The conventions of authorship order vary considerably from one field to the next. In some fields, such as pure math, authorship order is typically alphabetical irrespective of the authors' roles. In other areas, including most biomedical fields, the first and last author positions are the most prestigious: the first author is presumed to have done the bulk of the work, and the last author is presumed to be the PI who obtained the funding for the project. There may even be a convention to place the statistician in the second author position. In yet other fields, such as paleontology, the first author carries prestige, but the last author has no special meaning. More examples are available in What does first authorship really mean?

Are there any bibliometric publications that catalog and/or attempt to explain the origin of authorship conventions by discipline?

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    Related question: What does first authorship really mean? – scaaahu Sep 5 '15 at 7:34
  • That's very close the answer I was looking for -- and a very informative thread. (I'd searched for "authorship order" but this one didn't come up). Thank you!! I'd also be interested to know if there's anything in the bibliometrics literature on this. – Corvus Sep 5 '15 at 7:36
  • You've hit all three conventions I'm aware of... I added the "reference request" tag to your post since I think you're looking for something definitive, though. – jakebeal Sep 5 '15 at 12:21
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    Can you edit your question to focus specifically on what you want that is not answered by What does first authorship really mean?. Otherwise this might get closed as a duplicate. Is it that you're looking for a published article discussing the issue? – Nate Eldredge Sep 5 '15 at 14:42
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    You might find this interesting: insidehighered.com/news/2007/07/20/credit – Kimball Sep 6 '15 at 2:32
up vote 5 down vote accepted

I have found two works that I think are interesting and relevant.

First, there is a sequence of three papers by Beaver and Rosen from 1978-79 on the history of scientific collaboration: "Studies of Scientific Collaboration" (Part I, Part II, Part III, unfortunately all paywalled by Springer). These articles document a relationship between co-authorship and "professionalization" of science, noting that although co-authorship has a long history of equal relationships, it surges when it becomes tied to access to facilities, money, and power particularly as judged by peers within the scientific community.

Ubiquitous co-authorship only emerged in the mid-20th century, and given the scientific economic environment in the US and Western Europe, there seems to be a plausible relationship to the three main authorship traditions that have been observed:

  • Biomedical research is very dependent on judgement of scientific peers, and thus would be natural to have the highest co-authorship and most complex and hierarchy-driven interpretation of author order, distinguishing "primary contributor" (protege) from "senior author" (patron).
  • Mathematical research, on the opposite end of the spectrum, requires little in the way of funding or access to resources, and thus has the shortest co-author lists and most egalitarian traditions for interpreting authorship.
  • Engineering research, although heavily funded and often strongly dependent on access to facilities and equipment, is less dependent on peers and more dependent on providing near-term results to government or industrial patrons, and thus it is unsurprising that it ends up in the middle state.

For comparison, then, we may consider the second paper, "What is authorship, and what should it be? A survey of prominent guidelines for determining authorship in scientific publications", a 2009 comparison of 10 different society authorship policies, which range from NIH setting forth a biomedical canon in which only the "corresponding" author really counts to the American Statistical Association, which says that the convention chosen for author order should be explicitly explained (no mathematical society is included, unfortunately).

Now all of this might be snapshots and "just-so stories" that are not the actual causality and history, but it's at least an interesting starting point for interpretation and investigation.

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    Just in case you have not seen it before (given your comment about the lack of a mathematical society in the comparison), the AMS has the following to say ams.org/profession/leaders/culture/CultureStatement04.pdf – Tobias Kildetoft Sep 12 '15 at 17:53
  • Thank you for adding the reference: it is interesting that it ends with an acknowledgement of the downside of alphabetical order, but no suggestion of how to address this issue. – jakebeal Sep 12 '15 at 19:02
  • I actually see the paper as part of a solution to that problem (and I think that is a large part of the reason for its existence), since they also write that the reason for the problem is lack of understanding of the culture from people not in mathematics. – Tobias Kildetoft Sep 14 '15 at 7:33

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