In general, mathematics papers have no first author; instead, authors are listed alphabetically. Therefore, citing “Smith et al.” is at best misleading (it implies that Smith did all the work) and at worst insulting (Zelmanov never does any work!). Basically, all the authors are considered equal but citing “Smith et al.” messes this balance up.

The “et al.” style is made slightly more complex because it means that the “big shot” may come further down the list. For example, Zelmanov is the big name but the paper is Smith, Smythe and Zelmanov, cited as Smith et al. So you don’t realise that it’s a Zelmanov paper.

My question is:

What should be done if a journal changes your citation of Smith, Smythe and Zelmanov [10] to Smith et al. [10], especially when Zelmanov is the big name?

Is the answer simply to ask them to change it back to Smith, Smythe and Zelmanov? I think that changing the citation to “Zelmanov et al.” undermines the equality ethos even more — it is a slap in the face to Smith and Smythe, and anyway how do I not know that Smith won’t win a Fields medal himself one day?

I should say that before today I have never seen this in a maths paper.

Added 2018: This was resolved nicely. I send the copyediting team an email asking if every instance of "et al." could be changed back "especially on line 244 because "et al." here is just a single person!", and if not can I edit the certain bits to remove the names. So they removed each et al. and it appeared online a week later. No hassle (but lots of worry!).

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    They should either change it back to your original style, or if they refuse, just give the label [10]. There is no justification for elevating some authors over others. Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 11:48
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    Regarding your second paragraph: in fields with citation orders, big shots almost always come further down the list, since they are almost always the last author. Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 11:53
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    The best thing to do is to is first ask the editor nicely if they will change it back. If they will not, then insist more firmly that they allow you to rewrite the paragraph, at which point you can add the author names in the prose. The editors have a paper they are nearly ready to publish, and so they want to get it off their desk. I have written a different answer on this subject here: academia.stackexchange.com/a/36731/16122 Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 12:47
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    This is why I changed my last name to A'abanana.
    – RoboKaren
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 23:32
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    So you don’t realise that it’s a Zelmanov paper. — It's not a Zelmanov paper. It's a Smith, Smythe, and Zelmanov paper!
    – JeffE
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 19:58

8 Answers 8


Disagreeing with the other answers here, I advocate that you argue with the publishers and ask them to revert the citation style to what you originally wrote. I have personally succeeded in doing so in exactly the situation you describe.

Of course you should be polite, and only "argue" if the publishers refuse to accommodate an initial non-argumentative request. But do remember that the role of publishers is to take our golden eggs without payment and then sell them back to us at extortionate rates. As such, I think it is perfectly appropriate to put your preferences above those of the publishers. The publishers might refuse in the end, in which case you should just relent, but I don't think you lose anything by pushing an argument to such a refusal.

Typically, I have found journal copyediting staff to be accommodating and helpful when I have requested that they undo changes like this.

  • I upvoted. Though believe me that arguing with your copy editor is not a good idea. It's much better to explain why you want it. I know this, since I am a copy editor myself :-)
    – yo'
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 10:05

While mathematics is not my area of specialization, I think that in your question you are making a general and IMHO wrong assumption about the importance of the name, appearing in the "et al." construction. Essentially, this construction is used only for the purposes of convenience (brevity for readability) and not for implying the amount or importance of work, performed by any of authors.

When people see the "et al." citation, I am pretty sure that decent scientists immediately refer to the full citation in a reference list in order to obtain full information on all authors of a paper in question. Therefore, I believe that the "problem" that you have described in your question is really an artificial one, which exists only in your imagination (due to the incorrect assumption, mentioned above).

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    This is not actually my reaction on reading a citation with "et al." in a math paper. My first reaction is "wow, that paper must have at least 5 or 6 authors for the author of this paper to have chosen this way of citing them". Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 11:54
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    @TobiasKildetoft: Well, then all I can say is that your reaction reflects on secondary, less (if any) essential aspect. As I said, I believe that the main role of an "et al." construction is purely of convenience. Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 12:00
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    Several of the papers I've read in astronomy/astrophysics lately have not only used "First Author, et al." within the main text (and insofar as, unlike math, this is a First=Most Important field, that can be okay), but also in the bibliography (which also failed to provide any of the actual titles). Bibliography entries will go like: "Zoccali, et al. ApJ 23 106-123, 2013" and that's it. So looking to the bibliography for full information is precisely useless in some fields, as even if you can explain missing authors (these papers could have a dozen or more), why not even the title? Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 2:21
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    @WillieWong This convention of "6" is NOT FOLLOWED by most people. What APA considers right is, in my opinion, highly irrelevant.
    – yo'
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 10:02
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    @yo' to be honest, I couldn't care less about what you or the APA considers right. I don't even claim that the exactly convention of "6" is followed by many, to say nothing of most, people. My comment was very clear, and indisputable if you chose to follow the APA style guide. It is also meant to inject a bit of irrelevant and irreverent precision into the previous comment. So chill out, dude, and stop shouting at me. Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 10:49

Regarding your specific question, the answer is leave it be and don't argue.

