I am attending graduate school this fall and one thing that I still could not wrap around my head is that some of the papers are written by seemingly a group of authors (5 people or more). I am curious how this is usually done.

Are each person assigned a small chunk of work and the paper is put together when everyone is done? This raises so many questions such as what if a person doesn't finish his or her part? How do you piece together the paper so that it is coherent throughout (since people may have different perspectives or understanding).

And is there important differences between a paper written by two person and those written by five or more?

  • 16
    I think you'll find that even with multiple authors, it is still "owned" by one or two key people. The others will contribute but the overall flow and structure is governed by that main person. So the other authors may be told "I need a diagram that shows X", or "I need a couple of paragraphs on Y". Using a shared document or LaTeX + source control, development can be quite iterative and the overall structure and flow tends to be maintained nicely. Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 0:57
  • 6
    Did you never have to do group work in class? It works the same way (and, just like in class, it sometimes works great, and sometimes the entire project just implodes - mostly depending on what the chemistry between the authors is).
    – xLeitix
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 6:54
  • 2
    I think you'll find it much more practical/common to assign one person the bulk of the writing/organization. I usually ended up with the writing task in my Software Dev classes, so I could focus more on big-picture development issues rather than minute debugging details. That, and I actually enjoy writing, so win-win for me.
    – Compass
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 15:36
  • 2
    – dsfgsho
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 17:04
  • Authorship might refer to the contents of the paper, not necessarily to the writing. That is, the presented work was done collaboratively while the (bulk of) the writing lies with one or two of the authors (typically the first one(s)).
    – Thomas
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 8:23

8 Answers 8


I think that this article from the Research Whisperer covers aspects of how multiple authors can collaborate to get a paper done. It is an interesting and quite brief read that I would recommend.

TL;DR version:

  1. One leads the project and the initial drafting with others contributing to an almost complete draft.
  2. The team splits the work into broad sections for each collaborator, which then draft, combine and revise.
  3. Decide on all the details and each writes its own section with minor final corrections.

From my experience, the first one would be the most common with an almost final version making it to the very senior people in the article.


In my field (math) one person is generally in charge of a specific section / result. They write the rough draft of the section they are responsible for, and then like Samuel pointed out in the comments, one person is usually more in charge. That person puts the pieces together in the correct order and writes the introduction and transitions (this is also sometimes simply the person who has the best English). After that, (in the papers I've worked on) the file is put on ShareTex and edited by everyone until everyone is happy with it.

As for what happens if one person doesn't finish their part: the same thing you do in group project when one person doesn't do their share. That material is either cut from the paper, or someone else has to take on more work.

  • 10
    This is certainly common but I'm not sure it's a general rule. It's also pretty common for one person to draft the whole paper, and then pass it around, or back-and-forth, for coauthor(s) to edit. I've done both of these in my collaborations as well as a sort of mix: one person writes most of the paper, but a small part will be written by other coauthors, then pass back-and-forth to edit.
    – Kimball
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 10:11

In my field (Atmospheric Science) you will find papers with dozens of authors. That doesn't mean there are dozens of individuals who have all contributed equally. There may be one or two people leading the research, needing little bits of data from everyone. For example, one might describe a major intercomparison study between 10 datasets. Suppose that each dataset is prepared by a PhD student or postdoc; then for each dataset this person is a co-author, and perhaps also their supervisor. Their contribution is small but significant — provide data essential to the paper and assist in the discussion as to why/how their results are different from others. In this case, having 10–20 co-authors is not unusual at all. The actual writing, however, might come for 90%+ from the first author.

  • The dataset example is one of the arguments for data citation vs. co-authorship. Especially for cases where you're acknowledging use of someone's data, but they might not agree with your conclusions ... or they might've passed away years ago.
    – Joe
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 3:57
  • @Joe I would say it depends on how much the owners of the dataset are involved. In the case I had in mind, they would be actively involved in the discussion of why the different datasets are different. Presumably, the creators have a better understanding of why that may be than anybody else.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 15:33
  • Yes, ideally you'd contact the creators of the data to ensure that you were using it correctly ... but for some larger, well documented datasets (eg, MODIS, Hubble), trying to run everything through the PIs would cause a major bottleneck in puplishing.
    – Joe
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 16:11
  • @Joe Right, so it depends on the dataset and on context.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 18:46

My publication history crosses disciplines and the multi-author papers range range everywhere from two to thirty-two authors. Across all of these publications, I have seen two main modes of multi-author paper-writing, which I will call "collaborative" and "pedagogical."

  • Collaborative is the typical mode of writing that I have seen in scientific collaborations. Authors generally tend to fall into three rough categories:

    • Primary authors are one or more people who take responsibility for organizing the writing of the paper, and who produce the vast bulk of the text.
    • Secondary authors contribute specific pieces to the writing at the direction of the primary authors, most often figures, examples, and experimental methods.
    • Tertiary authors are people whose technical contributions rise to the standards of authorship for the field, but who are not needed to contribute any writing. This is highly field-specific. These range from common in experimental fields like biosciences or experimental physics to practically unheard of and possibly unethical in more theoretical and mathematical fields.

    In fields where author order matters, the category of author and their responsibilities tend to closely mirror their order in the paper, according to the customs of the field. In formulating the manuscript, the primary authors tend to form a writing plan, often dividing responsibility for sections, but sometimes having one do a first rough pass and then "passing the token" around for further refinement. Towards the end of the writing, when the secondary authors' pieces are integrated and the primary authors are satisfied, the paper will typically be sent out for commentary and feedback from all authors, and after a few further iterations there are no significant objections, the primary authors are satisfied with the paper, and they submit.

