There are many questions on this site which involve authorship disputes and ethicality.

In fact, there are often people who are greatly distressed when their contributions to a paper are "lesser" than they expected, for whatever reason. This could range from having a co-first author added, or having other secondary authors added to the authorship list. Another famous example woudl be the Alpher-Bethe-Gamow paper regarding Big Bang nucleogenesis, where the first author Alpher greatly resented the addition of Bethe to the authorship list.

However, I do not understand why adding co-authors would be a bad idea. Surely, the fact that you were helped by another person means that they should be co-authors on the paper, as long as they made significant intellectual contributions.

None of the fields mentioned in this question regarding authorship norms had any explanation of the potential detrimental effects additional authors have to the first author.

What, then, are the possible negative effects that the first author can suffer if other authors are added to the paper?

Note: I do not intend to ask regarding issues where the original author is removed from consideration, only those where the first author is kept, but other coauthors are added to the authorship list.

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    It should be mentioned that in the famous Alpher-Bethe-Gamow paper, Gamow added Bethe's name to the paper just to make a (relatively funny) joke. Bethe contributed nothing to the paper. Which makes that situation very far from the typical case IMO. Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 9:20
  • "co-first author" How do you list both authors first? Do you set it up so when someone downloads it it picks an order randomly? Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 10:01
  • 1
    @PyRulez The question of co-first-authorship has been asked here a number times.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 12:28

2 Answers 2


I think for some people, the principle is important: they didn't feel that the person whose name has been added contributed enough, and humans hate the feeling of giving up something unfairly.

That said, there is a very real cost in terms of credit. This will not be consistent across different people looking at your record, but every new co-author decreases the chance that the important part of the work will be attributed to you. There was actually a recent study about this which found that women pay an especially large price on this score: when they do joint work with men, the evidence suggests the men tend to get the credit (the actual observation of the study is that their chance of getting tenure do not improve). You'll note though, even for men a solo paper improves chances of tenure by more than a jointly authored paper with anyone.

  • +1 for the principle of the matter. Giving someone credit for little to no work devalues your own contribution. Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 3:47
  • 6
    Journals are increasingly combating this outcome by asking authors to declare contributions. On a 2013 paper where I was one of the co-first authors, we had to state something like: BNN and TYM designed the study and wrote the manuscript. BNN, SZ, and JTA performed the synthesis. GRH designed the computational model, and CMC performed the calculations. PCM performed electrochemical analyses. of course such practice does not prevent lying, but that is a different ethical issue.
    – Ben Norris
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 5:00
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    +1 for the TIL re: females suffering when coauthors are added.
    – March Ho
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 5:02
  • @BenNorris I agree that's an improvement, but it requires people actually read that portion of the paper. They might not always do that when reviewing job applications. It's also when integrating little bits of information (like what someone did on a bunch of papers) where bias can easily slip in. Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 19:04

Following the link to the Alpher-Bethe-Gamow paper I found that there is an answer for this particular case that seems important. From the Wikipedia page:

He [Alpher] felt that the inclusion of another eminent physicist would overshadow his personal contribution to this work and prevent him from receiving proper recognition for such an important discovery.

For this paper is seems save to assume that many people will consider that the order of the authors has not been decided by contribution. I am not sure about the rules for author order in physics at that time but for sure people would immediately get the intended pun. Hence, I can understand Alpher's concern.

So in fields where order of the authors is not by contribution (or for special paper like this one), having one more big shot in the list of authors may really lead to the wrong perception. In fact, for PhD students in math is in not at all unusual to have papers written directly under the supervision of the advisor appearing with only the PhD student's name on it, even if the supervisor may have contributed some ideas. In this way it is ensured that the work will be perceived as the PhD student's work.

  • Note also that Bethe didn't contribute anything to the paper, his name was just added to make a joke... Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 9:21
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    Read the Wikipedia page for the full story.
    – Dirk
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 11:06
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    Also relevant for this case is that Alpher was a PhD student at the time.
    – Kimball
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 15:57

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