In some fields, authors of a paper are not ordered alphabetically; rather, their order carries some meaning related to the authors' contributions to the work. See What does first authorship really mean? for more details. In these fields, readers of a paper make certain assumptions about the role of each author, depending on their placement in the author list.

For example, in my field, the first author is typically the person who was the "main" contributor, and the last author is typically the person with the greatest supervisory role or the head of the research group where the research was carried out. The middle authors are the least important. Thus if my name is first in the author list, readers of my paper who are familiar with conventions in the field will assume that I was the main contributor to the work.

Under these circumstances, is it ethically problematic to use a different author order, assuming this is acceptable to the authors? (Putting aside issues of who does and doesn't deserve to be an author; let's assume all of the authors have sufficient contribution to be considered authors, and we are only concerned with order.) Do I have an ethical responsibility to protest if this happens on a paper where I am a co-author?

For example, suppose I co-author a paper with an undergraduate research assistant, and I do most of the work. According to conventions in my field, I should be listed as the first author. But maybe I don't really need this first-author paper, and my undergraduate student does (it would really help him get into graduate school), and I'd happily give up first authorship so that he can have it. Is this ethically problematic?

Or, suppose a senior author, Prof. Z, wants to be last on the author list. If Prof. Z is listed as the last author, the paper will be thought of as having "come from Prof. Z's group". The author who really should be last (based on having been the main supervisor contributor), Prof. Y, is OK with this arrangement (as a favor to Prof. Z, or to avoid an argument). Is it problematic to give last authorship to someone who doesn't really deserve it in this case, and should other co-authors insist on the conventional ordering?

The potential ethical issue is that readers may be misled about the role of the authors, if the order doesn't reflect the contributions that will be assumed based on conventions in the field. I'm not sure if this is a real problem, or if I'm overthinking it, though.

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    When it comes to academia, lots of things only seem unethical if you think them through carefully. But if you reorder the authors with the intention of giving readers the wrong idea about who did the brunt of the work: sure, sounds (at least a bit) unethical to me. What's the other side's argument here? – Pete L. Clark May 30 '16 at 22:47
  • @PeteL.Clark The student who would have to tell a very senior professor, "No, you can't be the last author even if the guy who should be says it's OK" is probably going to earn an enemy in the process. (That's the specific situation that prompted this question.) How much of an obligation does he have to stick to the "conventional" ordering here? – ff524 May 30 '16 at 22:51
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    Hmm, this feels a bit "meta-ethical" to me. Something can be unethical, and it may not be practical for a very junior person to insist on it or even draw stark attention to it. Are you asking whether ignoring what is ethical for practical reasons is ethical? (I'm getting slightly confused...) Anyway, how does this apply in your first example? "Aren't you you" in your example? – Pete L. Clark May 30 '16 at 22:57
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    Well, misleading academics into overestimating someone's contribution is not a victimless crime: the victims are everyone else in the academic community. In the case of the undergraduate: it seems like you are asking about giving a dishonest advantage to the undergraduate over all the other applicants whose mentors were honest (or more honest) about their students' contributions. I think one would only contemplate doing this because one hopes it will have some effect. But the effect that it has seems to be unethical. I can't say it's an enormo deal, but it doesn't sound kosher to me. – Pete L. Clark May 30 '16 at 23:06
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    For me, it is only the first scenario that corresponds to something in my experience. It seems pretty clear that it is unethical (unless sufficiently many other people in your field do the same thing, at which point it becomes the convention). I have zero experience with the pride of place being last author, so I probably shouldn't comment further about that. Shouldn't but I will say one thing: it sounds like Prof. Z may be claiming more seniority, but not necessarily more work on the paper. If other authors are okay with this, it does seem less clear who is victimized here. – Pete L. Clark May 30 '16 at 23:18

I don't think you're overthinking this. If your authorship decisions are made with the intention to mislead others about the respective roles and contributions of the various authors, then yes, I'd say that is pretty clearly unethical. For instance, your first example can be reasonably interpreted as a mild form of gift authorship.

