Recently, I was involved in an engineering research project where I significantly extended the main functionality of the work. As my other team-mates were not involved in that aspect of the project, I thought I would leave them to do the write-up. I don't want to complicate things but lets just say their contribution matters less, at least according to my advisor.

This work is now being readied for publication and there's the matter of ordering the authors. Initially I thought we may be doing things alphabetically, but on the recent draft the order appeared to prioritize those who are doing the write-up, listing them first. My advisor raised no objection to this. If we are going down this road, it seems to me those who have done the most work should be first authors (i.e. me), rather than those who are doing the write-up.

I'd like to avoid any potential conflict with the people involved, and so I wonder if one acceptable compromise here is to specify the contributions of each author in the paper. Alternatively, we can do the alphabetical thing and make explicit mention of this as a footnote. I don't have any problem with either of these options.

First, am I correct in thinking that the ordering here is misplaced?

Second, are the compromises I list reasonable enough to propose?

  • 2
    Did you discuss the order issue with your advisor ?
    – Suresh
    Commented Jan 4, 2013 at 20:02

8 Answers 8


You must discuss this issue with your advisor and all coauthors as soon as possible. The right time to have the discussion would have been before the first draft is started, but unless you have a time machine, you have to have it now. Since there are differing opinions, and the outcome matters, conflict is inevitable. Welcome to adulthood.

  • And when discussing, keep in mind that some journals allow for shared first authorship. Perhaps this might be a solution for you.
    – Ana
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 15:27

I thought I would leave them to do the write-up

In my experience, the person who writes the initial draft is first author when the author order depends on contribution. There may be discussions/"fights" over who deserves to write the initial draft, but it is generally understood that this person becomes the first author.


I have been in the situation where I have been the primary author on a few papers where others have been the primary personnel involved.

In one of those cases, the PI was the primary worker, and therefore allowed me to be first author. In the other case, the primary worker was still the first author, and I was the second author. I was fine with this, because I was getting the credit in exchange for making sure the work got published.

However, I do agree that the primary person whose work is being presented should be first author. At the same time, if you do not have an active hand in writing the manuscript, the claim that slightly less scientific work plus more work preparing the manuscript could be persuasive.


Author ordering is a common source of friction and is very tricky. In science and engineering most big universities place critical emphasis on the intellectual contribution over all else. The standards for authorship, and the ordering, do vary somewhat by discipline and institution. In Computational Geometry (a branch of Computer Science), for example, it has been commonplace to list authors alphabetically. In most of the rest of Computer Science, authors are usually listed by the "size" of their contribution.

If the paper has a very "big" important idea then conceptual contribution will be relatively more important. If the paper describes a fairly well-understood concept (which means it might have limited impact) then the author ordering may depend more heavily on other factors like doing the writeup. If team members made very different kinds of contributions it can be very hard to determine the ordering, but then the relative positions aside from first and last are likely to matter less.

In my opinion, doing the actual writeup is usually not the most important factor, but it sometimes becomes the dominant factor since it is easy to measure as a contribution, come last (which makes it easy to remember), and because the people doing the writeup have the initiative and control of the manuscript. Since it is such a delicate and awkward issue, the writers who put the names down in the document first often manage to set the precedent. Notably, the most important positions in the author list are first and last position (both are generally seen as good).

To quote from the Harvard Med School authorship guidelines:

"Examples of authorship policies include descending order of contribution, placing the person who took the lead in writing the manuscript or doing the research first and the most experienced contributor last, and alphabetical or random order." Harvard

The IEEE authorship guide states:

Typically, the first author listed is the person who has taken the most responsibility for the work. Other authors are listed in order of the level of their contribution.

IEEE link, PDF file

(which doesn't actually help you much since the definition of "contribution" is not apparent.


I think you should had discussed this issue before starting the research. For example you could have agreed that anybody who solves the main part of the problem (project) will be the first author. But now that it is done, I think you should talk about it with your advisor and you might have to be a little flexible about the order of authorship.


Ordering names in publications is a very delicate matter and should always be discussed among the research team before submission.

Typically, every co-author needs to have taken part in each part of the research:

  • background research
  • methodology
  • experiment
  • analysis
  • paper writing
  • proof-reading

The importance of those elements determines who will be the first author. The most important parts are definitely the experiment itself and the paper writing. Whoever didn't take part in both of those can hardly be considered an author. This might be considered a bit controversial sometimes, but other researchers who only took part in a small part of the process should be added in the acknowledgements instead.

Now, in many cases nowadays not everybody takes part in each part of the research process. This usually creates ambiguities, that should be solved in the best way, asking for advice from a research authority, with the enough experience and information to judge on the situation.


In my opinion, whatever the order of authors, the contributions should be individually stated, as it is common in some fields and journals. This avoids problems like yours, and also (real cases):

  • The first author just provided the research money, but did no actual work.
  • The first author is the PI in a collaboration. He overseed the research and gave orders, but the bulk of the job was done by his PhD students.
  • Someone is important in the group, so he gets to be amongst the first authors, even though he did nothing. Students that actually did work have their names after him.
  • The data was processed using a program that has been in use for three years. The programer was not involved in the paper, or finetuned the program for the purpose of the particular study, but he gets to coauthor.

But also, situations like:

  • Three or more researchers designed independent critical steps, all of them equally important to the results.
  • Multidisciplinary collaboration, where new analysis techniques suggest new experimental techniques, that are implemented for the first time.

Where they all deserve large credit, and it is impossible to order them fairly.


I think it is very strange if people "who didn't do the work" get to do the writeup. Whoever did the research is intimately familiar with the methods and results, and is in best position to make the judgement calls of what to include or leave out, were exactly the difficulties and successes are, what is the real contributions are and what is incidental. Sure, somebody periperally involved can look it over and do proofreading or editing, but not structuring and initial writeup.

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