a better idea of what you did, specifically.

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    Yeah, the question where in the middle of a long author list you land precisely is almost the textbook definition of "not a hill worth dying on".
    – xLeitix
    Feb 2, 2022 at 20:09
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    Agree, this is not the hill you want to die on.
    – Buffy
    Feb 2, 2022 at 21:27
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    Didn't know about CRediT. What a useful resource!
    – henning
    Feb 3, 2022 at 15:41
  • @henning I think they need better names, but it's something. Feb 3, 2022 at 16:00
  • And there's sometimes an Authors' Contributions section as well...
    – Lodinn
    Feb 3, 2022 at 16:37
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Does it really matter being the 4th or 5th author? I wonder if it is worth being the "peace-breaker" for something not important.

Not even a little bit. In some fields, authors are alphabetical. In others, being first (or sole) author is important. In others, the last author has a particular meaning (usually the lab's PI). But I seriously doubt there are any instances ever where being fourth instead of fifth would make a difference.

So, I definitely would not expend any goodwill on this.

I am the most junior one in the team. I guess that is the reason they put one person who contributed way less than me in front of my name. Is it common practice to give less experienced people lower rankings.

Varies widely. But do bear in mind that the more senior people may have contributed to the infrastructure / lab generally, even if their contributions to this specific paper are more modest.

Since I am only unhappy with one person's ranking. How to raise this issue without targeting one particular person.

Tactfully and privately. In your case, you would probably discuss this with your boss and they would take care of communicating the decision, if they decide to bump you up. (But in this case, I would not raise the issue at all.)

My boss is the corresponding author. And the first author is an external collaborator. Should I discuss this directly with the first author who put everything together directly or check with my boss first?

Definitely check with your boss first. Jumping over your boss's head is generally a nuclear option, even outside of academia. And in this case, even if the external collaborator agreed with you, they would have to discuss with your boss in any case, so jumping over your boss's head would have no real upside (and plenty of downside).

As you gain more experience, you may eventually be able to go to the external collaborator directly, and it will be sufficient to inform your advisor that you have done so. But you should definitely err on the side of getting permission from your advisor before contacting external people (especially for something this delicate).

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    and as far as "checking with your boss" might you want to stress how that conversation might go? As in "Hey, <boss>, you know I'm still a little junior here, could you perhaps explain better how authorship order goes?" and the OP might even take the tact of going the other way (yes, this could backfire) and suggest perhaps "I don't know that I did that much more overall than <#5>"
    – CGCampbell
    Feb 3, 2022 at 16:19
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    Well, in this case I don't think the conversation should "go" at all; OP should drop this. But yes, if OP decides to broach this with the advisor anyway, a mild question like "I was wondering why X was listed above me in the author list" would be wiser than making accusations or displaying anger.
    – cag51
    Feb 4, 2022 at 20:03
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The real answer is "ask your advisor." You don't want to get a reputation as someone who is difficult to work with.

In some fields (I'm thinking about high-energy physics), papers can have thousands of authors(!). Does it matter if you are 115th or 332nd? Clearly not.

The most important positions (in most fields) are first and last - just as you noted; everyone else will be considered equal contributors (which is why most papers list them in alphabetical order).

Don't worry about this and press on to the next paper!

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    In some fields, first two are seen as essentially equal, and some fields don't recognize the last as the "supervisor" spot. And some fields just have it alphabetical :)
    – Lodinn
    Feb 3, 2022 at 16:39
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In papers with multiple authors, any place beyond the second is just like saying "this person did some work or was involved to some extent". Don't worry about being one position up or down, as other said it will not matter in the long run.

Here's some humor not to take this issue to seriously

enter image description here

enter image description here

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  • I didn't got the "Serious Trust Issue" for economics, accounting, etc.? I how it's humor, I just didn't get the punk Feb 4, 2022 at 13:05
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I have a story for you. I am now working in industry, but something similar could happen in an academic setting. We were hired by a company to develop some image analysis project. One of the steps wasn't working so well, until one of their guys, a manager, had an idea that pretty much solved it; better, faster, and easier than what we had so far.

