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Inspired by this question and this question, I continue my ongoing quest of understanding the concept of co first-authorship.

My question are:

  • In which fields does this notion even exist?
  • If the notion exists in your field, do recruiting committees (e.g., faculty search committees) actually care about this?

The background of the second part of this question is that it seems to me that a little footnote in a paper should be easy to miss for a committee, and even if a committee becomes aware of the claimed dual first-authorship, I find it hard to believe that the paper will actually be counted as another "first-authored" paper.

  • The notion exists at least in my wife's group (psychology), but I can't answer your second bullet point... – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Jun 20 '14 at 18:54
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    This exists in my field (chemistry) and I've seen it also for medical papers. I cannot speak about recruiting committees, but my impression is that the driving force are cumulative PhD theses where both co-authors can count the paper fully for their publication equivalent scores (see chemgeo.uni-jena.de/chegemedia/Forschung/Promotionsstelle/… for an example how detailed counting rules for co first-authorships are now getting established). – cbeleites supports Monica Jun 20 '14 at 19:35
  • @cbeleites That link is very interesting. Thanks! – xLeitix Jun 20 '14 at 19:36
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I have seen co-first authors in the social sciences, but it is not very common. It is usually indicated in a very small footnote that the "authors contributed equally" or something to that extent. Given that this practice is the exception than the rule, it is hard to imagine that committees (in the social sciences) will give much attention to this in whatever decision that is being made. Thus, I am in complete agreement with you that a 'co first-author' paper will actually be counted as a 'first author' paper.

For me, co-first authorship doesn't really mean much to me (in the social sciences). It is hard for me to believe that the contributions of the co-first authors were equal. Did they really quantify the actual intellectual contribution? Did they really work equally as hard? Did they really write equally as much? It would be impossible to balance every aspect of the work, so every co-first authorship paper in the social sciences is based on different divisions of labor, so the title co-first authorship really doesn't mean much.

(BTW, I would be very interested in seeing a 'highly cited' paper in the social sciences that is co first-authored.)

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    I come from mathematics, whose practices are described in JeffE's answer: we are not in the business of quantifying author contribution at all. I have heard remarks like those in your second paragraph made be authors on this site. I don't understand them. Let me explain: in order to make these remarks, it seems that you (and many others) must have some way of assigning a percentage measure to each author's contribution. How the heck are you doing that?... – Pete L. Clark Jun 21 '14 at 21:57
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    ...In most academic fields, contributions to papers live in some high-dimensional space: there are initial ideas, experiments, analysis, computations, writing, literature review, editing, and so forth. It is most common in a collaboration for one of the authors to do the majority of the work on some of these axes and another author to do the majority of the work on some other axes. So in order to numerically rank coauthors you must have some fairly precise function in mind which projects a multidimensional vector down to a single numerical measure. That's amazing: what is it?? – Pete L. Clark Jun 21 '14 at 22:00
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    Just to illustrate with an example: suppose the initial idea for the paper was mine, my coauthor did most of the implementation (and found, as usual, that some new ideas were necessary) and wrote a first draft of the paper, which I then edited and significantly rewrote, including improving some of the results. If we take (idea,implementation,writing) as axes, then maybe I have a vector like (1,.2,.4) and my coauthor has a vector like (0,.8,.6). Who deserves to be first author?? – Pete L. Clark Jun 21 '14 at 22:04
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In theoretical computer science and mathematics, authors are (almost) always listed alphabetically. There is simply no such thing as a "first author", except lexicographically. Equivalently, all authors are co-first authors.

In my experience, recruiting committees generally understand and respect this practice, but (at least in computer science, where order by contribution is more common) they do occasionally have to be reminded, especially for candidates whose last names start late in the alphabet. One sentence in the CV and/or in a recommendation letter usually suffices.

For non-theoretical CS, I have seen CVs that indicated equal contribution of co-authors. Again, one sentence in the CV ("Stars indicate co-authors who contributed equally") made the notation clear, and the recruiting committee understood and respected it.

As Ari and gefei say, having a local advocate is much more important that having another (co-)first-author paper. If nobody on the faculty is willing to pound on the table and demand that you get an interview, you won't.

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I have not seen co first-authorship in engineering or computer science papers. That said:

  • Any committee can find reasons to accept or reject a candidate. Ultimately, if you have an advocate, it will be his/her job to find out and explain your contribution to the work. It is much more important to develop a local advocate than it is to have high numbers.
  • Authorship deals only with what happens before the paper is published. However, what you do after publication (e.g. give talks, produce extensions) is no less important in cementing your ultimate contribution to the field.
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    I just want to repeat this: It is much more important to develop a local advocate than it is to have high numbers. +1 – gefei Jun 21 '14 at 12:15
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I work in a Psychology and order of authorship matters and co-first author papers are not unheard of. As for how search committee treat them, I think you might be missing how search committee work. There is no formula in terms of how papers are weighted in terms of authorship. We want to make sure a candidate has a strong publication record. Order of authorship doesn't really matter for this as much as being associated with strong papers. In some ways we don't care how hard you worked for the publication. The second thing we look for is wether you could continue to carry out the type of research in the papers. Co-first author papers raise more questions about this then single first author papers. Generally the rest of the publication history, CV, and research statement can clarify this. I would suggest making sure your research statement makes it clear what type of research you can do on your own.

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As already said, the notion of fist author barely makes sense in mathematics. It is a common and important notion in (at least some part) of biology, with the additional and complicated provisio that I have heard of second-named-co-first-authors which where really not-as-first-author-than-the-first-author-but-more-than-the-third, even when the names are marked as a balanced co-first-authorship.

With respect to the second question, you should keep in mind that it is one's job to write one's CV in a way that stresses the important points. So, in addition to underlining one's name in the list of authors for each publication in one's CV (which seems common in the fields where author order matters), I would advise to make it very clear, at one glance, which papers in your publication record are first-authored or co-first-authored (so that they are shown on the same level).

Below are two easy ways to do that (to be adapted if you need to also highlight last-authored papers).

First, you can split your publication list in two, with in the top part all first-author and co-first-author papers, and in the bottom part all other papers. If you number publications, you can use a common numbering, e.g. first-authored papers are numbered 1, 2, 3 and the other papers are numbered 4, 5, 6, etc.

This makes it easy for a committee to count the number of first-authored papers and the total number of papers you have.

A second solution is to mark all first-authored and co-first-authored papers by a clear sign (e.g. bold star), with an explicit footnote explaining the meaning of the sign.

But you certainly should not expect committees to actually open your published papers to see if by any chance a little star somewhere credits you for co-first-authorship. They can do it if they want to check your claims, but you have to claim it clearly.

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