I wanted to know how the research profile of a doctoral student or a post-doc is usually judged in academia. In the list of peer-reviewed conference or journal publications, how crucial is the position in the authors list, to judge the research calibre.

I am aware that being the first (primary) author is most important. As an example, consider a case where a candidate has 4-5 publications. In all these publications he/she is neither the primary author nor the supervisor of that project. On the other hand, assume he/she has 2 highly ranked publications as the first author. Which of these two cases can be used as a comparative study of the candidate's research contribution.

I see these days a kind of rat-race for papers, where each publication has more than 4 authors. Is the "number of papers" parameter lone enough? Agreeing that working on multiple projects is important, should the focus be more on publishing one's own work rather than collaborating on multiple papers where the contribution is not significant.

  • Your title is "How are publications weighed against the research potential?", but your actual question does not talk at all about research potential. Maybe you want to update your title.
    – xLeitix
    Nov 19, 2014 at 12:04
  • I hope I've put it here "judging the research calibre".
    – kris
    Nov 19, 2014 at 12:11
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    Two possible duplicates: What does first authorship really mean? and Order of authors on publications.
    – enthu
    Nov 19, 2014 at 14:08
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    Note that what it means to be "first author" is highly field dependent. In mathematics, it means your last name is closer to the start of the alphabet than those of your coauthors. Nov 19, 2014 at 14:36
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    @EnthusiasticStudent The question you link is about how people look at an individual paper, and decide how much each author contributed based on order. This question is about how people look at an individual's complete publication history and judge his ability based on how many papers he was primary author on (whatever position primary authorship happens to be in his field). (In other words, "How much more important are primary-author papers for my career?")
    – ff524
    Nov 19, 2014 at 16:05

2 Answers 2


First, it is worth mentioning that there are several models for authorship in use. In some fields alphabetaical is used, in some the last author is considered the important person (usually project leader), in some single author is used even when collaborations are performed. That said, however, the most common form is by weight and I mean weight in an ambiguous way because this is what is usually the problem, weight can be input but also importance or even by bullying.

So, the way in which to judge placement in an authorship list has shown signs of collapse, not to mention inflation. To remedy this many journals start to ask for accounts of the contributions made by each author. The notion of contributorship rather than authorship is emerging (see e.g. the BMJ description of their use fo the terms in practise). The ideas are based on the (expanded) Vancouver Protocol definitions of authorship which is as follows

  • Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work;


  • Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content;


  • Final approval of the version to be published;


  • Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

This has been reproduced numerous times in replies on Academia.sx so you may want to do a search on the tag and on the term contributorship to see more discussions.

So as the idea of contributorship and the definition of what contributions mean the view on author order might become closer to what it originally was intended. There is thus good incentives for listing contributions in paper even if it is not requested by journals. My suspicion (any certainty will have to come with time) is that when publications are assessed for job applications and promotions, the contributorship will be increasingly important, and by that coherence between author order (including appearance as author) and actual contribution.

In the end being high on the list is important, clearly showing author's contributions is necessary to judge the placement. This, I would argue, is particularly important for early career scientists.

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    I've heard of using alphabetical order, emphasizing the first author, and emphasizing the last author, but what's an example where "single author is used even when collaborations are performed"? The closest cases I can think of are at best ethically on the borderline (and in my view unethical). For example, there have been a few law professors in the U.S. who attracted negative attention for using research assistants to do lots of research and writing for their books, without giving the assistants authorship but blaming them if any plagiarism or mistakes were discovered. Nov 19, 2014 at 15:07
  • Ghost writing is a nonacademic case in which this is widely accepted (but I don't think there's any academic field in which ghost writing is considered ethical for scholarly writing). Nov 19, 2014 at 15:08

Your focus needs to be on accomplishing significant work, and then receiving appropriate credit for that work. Number of papers is often a reflection of that, but is not, ultimately, the metric on which you will be judged by anybody who is actually thinking of hiring you. More distant reviewers of various sorts (e.g., for a grant or a tenure case) are more likely to apply publication-based metrics out of a lack of knowledge or imagination. Anybody who is considering hiring you, however, should be less interested in what your rank order in authorship is and more interested in what you have accomplished (which is partially reflected by author order).

For example, in your question about comparing a candidate with middle authorships vs. first authorships, I would want to know what, exactly, either candidate had done. Did the first author candidate actually conceive the work and do most of the writing, or were they just acting as a lab tech on behalf of the more senior authors? Was the middle-author candidate just along for the ride, or was it a complicated project where their contribution was critical, but others happened to be more critical.

Thus, in a statement of purpose or other self-presentation, I look for a candidate to be saying, "I accomplished all of these things (as reflected by these publications)", rather than simply "I have all of these publications."

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