If we were writing a paper, he would definitely deserve a spot in the author list, despite him not having even touched the code at all. But, if you hadn't been on that meeting, you might not have realised the extent of his contribution. Indeed, it would look like he is being included out of politics because of his position.

Even if you knew his idea, you might not think it is that important. In hindsight, it is kind of obvious; but we were four experts working on that for weeks and it didn't occur to any of us. Tunnel vision does that to you.

So, the moral of the story is that it is very hard to evaluate contributions, specially once you are a bit removed from the first author. And even that may be hard: in that project, three of us had so different contributions that a fair argument could be made for any of us deserving the first place over the other two.

Congratulations on your paper!

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    This is the most kind and useful reply, thank you! I felt it unfair when people have their names only because of politics, or showing up in the right meetings. But now I have a different view of evaluating contributions. It is not only the sailors and captains that matter, but also who built the boat and designed the route.
    – FewKey
    Feb 4, 2022 at 21:27
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My name comes after someone who I think contributes way less than I do

Since you are the 5th, or the 4th (as you wish) author, clearly you have NOT the complete overview of what has everyone done... otherwise you would be the first author! Therefore your impression is most likely wrong.

Towards an external observer, assuming your modification of the list is rightly based (and successfully implemented), there is no benefit in stating "I was the 4th author on paper XYZ" vs "I was co-author of paper XYZ". Even worse, the first sentence sounds like you are a snobbish a*****e. Who cares about which position in the co-author list ordered by importance if beyond the 2nd? You were important enough to be a co-author, but you did not carry a fundamental role, so you proved yourself you can be a good team-player... don't screw up this team-playing following selfish thinking.

Finally, it may be that your contribution was 7.5% of the paper, and the 4th author contributed 5% of the paper, which means your contribution is 50% larger than the 4th author ... and still no one would care.

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Going forward at this stage in your career, beyond first author papers, the most important thing will be being included on as many papers as possible, and for that the order won't matter. What will matter (in second place) is stating what you contributed to this project in your list of publications. Ideally this will also be in the author contributions section in the paper, but sometimes that is vague (e.g., "A, B and C conducted data analyses"). For your own records, I would write down exactly what you contributed, and for this it doesn't matter what this other person did. When I submitted my PhD dissertation, I was asked to explain for each peer-reviewed paper for which I was not listed as the first author, what I contributed to that paper. For this it was really useful to have this information handy. And it didn't matter where I was in the author list, the moment I was not senior or first. Be willing to help in the lab on various projects and you'll have a really nice CV. Don't fight for your position on the list if it's not your main project, and it's going to make people less likely to want to involve you in other projects. If you had not been included on the list at all (this also happens), that would be a completely different story.

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It sounds like the modus operandi of a person that would mention, in professional CV, how he/she was appointed as the class leader in the second grade of primary school. Or, for another approximation, it gives of a vibe of a person that used to remind the teacher to collect the homework in case the teacher forgot about it. In other words: let it go and don't do this, this will alienate you from your peers and potential future collaborators because it will signal that you tend to excessively focus on superficial appearances and unimportant minutiae, instead of getting the actual work done.

I think that even being listed as the 1000th author in a project made by collaboration of 1000 authors is still better than being listed as the 1000th author and being widely known as 'that self-focused person who started drama over a small detail'.

I personally would not want to collaborate with a person that would pick a conflict over such things as it sounds like a great deal of pain in the back that would better be avoided. The order in this case is really not that important. For example, it has now come to me that, in the context of RSA encryption algorithm, I have never thought that Ron Rivest did the majority of the job, Adi Shamir helped with some less important details, while Leonard Adleman just happened to be around and jumped in to provide his two cents once or twice. No, I think that nobody has ever thought like that: I personally regard them of equal importance as the authors of something great and useful for all of us.

Also please make sure that your surname is not just the last in the alphabetical order.

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