  1. Most journals follow some house style guide that has been set in stone for who knows how long. This is not a useful fight to have since you will invariably lose.
  2. Many style guides offer something similar to what the APA guide says, which is that for papers of N or fewer authors (for APA, N = 5), at the first instance of mentioning the paper the full author listing must be included; in the subsequent ones et al. is used. In pure mathematics papers with more than 4 or 5 authors are quite rare (enough that people come up with team names when that happens). So credit usually is given properly (at least at the beginning of the paper).

    N.B. since the OP mentioned Springer, I should note that the Springer MathPhys style which applies to most (all?) mathematics journals in the Springer catalog does not follow the same schema as the APA style guide. Experience suggests (since I cannot find it written down somewhere) that for 1 and 2 authors they always show all names, and for 3 and more authors they always abbreviate. My experience also shows however that if you write "the Smith-Smythe-Zeldanov construction [13]" they will not call you on it.

  3. Whether Zelmanov is a big name should have absolutely nothing to do with it; for all you know a lot of the technical insights could have come from Smythe.

  4. If you must show all three names, rewrite the sentence/paragraph so that the appearance of all three names is logical.

    In 1989 Smythe [12] showed that all gadgets are widgets. This result was later generalized in his 1993 paper [11], written together with Smith and Zeldanov, which showed that in fact all weak-gadgets (hereon "wadgets") are also widgets.

    Of course this formulation puts the emphasis on Smythe, but if "credit" is so important to you you should have a good idea how to phrase things correctly.

  • Nice answer (+1). However, I have to note that your point on N=5 per APA (and similar for other styles) is shaky, since the full N authors citation should be done only at the initial occurrence. Thus, for all subsequent citations, it boils down to "et al." all over again. Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 12:23
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    @AleksandrBlekh: for giving credit, is it not enough to have the name appear at least once? I don't think that mentioning the same paper multiple times in my paper means I am giving it "multiples" of credit... // I edited slightly to give more emphasis to that fact you pointed out. Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 12:24
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    I disagree with "leave it be and don't argue", for the reasons laid out in the post "Et al is unethical" here: sbseminar.wordpress.com/2010/02/21/et-al-is-unethical Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 12:48
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    @Aleksandr Blekh: the challenge with the reference list is that, although it has enough information to look up the reference, the prose of the paper you are writing is what helps to establish the name that mathematicians use to refer to the results. So if everyone calls the theorem the "Smith et al theorem" then the other authors don't receive that credit at conferences, etc. I don't want to draw out the discussion, so I won't comment more on this thread, but I think this issue is worth keeping in mind. See also academia.stackexchange.com/a/36731/16122 Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 12:54
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    @OswaldVeblen: the question specifically asked "Smith-Smythe-Zeldanov [10]" not "Smith-Smythe-Zeldanov Theorem [10]", so your second comment has a bit of strawman. Regardless, points 2 and 4 of my post already addressed the issues you raised, and gave essentially the same suggestion as you did, except that I recognized (from experience) that on issues of house style copy editors will never budge, so you might as well just skip to the last step directly. Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 13:01

While formally the author order is unimportant, our psychology does not obey such formal rules. In the situation described, after the passage of time we are likely to remember either "paper by Smith et al." or "paper by Zelmanov and someone else".

Existence of publisher's style is mostly irrelevant (at least in my part of mathematics). Practically all the new papers are on arXiv, and so few read the journal version. So, authors' decisions matter.

In my opinion, the real choice is between the following options:

  • Inclusive, "Smith, Smythe, Zelmanov [25] showed"
  • Simple, "in [25] it is shown".
  • Verbose, "Smith, Smythe, Zelmanov [25], building on the previous work of Smythe [26], showed".
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    If few read the journal version, then perhaps we shouldn't care what the journal changes in copyediting? Since presumably the version on arXiv will be the one reflecting the author's choice. Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 7:08

The term "et alii" (abbreviated "et al.") means "and coworkers" or "and collaborators". It implies no preference who did what. So go with the style as suggested -- it does not imply that you elevate one of the authors over the others, it just abbreviates the list of names.

