I am working on a graph theory paper with two of my friends. The problem stated in the paper is solved by me. However, our supervisor professor pointed out that in all of the graph theory journals (and other mathematics journals as well), names of authors are sorted by an alphabetic order which puts me in the third position after one of my friends who was mainly in charge of half of the editings (which I greatly thank his efforts) and our supervisor professor.

I wonder if there is any way to point out who was the main contributor in a graph paper or not.

I think this may be a very deciding factor in being accepted by a good university for a master program because we can only have a few papers before graduation.

  • 1
    Related question: Alphabetical Order for Authors in Computer Science
    – scaaahu
    May 11 '16 at 12:38
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    Also, pay attention to the answer of another related question
    – scaaahu
    May 11 '16 at 12:44
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    Not a constructive comment, I'm afraid, but as someone in industry who reads academic papers but doesn't write them, I find the whole culture of multiple authorship thoroughly distasteful. It all smells of "you slap my back and I'll slap yours". It goes with the fact that people are writing in order to score brownie points that advance their careers, not to communicate with the audience that is supposed to benefit from the research (and is probably paying for it). It is essentially corrupt and dishonest. May 12 '16 at 7:31
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    @MichaelKay, the days when an individual could routinely know enough to make progress are long gone. Example: I make the experiment work, my theorist colleague interprets the results. I'm not saying there's no truth in what you say, false/inflated/political authorship is a real issue, but you can't tar all multi-author papers with the same brush.
    – Chris H
    May 12 '16 at 8:06
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    @MichaelKay Yes, how dare people collaborate on research just to possibly obtain better results. May 12 '16 at 20:09

I wanted to see if there is any way to point out who was the main contributor in a graph paper or not?

Generally not. In pure mathematics it's extremely unconventional to use any author ordering other than alphabetical. You could try, but it will look weird and attract negative attention, and nobody will be quite sure how to interpret it. In particular, you run the risk of having people think "this jerk insisted on being listed first despite the near-universal use of alphabetical order". I virtually never see papers with any other author ordering, and I would not recommend it.

It's also rare and considered awkward to include any discussion in the paper of who contributed what. One reason is that it's difficult to write such a discussion fairly. For example, suppose your collaborators try three approaches that fail before you find one that works. Reasonable people could disagree as to whether your collaborators were obviously on the wrong track all along, or whether they pointed the way to the solution by eliminating other plausible methods. (The general principle is that if your collaborators aren't useful, then you shouldn't be working with them. Turning this around, if they are useful enough that you are happy to work with them before the problem is solved, then you can't retroactively decide that they weren't useful enough afterwards.)

The flip side of this is that the standards for being an author are fairly demanding, and coauthors should have seriously worked on the mathematics itself. In particular, supervising the project or editing the paper are not by themselves sufficient for coauthorship. But it's reasonable for these people to be coauthors if they worked on the problem with you, even if you were the one who ended up making the decisive contribution.

I think it may be a very deciding factor in being accepted by a good university for a master program because we can only have a few papers before graduation.

The usual way this information is conveyed is a letter of recommendation from your supervisor, who can highlight the role you played in the project.

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    Whether or not people would think it's strange that your name was out of order, I'm confident that math programs wouldn't consider it as a factor for admissions.
    – Tom Church
    May 11 '16 at 16:04
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    In some journals, the "corresponding author" is marked somehow. When I published a paper with my supervisor, I was the second author in alphabetical order, but he insisted that I be the corresponding author to give me proper credit (since I came up with the main proof). So this seems to be an option.
    – PhoemueX
    May 11 '16 at 18:03
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    @PhoemueX Corresponding author usually just means whoever is in charge of corresponding with the editor. It does not carry any value. May 11 '16 at 18:09
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    @John: I'm definitely talking just about pure mathematics journals. If the paper is published in an applied mathematics or CS venue, then conventions may be different. May 11 '16 at 19:29
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    In some journals, the "corresponding author" is marked somehow. — But in some fields (like mine) "corresponding author" just means "the author that handles the logistics of submission" or "the author with the most stable email address". The designation says nothing about the author's level of contribution to the paper.
    – JeffE
    May 12 '16 at 17:17

I think this may be a very deciding factor in being accepted by a good university for a master program because we can only have a few papers before graduation.

Not being first author in a field where authors are ordered alphabetically won't hurt you. If you're worried that people won't realise the author list is alphabetical, you can always point this out in your application. If the programme you're applying to is in pure mathematics, then the people reviewing applications will know that authors are alphabetical.

I used to have a version of my CV that had the note "Authors are ordered alphabetically" at the top of the publications section. I used that version when I was applying for fellowships and other positions where the people who were making the decisions might not know that my field uses alphabetical order.


...in all of the graph theory journals (and other mathematics journals as well), names of authors are sorted by an alphabetic order...

The rule is not set in stone, even in mathematics. Here's a recent mathematics paper of mine with authors not in alphabetical order:

R. J. Stones, S. Lin, X. Liu, G. Wang, On computing the number of Latin rectangles. Graphs and Combinatorics, 32 (2016) pp. 1187-1202.

While this particular example is not a graph theory paper, it's in a journal that routinely publishes graph theory papers. Nobody (except the authors) even discussed the author order.


My view on this is the same as the one expressed in the answer by Anonymous Mathematician.

In addition, some journals (and also math journals) have the notion of "corresponding author". This is not mean the same thing as "main contributor" but really "author to whom correspondence shall be addressed". This may be the author for which the affiliation will stay valid the longest, but can also be the author who is most competent to answer any questions. Check other publications in the journal (and/or journal guidelines) if your journal of choice has this feature.

  • I agree that the OP should be listed as the corresponding author; however the OP should not get the idea that this means any more credit.
    – Tom Church
    May 11 '16 at 16:02
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    Corresponding author does not imply largest contribution. A supervisor might recommend on being corresponding author, because her contact details are likely to remain correct much longer than the ones of PhD students or postdocs, and she will likely be in the best position to know what happened to them should someone want to contact them 1–10 years later.
    – gerrit
    May 11 '16 at 16:56
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    No. Being corresponding author has nothing whatsoever to do with how much contribution was made to the paper. It often means the author who actually did the journal submission and it's often, as you say, just the author whose email address is likely to stay the same for the longest. May 11 '16 at 17:48
  • @davidricherby I agree and did not mean to say anything different.
    – Dirk
    May 11 '16 at 18:00

I don't know 'graph theory' from the Graf Spree, but I know a bit about publishing conventions. First suggestion (getting outside the box)--if you solved the problem, were you also the principal investigator and writer? If so, would the others agree to the piece being published with you as the sole author, with full acknowledgement of their relative contributions in a footnote? If the answer is 'No', then (second suggestion) publish the authors alphabetically--which seems to be the way of it in your discipline--with an asterisk after your name and a footnote acknowledging you as the team member who solved the problem. If that solution doesn't appeal, then (third suggestion) insert a "Prefatory Note" or "Acknowledgement" page, in which your primary role is detailed.

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    If it's really true that only one author solved the problem, there should be only one author on the paper. May 11 '16 at 17:49
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    Acknowledging yourself in the Acknowledgements section would seem more than a little odd to me.
    – xLeitix
    May 11 '16 at 18:09
  • Others have also contributed, one of the co-authors initiated the research and the other one has helped greatly during the editing.
    – hhoomn
    May 11 '16 at 20:00
  • @hhoomn I am not sure what it means to initiate research in graph theory (but I have a hard time coming up with something that would be sufficient to become a coauthor). Helping with editing is never sufficient to become a coauthor. May 12 '16 at 8:47

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