17

I'm involved in a research with a first authorship dispute between the one who lead the research and the one who did the most important part of the analysis.

I give you the facts from a neutral perspective: A had a research idea and gathered a group of people to work on it. In the first meeting he asked to B if they could do some analysis in which the paper would be based on and B agreed. Also asked C to do some other analysis. D, E and F where in charge of minor analysis and to add their expertise on interpret the results.

Once B's results were successful, A started to write the paper with the help of the other coauthors, doing most of the writing work. However, he did not do any of the analysis on which the paper is based. His role was leading the paper and writing.

Once the writing is over, A included the names of the coauthors in order A, B, C, D, E & F. But B complained that he did the most important analysis on which the paper is based, and suggested that the order should be B, A, C, D, E & F. A suggested to B to do it in the former order with the specification that A and B contributed equally, but B replied to do the same but with the latter order. Finally, both want the research to be cited as either A et al. or B et al., since it gives them more prestige.

Now it seems that B wants to withdraw their contribution and analysis to the paper. A wants to continue anyways with the paper without B's contribution since they think that it can be redone with C's analysis. However, the paper will lose a great part of its content. C's analysis support B's findings, but the proper ones are the one that B did. I'm trying to calm them down and to mediate between them, but I would like to know what would be more ethic. For me, it's a new situation, since in my field, usually the one who leads the paper does the most important analysis and writes the first draft.

Supplementary information:

  • Both A and B are starting in this topic, so it seems that both want their surnames to be associated with this.
  • B argues that at the beginning they didn't know that they would carry the weight of the analysis part. They thought that their part would be equilibrated with other coauthors. That's why they didn't raise their voice before to ask to be the first author, although they recognize that they should have done it before. They are also very shy and maybe that played against them.
  • Indeed, A wanted to be the first author from the beginning. So, in that case they should have told B not to participate in this paper.
  • B specially complains that A didn't do any analysis and only wants to get credit for others' work

Question: What would be the most ethical solution to this problem?

8
  • 3
    Are co-primary authors an option in your field?
    – Charlie
    May 10, 2023 at 21:27
  • 1
    both want to their surnames be associated with this - Hyphenated surname?
    – Kimball
    May 11, 2023 at 1:20
  • 5
    This is field-specific. What field are you in? May 11, 2023 at 7:03
  • 7
    rock-paper-scissors !
    – fraxinus
    May 11, 2023 at 9:32
  • It would seem both A& B are acting very poorly. I guess you could ask Paul McCartney (who is famously second in all Lennon-McCartney credits).... May 11, 2023 at 13:34

13 Answers 13

32

It is field dependent, but in my own experience, the first author ususally goes to the person that did the main investigating / research and the last author goes to the person that took on the supervisory role. The authors in between are normally ordered according to their contribution.

From this viewpoint, I suggest that B should get first author and A last, but, as I said, that is field dependent and might not apply to you.

In any case I think that even though A feels like it would increase their reputation by having another first author paper, if that comes at the cost that B withdraws their contribution and the paper is inferior because of it, A should think long and hard if it really is better for their reputation to have one really good paper with last author or second author with equal contribution than having a bad/mediocre paper with first authorship.

2
  • 1
    "It is field dependent, but in my own experience, the first author ususally goes to the person that did the main investigating / research and the last author goes to the person that took on the supervisory role." Do you --or others-- have an example of fields that do not use this ordering (with the exception of fields that use simple alphabetical order)?
    – BrtH
    May 12, 2023 at 2:55
  • 1
    @BrtH In my sub-field of astrophysics, I don't think anybody cares about the last author position; it's usually just in order of contribution. This may be because it's such a small community that we all know who the supervisor is. Some times (with longer author lists), we also split into two or three sub-lists, where order within sub-lists is simple alphabetical, but the sub-lists are themselves in order of contribution.
    – Mike
    May 12, 2023 at 17:09
19

In my experience, there isn't any set criteria for being first author, other than making the largest contribution. Having been on both sides of this in the past, I'm not sure there is an answer, other than maybe to turn back the clock and have an explicit discussion about author order earlier.

I'm of the opinion that author A is in the right. He conceived of the research, delegated tasks, and took the lead on writing. I would consider that a more substantial contribution vs being assigned a piece of the analysis (important as it may be) and taking part in the usual writing and revision process. A also seems to have made a reasonable concession with co-first authorship. This is just based on my own assumptions and field.

Whether or not A is right doesn't really matter though, since a disagreement like this will prevent publication and no-one wins if that is the case. Ultimately, it seems like it is in everyone's best interest to come to some decision, even if someone has to make a concession.

The best thing to do is bring in an outside, impartial person (perhaps a mentor or a more experienced colleague) and agree to go along with their recommendations, whatever they may be. Someone will end up unhappy at the end, but hopefully the paper will go out.

1
  • 4
    "the best thing is to use an official arbitrator" this is probably the only way the paper gets published.
    – WernerCD
    May 11, 2023 at 2:25
14

IMHO, both A and B should be reminded that the main purpose of research is advancing the knowledge and not self-promotion (especially by such a meaningless criterion as being the first or the second in the author ordering).

