I, along with two fellow doctoral students, am about to publish a paper supervised by our professor. Our professor is listed as the last author, which of course is fair as he supervised the project.

One of us, student A, is listed as the first author, which there is not disagreement on. Student B is listed afterwards, and I am the third listed author.

The ordering of student B and I is alphabetical, nothing more. This is also reasonable, as we all believe that our contribution has been the same.

However, it is not listed in the paper that our contributions are the same. Should I insist on this before submitting the paper?

  • Is this the same paper in your previous question, when you then thought you should be first author? Now you are asking about being 2nd vs 3rd author? I think you try to make too much hassle for one paper.
    – Alexandros
    Mar 9, 2015 at 11:13
  • @Alexandros It's not the same
    – BillyJean
    Mar 9, 2015 at 11:44
  • 9
    It's worth noting that that the ordering of listed authors is highly field-dependent. In medicine, the supervisor is listed last and the others are listed in contribution order. In mathematics, all authors are listed alphabetically. (There are of course exceptions to these rules.)
    – msh210
    Mar 9, 2015 at 16:56
  • 9
    Buried in this (and other similar questions) is the notion that one's contribution to a paper can be unambiguously assigned a single number that can be compared with the other authors. This notion should be banished from your thoughts.
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 9, 2015 at 20:32
  • 1
    Well, you still are proposing that you can line up the authors in a unique order that nobody can argue with. Same difference. In reality, everyone will have a different opinion of their contribution.
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 10, 2015 at 21:12

4 Answers 4


In fields where authorship order matters, the difference between second author and third author is very little, pragmatically, in terms of how people will think about your contributions. Neither is the first author (whose name will be noticed in every citation), and neither is the last author (in those fields where last = senior).

What you can do, however, is what many journals now require, where you add a section at the end of the paper with a name like "Author Contributions." In this section, you write down exactly what each author did, e.g.,

R.L. performed the experiments, T.X. ran spectroscopic analysis, B.G. supplied a critical DNA construct, R.L. and T.X. analyzed the data, T.X. and B.M. wrote the manuscript, and R.L,.T.X., and B.M. edited the manuscript.

This won't change the "first impressions" that anybody has of the paper, but anybody who wants to know whether you're a significant contributor or not will be readily able to find out.


Personally, I don't think that being second or third matters. At least not to the point of arguing (in case you needed to). If you have the space, you can add a statement in the Acknowledgements section.

Realistically, only those who read the paper would be aware of that. You'd have to replicate the statement in your CV, or the distinction might be lost.


In many cases (especially seen on online sources like PubMed et al), names are suffixed with a * and explanation:

Smith J, Lee H *, Doe J *, Howard M, PhD

*: These authors contributed equally.

Whether this solves the problem or just makes the order slightly less important... That's up to your personal preference. But this is a commonly accepted method of mitigating just this issue.

The greatest benefit of this solution is that it can change the first impression of the viewer, if the * catches their attention.


If you want to highlight that everyone has contributed his/her expertise equally, you could sort the authors' names alphabetically and specify in the acknowledgement that 'the order of the authors is alphabetical'. I have seen this a few times. Of course, this is meaningful for the audience that reads the acknowledgement, which may be a small subset of the overall target audience (who may just be content reading abstract and conclusions).

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