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Up front, up until now I have avoided shared first-authorships, and I have no experience with this construct first hand.

However, I am working on a manuscript (as a 1st author) on a clinical study based on retrospective analysis of electronic patient files. Two undergrad students have contributed substantially during their internship. These two folks both deserve a second authorship imho.

The field is picky in term of author order, in that there are three interesting positions on a paper; 1st, 2nd, and last. The 1st is credited with writing up the paper and is considered the main author. The 2nd typically was hands-on involved in the work, and ideally has co-written the paper. The last author is often the department head who secured funding, generated the research question and looks at drafts of the MS. Intermediate positions are worth the effort, but seen as 'less important'. First authors are often PhD students, second authors often are postdocs or senior researchers, last authors typically are professors or department heads.

To illustrate the roles of the students' respective contributions:

Student #1 (MSc Medicine) started on the project and supplemented the database with a lot of missing data by manually sifting through electronic patient files. They wrote an excellent Introduction in their report, and an OK Discussion. I didn't really copy anything ad verbatim into the MS, but I sure am leaning a lot on their original report in terms of the cited literature, the pros and cons of our study, and overall report structure.

Student #2 (BSc Biomedical Sciences) re-analyzed the whole dataset based on new insights, and they finetuned the variables in the database. I am using their data preprocessing pipeline, their analyses and outcomes, and I am using their tables and graphs by polishing them up to publication standards.

Imho, they both deserve a 2nd authorship. Is this appropriate given their respective contributions? More importantly, is a shared 2nd authorship something that's done more often in the first place?

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I don't think I've seen a shared "second author" note "in the wild", but a quick search turns up a few examples so apparently this happens.

In my experience, authorship order in biomedical science more broadly besides first and last just isn't that important; if there's a logical order, great, and some decision must be made (I've lost and can't immediately find a link to the joke paper, on arxiv I think, where they presented all the author names in overlapping type as a solution to these problems). I guess I'm a bit skeptical that people will actually see the second position the same way you do, and even if it's tradition within a small area, I would expect the people making decisions for hiring, etc, to follow more general principles when evaluating contributions to work.

Another consideration is that perhaps when someone is doing most of the hands-on work, they should be expected to write the bulk of the paper and take the role of the first author. In the future, I'd think about whether it seems a bit like you've "stolen" the paper from the people who did the work by writing the text. Another authorship scheme that may be appropriate is something like a co-senior authorship, where you as a primary mentor assisting with the writing and analysis might be the last author, and another senior author providing funding and more big-picture guidance would be placed second to last. I don't think it's necessarily appropriate to change anything for this specific paper, just something to think about and discuss beforehand (especially with students for whom this is all very new, you likely should expect to explain all the responsibilities and possible benefits).

In any case, I don't think there's any harm in declaring a joint second authorship, or an equivalent "these authors contributed equally" with a symbol by the 2nd and 3rd names in the list. However, I'd also consider choosing the actual order somewhat randomly, whether or not any explanatory note is made, if there's no fair order otherwise.

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    Thanks Bryan, for sharing these insights. Interesting thoughts. Just to clarify; I was the supervisor of these students and by no means have I stolen anything from them. In fact granting them 2nd authorship in the first place is already being considered over-generous, actually raising eye brows among other authors
    – AliceD
    Sep 19, 2023 at 15:18
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    @AliceD Sure, I meant it more as something to be wary of rather than an accusation. But, when you say "I was the supervisor of these students", my first thought is that maybe the last author position is the most appropriate place for you. And, when I say "stolen" I really mean about the opportunity rather than the work actually done. That is, it may be appropriate to step back a bit and expect the students to do more of the actual writing, more of the modification of figures for paper-ready status, etc. Paradoxically this is probably more work for you than doing it yourself, of course.
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 19, 2023 at 15:21
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    (and also, to be blunt, it's probably the senior author who is squatting and should give up the relative stature of their authorship position to you, who is doing the actual supervision of the work; ultimately politics may get in the way of what is ideal)
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 19, 2023 at 15:23
  • Can you share your finds where there are joint authorships on positions other than #2? I'd love to take a look
    – AliceD
    Sep 20, 2023 at 6:28
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    @AliceD I searched "joint second author" since this was the only phrase I could think of that I thought would mostly turn up relevant results.
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 20, 2023 at 13:27
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I think that both of the students have contributed substantially and don't see a reason to "favor" one over the other. If your field is picky about author order, then yes, shared second authorship is fine.

However, I'm going to suggest that shared first authorship is also a possibility, especially if you want to be (just a bit) generous as a faculty member.

You seem to suggest that #1 has contribute substantially to the manuscript and its basis. You seem to suggest that #2 has contributed important insights. That, to me, sounds like a collaboration of (more or less) equals.

However, I tend to be generous in such things and believe that boosting students is one of my key roles. I don't think you lose anything with an equal contribution statement. You don't, however, give the background of the intellectual impetus of the study. If it is yours alone, then my suggestion might be too much, but I'd consider it, in any case.

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  • The field is picky, thanks for that too (also added in Q); I am writing the MS and I look at it like, I am writing the final MS, so I have to be first I reckon. The idea of the study is the professor's, and they're last author.
    – AliceD
    Sep 19, 2023 at 14:59
  • The "writing" (putting fingers to keys and organizing) isn't the most important consideration. The intellectual contribution is. Maybe the prof is already being generous letting someone else be first. Talk to them about this issue. I'm on a paper (as "yet another" author) where the actual writer was chosen for his literary skills, but the first (shared by two) authorship was by those who drove the study in the first place. We contributed, but the writer wasn't ever considered as "first" author though he "wrote" it all.
    – Buffy
    Sep 19, 2023 at 15:06
  • Interesting insights Buffy, thanks. Will do. Professors in my discipline, and location (Europe) are totally happy being last; in my experience they rarely go for first authorships. What discipline are you in and where are you based, if I may ask? It's interesting how fields can differ.
    – AliceD
    Sep 19, 2023 at 15:08
  • In some fields, I'm told, last author, usually the PI, is just assumed to have done all the work. In others, I'm told, the assumption is that the last author did nothing but provide funding for the lab and occasional comments. In my field(s) we prefer alphabetical listing and the assumption of equal contribution unless spelled out in a contribution section. See my profile, if you like.
    – Buffy
    Sep 19, 2023 at 15:11
  • Interesting! I looked at your profile, and saw no details as such, just long-time professor Buffy :)
    – AliceD
    Sep 19, 2023 at 15:12

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