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    "It implies no preference" -- unfortunately it does suggest one in ordinary English. If I wrote "John and others" instead of "John, Paul, George and Ringo" then you might wonder why I've chosen not to name the others. You can't conclude with certainty that it's because I think Lennon's the most important Beatle, but it's high on the list of possibilities. But this isn't ordinary English, it's a stylised citation formula, so in some sense it doesn't really matter what "et al" means. It might as well be simple truncation "John, Pa..." Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 19:15
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    The direct translation is "and others", not "and coworkers". Wolfgang Bangerth is correct in the meaning, however. Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 0:53

How the paper is cited will have nothing to do with the author's impact factor, or any citation tracking number in existence -- only the fact that the paper was cited at all has meaning. Tenure committees will not care whether you said et al. or listed the authors' names. Authors will not care, because it really makes no difference.

It is a decision made by the style sheet of the journal you're publishing in. If you don't care for the style, submit only to journals that reference by superscripted numbers in the text.

  • Nobody questions bibliometrics here, as far as I see :-) So you are right that it makes no difference for bibliometrics, but it may make a difference for "the real world" :)
    – yo'
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 10:07
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    Along with the Math field's decision (or consensus) to use alphabetical authorship, comes ramifications. One would think that if the authors objected, they would rebel an place authorship in different order. In any case, the revolution should come from the authors, who bought in by publishing the way they did. Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 10:40
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    You speak like a medical :) The point is that we, mathematicians, couldn't care less about the order in which we appear on papers. Rather than on stupid things like "credit of being first", we care about true cooperation :-)
    – yo'
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 11:05
  • @yo' Couldn't agree more. The point I'm inadequately trying to make is that this is a system set up by mathematicians for a reason, and going out of one's way to undo it with citation style is counter to those goals. Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 12:25

Sorry to contradict, but I have published Maths papers with a true, ordered (by contribution) authors list. This may not always be the case, but this counterexample proves that the assumption that the authors list is always ordered by name only is wrong.

As for the et al. - this is just an abbrevation, not for selecting important authors. As a general rule for citing (used in many journals), if there are more than 2 authors, you do not list all, just the first and then write et al. in italics. Sometimes you would use this short citation style in the text, and list the complete author list in the references, like

This has been proven by Smith et al. back in 1975 [8].

[8] AJ Smith, T Southall, EK Forkner and UI Janeson, Why Squirrels cannot Fly, Nature 4(5), September 1975.

As someone who cites, please respect the order given (for whatever reason), do not change it! This would just confuse people.

  • You make a good point about the order not always being alphabetical, and I had meant to write my original post to reflect this. I've edited it accordingly.
    – user1729
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 19:14
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    I have published Maths papers with a true, ordered (by contribution) authors list — So have I. We broke the ties alphabetically. And we were all tied.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 19:59
  • @JeffE You are proving my point. Sometimes it works like this, sometimes like that. It's all good. I only said that it isn't always done the same way.
    – Ned64
    Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 9:14

One purpose of the way to shorten author lists is to allow finding the cited work when it is listed in a library catalog, which happens (primarily/only) by first author. Hence knowing the first author is essential in order to find the text - no matter how important whose contribution to the work in question is (a subjective question anyway). Granted, this kind of restriction comes from the time of cardboard catalogs, but the implied citing tradition still stands ...

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    Not sure how this addresses the question, seems to be more of a comment along the same topic. Am I missing something?
    – eykanal
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 2:13
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    "..but the tradition still stands..." -- well, no, actually, not so much. An OPAC or bibliographic database will generally let you search by any of the listed authors. Librarianship is not stuck in technological limitations from thirty years ago. Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 10:26
  • @LindaJeanne The fact that H.-D. Ebbinghaus, H.Hermes, F. Hirzebruch, M. Koecher, K.Mainzer, A.Prestel, R. Remmert, "Zahlen" can be found by searching for works by Remmert does not contradict the fact that the tardition of citing the work as as Ebbinghaus et al. Likewise, it is inspired pre-Amazon logistics why bibliographic rules would prefer Berlin; Heidelberg; New York; Tokyo over Springer Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 20:18

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