Flip a fair coin and, if everybody is so eager to make his/her particular contribution known to the public, describe it in the introduction. Playing childish vanity games is detrimental to both the science and the public image of a scientist.

Just my two cents.

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  • 4
    I don't think this answers the question. The question assumes A and B cannot/will not agree, and is asking what a OP can do. Possible answers are "A is in the right" or "B is in the right" according to criteria Y and Z. If there is no clear criteria, then splitting of the baby, which is what I suggest.
    – Cheery
    May 10, 2023 at 15:36
  • 18
    This answer is at odds with the current scientific community... Opportunities for a person to advance in their field/have influence very much depend on self-promotion.
    – Questor
    May 10, 2023 at 17:56
  • 2
    If the world was fair, this should not have happen. The problem is that science is not fair and to get a position this might eventually count. Also, scientists are also not perfect, and tend to think that the first author has done much of the work, and if someone contact anybody of the paper to make a collaboration, it will be the first author. In conclusion. Science is made by humans and has human defects. It is not perfect.
    – Sergi
    May 10, 2023 at 18:48
  • 1
    @Sergi Of course, nothing is perfect, but this is not a reason to embrace "imperfections" and to start fights with your colleagues and collaborators because the rest of the world expects you to and is pushing you towards it. On the contrary, one should strive to maintain the friendships, collaborations, and acquaintances one has acquired and to tell the rest of the "imperfect world" to go and do you-know-what in such cases. :-)
    – fedja
    May 10, 2023 at 21:40
  • 6
    Incorrect. This is the answer of an idealistic dreamworld; but the real world is not one. Visibility of scientific work is immersely important for academic carreer, impacts funds, conference invitations, project applications, etc. This answer completely ignores reality.
    – Neinstein
    May 11, 2023 at 4:46
9

There is a solution to which the wiser of A or B will agree. It is as follows.

Clearly, there is no clear answer to your question. Had there been one, you wouldn't have posted here. So if you are looking for the solution of your original question, read no further. What I want to do is change your question to a one which can help the situation:

How can we manage this situation in such a way that future collaborations between all coauthors is amicable?

Sit down with both of them individually first to propose the solution that A and B contributed equally, that a distinction of who did more is not readily possible or sensible, so let the order this time be A,B,C... with A and B both contributing equally. Then talk to both of them that the next paper will be B,A,... with both contributing equally (and only if they actually do!). Tell them they are both just starting out and there needs to be more papers.

3
  • 7
    This sounds like a sensible solution, but I bet it won't work. The fight will just move to who is going to be 1st on the 1st paper. Both will suspect that the author who got to be 1st on the 1st will coast on the 2nd paper, leaving the bulk of the work to others.
    – Cheery
    May 10, 2023 at 14:58
  • 5
    This is where a coin flip is useful as suggested in another answer!
    – Dawn
    May 10, 2023 at 18:51
  • 3
    I assumed a wise A and wise B, this problem is unsolvable for idiots.
    – quantacad
    May 12, 2023 at 12:47
7

Assuming there is no workaround the issue, e.g. a sit-down with both authors did not solve the issue, this is how I have seen this solved:

The paper is split into two papers, one paper with authors A, B, the second paper B, A. The fight then moves on to which paper will take the lion's share of the contributions from C, D, E, and F, assuming that A and B will each try to have their respective papers be the bigger one. So C, D, E and F have a conversation without A and B present and split the baby (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judgement_of_Solomon). Nobody is happy, but everyone moves on.

Both papers are submitted simultaneously with a note to the editor. This requires a compliant editor, which might mean a lower-ranked journal. But that's the price A and B have to pay. I've seen this solution work a couple of times.

But let's assume that they both dig in, neither wants the paper split, and both want you to adjudicate. As @sErISaNo notes, A is in the right.

2
  • I do not consider this to be scientifically sound advise: splitting one paper into two just to increase your paper count.
    – quantacad
    May 12, 2023 at 12:49
  • The goal is not to artificially increase perceived output, but to solve the conflict. Assuming the authors will not agree, what's the next best option?
    – Cheery
    May 12, 2023 at 12:59
6

No clear cut answer but some suggestions.

  1. Bring in a senior person and have them talk with A and B (sit in if you want to since you seem to be an impartial party as well and you might help to clarify things when needed as you know the case and both A and B), assuming that you really are impartial in the matter). It is important that nothing gets lost in translation here.
  2. Do some research to find what is common in your field (I don't think you mention this). In some fields, senior authorship is as important as first, so if A is willing they might even take that (last) spot and call themselves lead author and corresponding author and give B first (A will then look more senior - only works if this holds standing in your field). As another example, in biomedical research, there are author guidelines and author contribution categories from ICMJE. You can even try to make these contributions quantitative (e.g. for each category, let the authors themselves fill in how much they contributed. As an example: let's say data analysis is a category and the total contribution in this category is 100%. B may think they did 80%, with C, D, E and F each doing 5% (in reality it may turn out to be less than 80% for B after a few back and forth discussions). Same for writing the first draft, where from how it sounds A did 100% (or if others wrote small sections they also get a few percent). Etcetera. In the end, each category needs to add up to 100%. This puts things in a more objective perspective (lots of work though and it requires agreement between authors but this is a good thing).

