I am a graduate student focused on a subdivision of theoretical physics. When I am browsing papers, I find out an interesting case about the author's name ranking:

Let's assume there is a professor A (tenured) and B is a Ph.D. student supervised solely by A (which means there is no co-advising). There are plenty of published papers where the author list is made by only A and B. In my previous understanding, the first author is often given to the student(s) and the professor can be safely placed on the last of the author list to claim the achievement, as long as the professor acts as the corresponding author. However, the reality is that A is placed in front of B among most of their published papers (so the author list is: [A, B]), except for one paper where there are some other collaborators (i.e. [B, X1, X2..., A]).

I can't help figuring out the motivation for a professor to claim the first authorship over his own student. One of the reasons I could imagine is that student B cannot come up with meaningful research ideas or cannot carry out research independently. However, B has published X papers with A already (X>3) in some high-impact journals, and B's personal publication record is also promising (has more than 10 publications).

Can anyone share their thoughts about this situation? I have never seen such an interesting and unique case for the authorship arrangement.

  • I know of a big name professor with a surname that starts with 'B' that tells students the norm of their research areas is to order authors alphabetically. In some areas, that's true. In the professor's area, definitely not. Jul 18, 2022 at 10:56
  • Any system that doesn't use alphabetical listing is ripe for misuse and intimidation. There are lots of questions here that attest to this. Just. Say. No.
    – Buffy
    Jul 18, 2022 at 12:48
  • @Buffy Alphabetical listing can also be quite misleading about the contributions of the individual authors because indeed in most of the works the contributions are not equal, and it can be prone to misuse and intimidation too because one can force a biassed author statement. Not to mention that in a group there is the risk that only one member will be remembered by the posterity. Mathematicians are fond of the alphabetical listing, but it's not better than other type of listings. Jul 18, 2022 at 13:52
  • @MassimoOrtolano, I disagree, actually. Imputed meaning of author order in a paper is easy to misinterpret, whereas explicit statements of contributions less so. Also, mere author order can't really capture the nature of contributions but make it easy to discount the contributions of some authors. Maybe we need a Meta to discuss author order as it frequently comes up..
    – Buffy
    Jul 18, 2022 at 14:01
  • 2
    @Buffy just say no to what? Being in the field where this is the convention? That's not really an option. Nobody would care about you believing in alphabetical order, if the order simply means something else in the rest of the papers in the area Jul 18, 2022 at 21:14

3 Answers 3


It's because for those papers, it's the profesor who deserves the first authorship.

In my field (not physics), the first author is usually the person who did most of the work and wrote the paper, so if a professor is first, it might mean they did work that would warrant the first authorship to anybody. Expecting professors to not be first authors would mean they are destined to only consult and supervise projects. Just because someone is a professor, that doesn't mean they need to give every idea they have to a student to fully develop.

Careerwise and CWwise, first authorship is better than middle authorship, but in my field, the last authorship is more prestigious than the first, so it would make more sense to move the student to be the first author, however, this might not be the case in theoretical physics and it's probably not the case for papers with only 2 authors. In any case, putting someone as the first author, even when they didn't do the first author's work, would be considered unethical.

  • I find "did most of the work" to be very ambiguous. What does "work" mean, actually? If I devise an experiment and pay you to carry it out under my close supervision, did you do "most of the work"?
    – Buffy
    Jul 18, 2022 at 12:51
  • @Buffy that's exactly the contribution that would make you the last author. Jul 18, 2022 at 12:55
  • Actually, sole author would be more like it, with an acknowledgement. Authorship should involve a creative element, not just "work".
    – Buffy
    Jul 18, 2022 at 12:58
  • @Buffy ICMJ guidelines state that you need "Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; + writing/editing + final approval + accountability. So data acquisition is enough for authorship if the person also reads and approves the paper. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of wiggle room for excluding people who did the work and including people who did nothing. Jul 18, 2022 at 13:21
  • No, sorry. Authorship requires all of those elements, not just one of them. The connective is "+" i.e. "and", not "or".
    – Buffy
    Jul 18, 2022 at 13:23

Customs differ between disciplines. In pure Mathematics, author lists tend to be strictly alphabetically ordered. In Computer Science, your ordering is used. If the professor's name comes after the student's in alphabetical order, it might be that the professor feels that the professor's contributions outweigh the student's so that it would be deceitful to put the student's name first. Given the closeness of Theoretical Physics to Pure Mathematics, I assume that alphabetical ordering is used.

  • 1
    That really depends on the area of theoretical physics. E.g. high energy theory tends to use alphabetical order, but condensed matter theory typically does not.
    – Anyon
    Jul 18, 2022 at 12:32
  • Theoretical CS (and some other parts) also use alphabetical listings. Why fight over minutiae?
    – Buffy
    Jul 18, 2022 at 12:53

Publication history is irrelevant here. What matters is the contribution to the current manuscript. It may be that the person who did the heavy lifting is the senior person, and they feel no student did enough to warrant being first author.

This happens when one persons had major input in identifying the calculation to be done, actually starting the calculation, interpreting the result of the calculation, and/or writing the manuscript (or combinations of the above) whereas others had only minor input.

The message here is that, if you want to be first author, you have to earn it.


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