I work in an area where most of the time authorship is ordered alphabetically, but sometimes when some authors contribute more than others, ordering by contribution is possible. I'm writing a paper with a former professor and another student. My name is often last when ordered alphabetically, but the professor suggests that I move my name to the front because I contributed more.

Should I accept this suggestion? Of course, moving my name to the front would emphasize my contribution for this paper. But when people see my CV as a whole, might they think that for other papers where my name is last (because the names are ordered alphabetically), it is last because I contributed least?

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    This is the first time I've ever heard of 'alphabetical ordering of authors' in paper publications. The order usually always depends on the level of contribution. – Ébe Isaac Sep 8 '15 at 5:09
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    @ÉbeIsaac It depends on the field. Being in theoretical physics myself, I can't remember the last time I read a paper whose authors weren't ordered alphabetically. – David Z Sep 8 '15 at 5:49
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    @ÉbeIsaac There is a considerable variation within the sub-disciplines of CS. In the more theoretical sub-disciplines, ordering by name is the norm (see, e.g., fsttcs.org/archives/2014/papers.php for a theoretical CS conference accepted paper list), whereas in the more practical ones, it is the exception – DCTLib Sep 8 '15 at 7:30
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    Poor @DavidZ invariably ends up as the last author in his papers because of his surname, and this weird convention! However, in addition to being field dependent, it is also sub-field dependent. e.g. it happens most of the times in High Energy Physics in general, but perhaps not so much in the nuclear corner of HEP, which amounts to even more confusion! – The Dark Side Sep 8 '15 at 8:35
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    @ÉbeIsaac I don't believe it's explicitly enforced by the publishers, but pretty much all (this isn't hyperbole) publications in pure math use alphabetical order for author names; you can check any published journal for an example. (The only time I saw deviation from this was for a 2-authors paper, where one of the authors had only written an appendix -- he was listed last even though his name came up first in the alphabet.) – user2357 Sep 8 '15 at 9:22
up vote 7 down vote accepted

I think you should be honored and flattered by your professor's suggestion. He/she thinks you deserve a larger share of the credit for the paper and is trying to help you get that credit.

Your concern about the CV/publication list is somewhat valid, but there is a simple way to address that issue. In your publication list, put a small asterisk next to the paper in question, accompanied by a footnote saying: "For this publication my coauthors agreed to name me first author as credit for my contributions. In all other publications my name appears in alphabetical order, as is the custom in my discipline and indicating roughly equal contributions from all coauthors."

Of course, adding such a footnote is a bit tedious and awkward, and the benefit you will get from being first author may not be very large. Perhaps you may conclude that it's not worth the hassle. Or you may feel it could distract people looking at your CV from other things about you that you feel are more important. Or you may think this is just too trivial an issue to care about. All of those would be completely reasonable reasons not to accept the offer. But there would certainly be nothing wrong with accepting it.

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    A less awkward implementation: you could have two footnotes, "†Authors ordered alphabetically" and "*Authors ordered by contribution", and for each author list, append either † or * as appropriate. – David Z Sep 8 '15 at 5:51
  • Or simply, at the top of your list of publications, have a note that states "In my field, the convention is to list authors in alphabetic order. Deviations from this happen only in exceptional cases." – Wolfgang Bangerth Sep 8 '15 at 12:04

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