In general though writing the first draft and getting everything ready for publication as A appears to have done does carry a lot of weight.

4

A and B should consider a binding determination from a trusted neutral expert

As others have pointed out, this is a lesson in the importance of negotiating authorship order and work responsibilities prior to commencing a research project. Since that ship has sailed, as a suggestion for forward progress, if A and B cannot agree on authorship order (as appears to be the case), they should instead attempt to agree on a process for binding determination of authorship to which they are both willing to be held. It is sometimes the case that parties who are in an insoluble dispute over an issue can nonetheless agree on a reasonable process for binding determination by a neutral third-party.

One sensible option would be to negotiate for a trusted neutral expert (e.g., a senior academic in their field but who is a neutral arbiter on the matter) to review the history of the research agreement and the respective contributions of the parties and make a binding determination on the proper authorship order. Both A and B would have an opportunity to present their "case" to this decision-maker and would agree in advance to be bound by the outcome of the determination. This would allow them to "agree to disagree" but still push forward with the publication under an agreed process for determination of authorship.

3

I recently read a paper where the authors use an asterisk and a footnote: "Equal contribution, order randomized.": https://arxiv.org/pdf/2112.09332.pdf

Maybe this could be a possible solution.

1
  • I think that's a great solution when people agree they worked similarly. In this case everyone thought that their contribution was more important.
    – Sergi
    May 12, 2023 at 18:56
1

I faced this problem on two similar occasions, after my long-term coauthor Val and I completed our joint projects. On each of these occasions, we had a lot of new material on our hands. So we could easily afford writing two separate papers, to be published back-to-back in the same issue of a journal. In the first paper, the order of authors was "Michael and Val", in the second -- "Val and Michael".

Do you think you can convince your collaborators to split the paper into two ones?

Things change when the coauthors' job situations are different. Say, when a tenured scientist is collaborating with a junior colleague lacking a permanent position or with a colleague surviving on soft money. In this case, it would be gentlemanly of the tenured coauthor to yield the first authorship to the non-tenured one.

3
  • I think this makes sense as part of a larger collaboration: to recognize the value placed on first authorships and make sure everyone gets a first authorship out of the collaboration. But, it's not a good thing to split a unified work into multiple just for this purpose. It can be seen as gaming the number of publications.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 10, 2023 at 20:18
  • @BryanKrause Sure. Paper mitosis cannot be performed just for the number of publication sake. In our case, we had a wealth of material on our hands, so our strategy safely passed the straight-face test. May 10, 2023 at 20:22
  • Yeah, as an overall strategy I think it's good, my only qualm is the advice in this specific case to split an existing paper into two.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 10, 2023 at 20:29
1

Some fields it is well known the the first author's name is on the paper just to get it out there with the second name being the main contributor. As other have noted name ordering is discipline, institute and country specific. There is no clear ethical order of names as there is no universal agreement to what the name ordering means.

I would echo what others have said that to save confusion and expectation of how the names will be listed should be agreed ahead of time. If conflicts exist then it is over to Human Resources or the Legal Department to start reaching an agreement on what is acceptable or contractually required. Before it becomes an impediment to a project people need to agree to base it on contribution, seniority or lottery.

A possible resolution could be to have all members of the project make a confidential vote on what name order should be. Have a trusted third party organise it and agree the options. e.g. just come up with a ranked voting system where everyone lists their preferred order of names (B, C, D, A) or system for ordering names (random, contributions, lives of report written).

0

Just randomize order in other arenas, so that each gets the limelight.

OR, you can invent a new designation for authorship. Show principle authors, and then list secondary ones.

0

The solution is simple and straightforward: List authors alphabetically or in randomized order (and say that you did so in a one-sentence footnote, so people don't get the wrong idea.)

The custom of encoding contribution significance by order of listing of authors is, IMHO, a poor one. More fields should adopt the custom of Mathematics, Theoretical Computer Science and some other fields to list authors in arbitrary order. This dissociates the question of personal aggrandizement / credit / boasting rights from the actual published work. If someone really wants to know who contributed what, they can write and ask; in which case the respondent won't need to provide a ranked list but could describe things in whatever way they saw fit.

0

In my area (social science) and experience, there is too little information here to say who "deserves" first authorship. Doing the so-called main analysis in a quantitative social science study would be an important factor for author order, assuming it is non-trivial, but hardly sufficient. It would not be uncommon in my area for someone to conceptualize the study, oversee data collection, etc. but delegate statistical analysis to a junior (in terms of author order) collaborator.

It is ultimately about the total intellectual contribution although it is not always cut and dry. When I'm unsure about order, I often give weight to whose participation came first; that is to say, if A and B have roughly equal contribution I would give some weight to the fact A organized the project.

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