I'm second author on a paper I have been working on with 7 others for a while. It has to do with machine learning in medicine. I did a bit of the programming but I mostly got help from my mentors (and from Stack Overflow). The parts of the paper I wrote were scrapped/revised by others in my group. The things I wrote barely impacted the paper.

However in the end I ended up being listed second author out of 8 people, which I don't think I deserve. I asked the person who is third author if they wanted to switch with me but they gracefully declined. I still feel genuinely like I don't deserve to be second author and I don't want to be accused down the line of inflating my position on the paper.

Should I insist to be taken down to third/fourth author (which is what I think I deserve)?

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    Is the list of authors alphabetical?
    – JRN
    Commented Aug 24, 2022 at 5:00
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    " I don't want to be accused down the line of inflating my position on the paper" how could someone accuse you of something like that? do you have undisclosed special privileged relationship with first (or last) author?
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Aug 24, 2022 at 7:25
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    "accused down the line of inflating my position on the paper" Nobody cares about middle authors enough to make this accusation. Commented Aug 24, 2022 at 18:36
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    Just because your writing was revised doesn't mean you didn't contribute. In addition to the programming, you clearly participated in discussions with the other team members, and they clearly felt that positive impact. Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 4:18
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    Impostor syndrome much? Seriously though, no one is going to accuse you of anything, especially since you (a) didn't make the choice yourself, and (b) already made an attempt to weasel your way out of it. Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 15:22

2 Answers 2


Evidently the 7 other authors think you deserve it, including the person with whom you generously offered to switch authorship, so I would recommend not to look at the gift horse's teeth any further.

If you were worried that the paper might not be up to your quality standards and that you'd be criticized for the quality in the future, I think you would have mentioned that, and that you wouldn't want to be an author at all, so I'm fairly sure that's not the case.

I would be happy to know that my co-authors value my contributions to the extent that they do for yours :)

  • Thanks, that's very comforting. However I also feel bad because it maybe seems like I did more than I actually did. My friends think I did this amazing programming when in reality I mostly got help from my mentors and stack overflow. I don't want to be put higher on the list when perhaps I don't deserve it as much.
    – user161978
    Commented Aug 24, 2022 at 16:06
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    @toad-goldenkart Honestly that sounds like what 90% of programmers do.
    – Neinstein
    Commented Aug 24, 2022 at 16:12
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    @toad-goldenkart Last Thursday, I searched Stack Overflow to find information about a specific workflow requirement for a function I was implementing. I didn't realize until I'd read the entire answer that I myself had written it a few years ago. There is so much surface area in programming that constantly referring to documentation is the norm even for architect-level developers. Commented Aug 24, 2022 at 17:09
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    @toad-goldenkart In my job I'm not paid for about 90% of what I do, it's as you say mostly copy-pasting chunks of other code. But that last 10% is the important bit, it might be just a few lines but it's the part that makes everything else flow. And if you are good at that bit you might not even notice it yourself
    – Borgh
    Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 8:48
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    @toad-goldenkart I get help from Stack Overflow. That's normal, and is what 90% of programmers do. You still use skill knowing what to search for, which answers are reliable, and how to modify them. And, I've just had an experience working with non-technical medics. They loved a "tiny contribution" I made by plotting some data in R with a graphic whose design I took from a paper I once read on data visualisation. These things are habits to us, so they're partly unconscious and we don't notice them much. But they're big achievements to outsiders: like sewing is to someone who can't sew. Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 11:25

Reading a paper presenting a list of 8 authors, I would think "that was a big team work effort". In my eyes, the difference between the 2nd and the 5th would be negligible. And even regarding the contribution of the first author with respect to the others, I would expect it to be only marginally larger.

In the long run, if your curriculum is composed of only 3 papers, it is not that important if you are first or fourth author, it is important that you can leverage on one paper because you enjoyed the work and you think the message of the paper gives something to the scientific community.

On the other hand, if you have 20 papers, it is not that important if you are first or fourth author because you are in a big group and you should be able to present a coherent research story treading altogether various papers (well, not all of them altogether :D ).

Disclaimer: unfortunately my opinions belongs to me, you will find plenty of a**holes doing all sort of nasty things to be in position (n-1), producing all kind of weird rankings to "rationally" quantify importance of an author based on the median and sigma deviation of the co-authorship position. "Don't feed the troll": don't give too much importance to co-authorship position that would feed those behaviours.

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    I'm willing to believe that there may not be a big difference between 2nd and 5th author, but then you seem to suggest that there's also no difference between 1st and 4th author no matter how many papers you have. This isn't my impression in fields in which author order matters---is this really what you meant?
    – Kimball
    Commented Aug 24, 2022 at 23:38
  • @Kimball It is really what I mean. Publish 1-2 papers as 1st author during PhD, then one as 1st author every couple of year as PostDoc or Ass.Prof. and 2 or more as not-first authorper year. Then when Full Prof., 1 paper as 1st author every 3-4 year, 3-4 paper/year as co-auth and you are in the median. These papers will come out "simply" because of good working conditions. If you are not even a PhD student, whatever author position&paper is good. If you worry too much about auth. position, or printed nr. of papers, you are bound to meaningless suffer (plus you may be a horrible colleague)
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 6:41

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