I have a paper with autors A, B, C and D. Their names appear sorted by last name, so the order of the authors does not really say anything about their role in the paper.

When I cite this with the style that I currently use, I obtain “A et al, 2014”. This is logically, but B was the speaker and D is the professor of the workgroup.

Should I now cite this as “A et al”, or change the order of the names and make it “D et al” or “B et al”? The second version only works since I know the roles in the workgroup. With other papers, I would not know how to do this.

I could also just cite it as “[1]” and not worry about that at all …

What would be a good way to deal with this in general?

  • 7
    Follow whatever the citation style says (you are using one citation style, don't you?) . Nothing more nothing less.
    – seteropere
    Mar 16, 2015 at 18:46
  • 2
    I do not use a particular citation style at the moment. It looks like that most papers of the field just use “[1]” style references within the text. That is probably the thing to do, then. Mar 16, 2015 at 18:50
  • 1
    @queueoverflow No matter what most people in your field do, if you've seen the [ABC07] style of citations, go for it. As a reader, I can tell you that it saves lots of going back and forth, since most of the readers of your paper are familiar with the most common citations and know which paper is [ABC07].
    – yo'
    Mar 16, 2015 at 19:01
  • @yo' I do like that style as well, since I sometimes will know what paper is referenced without looking up the number. Mar 16, 2015 at 19:05
  • 1
    If there are only four authors, it is not so hard to mention them all in the text of the article: "A, B, C, and D [3] show that ..." Mar 17, 2015 at 16:21

4 Answers 4


Elaborating slightly on David Richerby's answer: cite the paper with the authors in the same order that they appear in the original. Never reorder them for any reason.

The simplest reason for this is that people will expect that your citation matches the original author ordering. If the original paper has authors in the order A,B,C,D, and you cite it with authors B,D,C,A, a reader is going to think you are talking about a different paper by the same people, in which B was listed as the first author. They will probably figure it out eventually, but confusion will occur in the meantime.

For a deeper reason, there are two possible reasons why the authors wrote their names in the order A,B,C,D:

  1. They made a decision that A should be considered the "first author", perhaps because A had the original idea or did most of the work.

  2. They made a decision to list their names alphabetically, so that nobody would be "first author". This implies that they believe that all of them contributed (approximately) equally to the paper.

In either case, you should respect their decision. If you change the author ordering, it makes it seem like you are second-guessing their decision, as if you know better than the authors who did what on the paper. This will come across as arrogant and disrespectful.

You can't assume that the person who presented a paper at a conference is the one who did the most work on it. Maybe A did the most work but couldn't attend the conference for some reason. Maybe they all did the same amount of work, but B really wanted to give the talk and so they agreed to let him.

You also shouldn't assume that the professor of a workgroup is the one who deserves the most credit for a paper. In many cases, the most senior person on a paper is the one who is least involved in its details (because they are dividing their time between many different projects).

So if the paper lists the authors as A,B,C,D, cite it as ABCD. Some people think the use of et al is problematic, especially for alphabetically ordered papers, but if you must use it, cite as "A et al."

  • 2
    "et al" is largely unavoidable with multi-authored papers. I'd much rather people referred to my seven-author paper as "Chen et al" than just "[4]", even though I'm seventh alphabetically. That way, at least one of us gets credit as a human being rather than a paper. Mar 17, 2015 at 9:39

If the authors are listed as Adams, Brown, Clinton, Dylan, you cannot cite it as Brown et al. The standard thing is to simply cite Adams et al.

If you are one of the authors and you cite it. Let's say that you are Brown and you now have an article with Eldridge. Then you can write the following:

... as was shown by the first author in collaboration with Adams et al. [ABCD14].

This way you cite the paper properly and at the same time, you make it clear that you are one of its authors.

  • Are you saying all the author names are spelt out in-line, rather than in the bibliography?
    – gerrit
    Mar 16, 2015 at 20:02
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    @gerrit Well, they'll be in the bibliography, but you mention them inline as well.
    – yo'
    Mar 16, 2015 at 20:52
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    @gerrit If you're talking about the [ABCD14], that's the initials of A, B, C, and D (it's clearer when their names have more than one letter; if the authors were Adams, Bengston, Charles, and Donn, you'd say "with Adams et al. [ABCD14]" instead of "[Adams-Bengston-Charles-Donn 14]")
    – cpast
    Mar 17, 2015 at 2:19
  • @cpast Hm, then I hope that your field does not frequently have papers with more than a handful of authors.
    – gerrit
    Mar 17, 2015 at 16:47
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    @gerrit Don't worry, we've invented [ABC+14] as well ;)
    – yo'
    Mar 17, 2015 at 17:00

I've never seen a citation style that allows reordering the authors. If you're mentioning them by name, either list them all or write "First et al.", regardless of whether First is first author because of some estimation of merit or because of an accident of birth.


Alphabetical ordering of authors is the prevalent style in mathematics (there may be other fields where this is used, e.g. theoretical CS, but I'm not aware of any others).

In mathematics it is considered good style to cite the author list in full, i.e. A,B,C,D instead of A et al. The reason is that all authors are considered to have contributed (approximately) equally to the paper, so they deserver equal credit and exposure. Citing as A et al. would underexpose people with lastnames further down the alphabet. Also note that in mathematics, papers rarely have more than 3-4 authors, so this is not too unreasonable to do.

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