  • Pedagogical, on the other hand, is when you have a clear split between junior and senior authors, where the junior is a student or postdoc and the writing of the paper is also being used by the senior(s) as a part of their training. In this case, the text is typically generated primarily by the junior author (either one section at a time or all at once), and then submitted to the senior for feedback and instructions. This may go on for many iterations. Eventually, if there is a fixed deadline, or if things are dragging on too long, the seniors may seize control and "finish" the paper between themselves in collaborative mode.

    Occasionally, there may be more than one junior author, in which case the partition of their responsibilities are typically dictated by the senior. Likewise there may also be secondary and tertiary authors, just as in collaborative authorship.


Collaborative writing differs from article to article. First, it may be useful to say that in at least some cases, all authors may not be worthy of author or contributorship according to the Vancouver protocol (here exemplified by ICMJE). If we disregard such issues and assume all authors deserve authorship the following cases seems most likely. Since I reside in a community using the ordering of authors to signify importance/impact on the final product, the use of first author a co-authors should be seen from this perspective.

  1. All authors have contributed a significant part of the manuscript (MS). They are all specialists required for the research and provided vital input on their specific field of expertise. Typically, one person will take charge and make the first draft to which the others add their parts and comment on and add to the parts common to the MS. This case probably means all authors have similar intellectual input to the MS. Review and cross-disciplinary articles may be examples of types of articles written this way. Who will be first author could be a matter of who initiated the work, who took on the task of coordination or a matter of the alphabet.

  2. One or a subset of the authors have a more leading role and essentially write the MS on which the other authors provide specific input and comments. This is perhaps most common when contributions vary in importance and where a few have a major intellectual input on the science whereas the other authors provide smaller but crucial input on aspects of the MS. This is likely the most common case in most collaborative research involving groups of researchers. The first author will vary from publication to publication produced in such a group where all have provided sufficient input to fulfil the requirements for authorship/contributorship. Author order will be determined according to contribution.

Regardless of which way one goes, it is necessary for someone to take on the chore of being "secretary" and actually get common ideas into text. It is possible that a single authors can provide a section or two to the MS which is included verbatim but usually some editing is necessary to make the reading uniform throughout the MS and that would be the role of the "first author". It is therefore common that the "secretary" makes a first draft asking others to add both specific parts and commenting on the text from the others. The MS will be passed around until all are satisfied. So most multiple author articles have been produced in some fashion along these lines.


Credit: PhDcomics.com Image credit: phdcomis.com

For entertaining purpose. Don't take this cartoon as a serious answer or generalization, just however it resembles pretty much my experience, especially the last 3 positions: the second-to-last, the last, and the middle one.

The first ones are not necessarily true. In my field (CS), the first name is still the most important one, normally a PhD student working on his own sub-problems towards his thesis; and having his name at the first place is important for his overall thesis evaluation.

When I have to review paper, I often frown upon papers with many authors, especially short papers. One extreme was a 4.5-page paper with 8 authors (gosh...)

To my experience of having read a lot of papers in the field, the most beautiful and important papers are normally the ones written by 2 authors, then papers written by only one author. Never seen a great one with 7 authors... ;)

Note: this experience may be different in other fields, for example my friend for once said that in his field (earth sciences), each part of the task is already a huge work (collecting 40GB of raw data (1 person), preprocessing it (1 person), sharing expertise on the configuration setting (1 person),...) and they all end up in the author list. For sure, anyone with contributions should be given credit, but in the case of my friend, perhaps an Appendix or Acknowledgement section seems more appropriate.

  • 1
    While I appreciate the humor in this sarcastic cartoon, it does not faithfully represent how things really work.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Feb 16, 2015 at 17:55
  • 1
    No surprise :) No way a first year student who did all the things and got the third position, etc. The same goes with the first too. But... it's just exaggeration, comics purpose.
    – Jim Raynor
    Commented Feb 16, 2015 at 18:03
  • According to the FAQ of "Piled Higher and Deeper" permission is necessary to reuse their comics. Commented Feb 20, 2015 at 6:08

In my view, the division of labor would be between the individuals involved, and cannot be answered as a industry standard. As for unfinished work, I doubt that the other authors who have contributed to a finished work would leave the unfinished portion incomplete. So either the contributing authors will finish the incomplete work (giving credit for what work the author of the unfinished work did) or they group would cut out the author who failed to meet the dead line by doing his work from scratch and simply not include him or her as a contributing author.

As for coherence in thought and readability, I would believe this is solved during the editing process. Often times, one of the authors (the best skilled) would take the job of editing the work and working with the other authors to smooth over the rough edges.

The only difference between papers written by one person and papers written by multiple authors is that the work and credit is shared by all who are involved. All the basic steps are still involved, their simply altered for the piece being done. Or so that is my understanding.


My field is theoretic Computer Science, and I don't want to speak in behalf of the whole field but personally (and this is probably a very individual) I like collaborations where a lot of the work is done while sitting together throwing ideas to the air and discussing them and then thinking (everyone together) later on solutions or new ideas for problems we encountered then calling everyone again for a followup meeting.

(The writing is a different story, but who cares about it anyway?)

  • 16
    "who cares about it anyway?" ... um the OP ... did you even read the question? Commented Feb 14, 2015 at 0:04
  • I think (and if so, agree) that he ment to say that the writeup stage is the secondary part and not what the attention should be put at...
    – MathAndCo
    Commented Feb 14, 2015 at 7:28

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .