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I’m looking for some thoughts on authorship ordering (social sciences).

As a post-doc I was tasked with writing a research report. I have drafted the full original report manuscript. The report content draws on analysis that myself, other researchers and PI have carried out during the project.

Without any discussion, the PI has put their name as first/lead author and then the rest of the authors in alphabetical order.

I’ve not heard of this approach before, with PI being lead author and others alphabetical. I’m aware of either contribution based ordering, and alphabetical ordering, but not this, let’s say, ‘hybrid’ approach.

In this order, I am positioned low down the list.

I want to get some thoughts on this, before having a potentially difficult discussion with the PI. Is ‘PI then alphabetical’ a valid/reasonable approach?

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  • Just to give you some data, I have seen "PI then alphabetical" a number of times, in one instance involving myself (not as PI). I think it's OK as general approach in cases where the lead is clear and it'd be hard to "rank" the contributions of the others. Nov 15, 2023 at 20:09
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    I'm chemistry, not social sciences, so our rankings are in order of contribution, except that the supervisor is last (i.e., the best places to be are first or last). That being said, if you are concerned about this, you could ask about including a CRediT statement? It would remove ambiguity. Just say that it's to make it clear what part everyone had to play in the work. Although I'm not sure if that would be conventional for a research institute-published report. Nov 16, 2023 at 4:33
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    Please don't remove context from this post.
    – Buffy
    Nov 22, 2023 at 12:27
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2 Answers 2

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While I don't know the customs in your field, in some it would be reasonable for the PI to be listed first, especially if they were involved in starting and/or leading the study. Or maybe just in providing funding. If everyone else is in alphabetical order then your specific placement isn't relevant. You are just an "S" rather than a "B" with nothing implied about participation.

And, in large collaborations, it is somewhat common for the PI to be listed either first or last. Customs differ. Readers in the field understand this, more or less.

An acknowledgements section of the paper could detail specifics of contribution if that is desirable.

In some fields (math) authorship is generally alphabetical and people are assumed to be "equal" participants.

Having put fingers to keys doesn't make you first author. I've been in collaborations where one of us did the actual writing but two others were actual leaders of the group and, so, listed first. It was just that the "writer" was a better writer than the rest of us. But he took no lead part in the work.

I advise not starting what are ultimately inconsequential battles with peers, and especially colleagues. The external world will care very little overall.

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    +1 "I advise not starting what are ultimately inconsequential battles with peers"
    – GEdgar
    Nov 15, 2023 at 15:51
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    Being in the math community and reading that somewhere else an author might be first in the line only because they provided funding sounds so.. so.. unfair. People might say that it is a convention so everybody take that into the account already, but there is still symbolic value behind and heartbreaking belittling of a scientist who might have done an enormous intellectual work. The best would be just to include the people with minimal intellectual contribution i.e. sources of grants and fruitfull conversations in the acknowledgement section
    – Mihail
    Nov 16, 2023 at 1:26
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The PI probably tries to take the credit for all the work. If you haven't done any preregistration that specifies exactly your contributions in the work then it is a lost cause to start any battle. Better is to start looking for a new PI and consider informing others so they don't get in your position in the future.

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