It's also important to remember that authorship of papers can have real consequences to people's careers. An example that comes to mind is the Alpher-Bethe-Gamow paper, a famous paper in cosmology that provided one of the early theoretical analyses supporting the big bang theory. The work that led to the paper was part of Ralph Alpher's dissertation work under George Gamow. Gamow, who was already a well-known physicist at the time, had the idea to add the name of his friend Hans Bethe (an even more famous physicist) as a coauthor purely as a joke to make the list of authors sound like "alpha-beta-gamma". This didn't work out so well for his student Alpher. The Wikipedia article I linked to above says:

Alpher, at the time only a graduate student, was generally dismayed by the inclusion of Bethe's name on this paper. He 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. He expressed resentment over Gamow's whimsy as late as 1999.

Simon Singh (in whose wonderful book "Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe" I originally read this story), also writes in this article:

Gamow and Bethe were then both famous names in the world of physics, so scientists assumed that it was they who had done the bulk of the work, which meant that young Alpher was ignored. In the decades ahead, the formation of helium in the wake of the Big Bang would become one of the key pieces of evidence to support the Big Bang hypothesis, but few would remember Alpher's contribution.

To summarize, since the conventions surrounding author order vary across disciplines and are inherently somewhat vague, someone who wants to manipulate author order in one of their papers to give a small boost to someone's career will probably have enough plausible deniability to get away with it without anyone making a fuss. But it shouldn't be done without a very good reason, would be unethical if done out of a dishonest motivation, and can be potentially harmful even if done for innocent or whimsical reasons.

  • Do you have any thoughts on the second scenario? Pete L. Clark seems to find it less problematic than the first. – ff524 May 30 '16 at 23:23
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    @ff524: Yeah, but I'm just thus guy, you know? It is far out of my own experience. – Pete L. Clark May 30 '16 at 23:24
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    @ff524 I see. In that case it again feels pretty clearly unethical to me, as there is an intention to mislead others. Note that I say this from my position of moral luxury as someone who publishes in math journals where author order is alphabetical and no one needs to think about such insane political nonsense as whose lab a paper is seen to be coming out of. So I can afford to have high (perhaps unrealistically high from your point of view) standards about such things. Anyway, my opinion (for the little that it's worth) is that it's unethical. – Dan Romik May 30 '16 at 23:44
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    @ff534: surely the difference between willingly giving someone credit they don't deserve (at whatever level: being an author at all, being first author, being last author) and unwillingly doing so, is significant to the ethics of the situation concerning how you're treating the person who did deserve the credit, but it's not significant to the ethics concerning how you're treating readers, and that's why in academia you're not allowed to give away academic credit: the readers don't let you. – Steve Jessop May 31 '16 at 12:56
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    ... In some hypothetical situation where author order indicated something that genuinely can be given away freely, like "muggins who gets correspondence" then willingness of other authors would resolve it. The same might apply if your field somehow considers "coming from Prof Z's group" not to be a matter of academic credit. But I naively suppose that who wore what hat at what time under whose authority actually is more than a matter of pure admin that could ethically be negotiated, and does have incidental academic significance, just like e.g. funding sources do. – Steve Jessop May 31 '16 at 13:02

I think that yes, there is an ethical obligation to make the author order reflect the conventions of the field in order not to mislead about the relative contributions of each author. I would make an exception, though, to err a little on the side of generosity when calculating the relative contributions of students.

I personally know of a few cases where convention has not been followed, and it always causes problems. Examples include:

  1. The main contributor was asked if she minded being second author so that a colleague who was coming up for a tenure assessment could be listed as lead author. In return, she was assured she would be given a similar favour when it was her turn. She agreed, not wishing to offend. The colleague won his tenure but after that relations between the two broke down and she never did have her "turn". Victims here:

    • the main contributor, whose career suffered from not having this important paper recognised as her work;
    • the colleague's employer, who was misled about his contibution when deciding whether to award him tenure;
    • Other young scientists in the field, who might have had an opportunity open to them had this man missed out on tenure.
  2. A greedy PhD advisor listed himself as the lead author on the papers prepared by his student. The student "agreed" with the proposed order of authorship, but did not understand the conventions of the field or the degree to which not having first-author publications would affect his job prospects after graduation. Even had he understood, he would not have felt able to say "no" to his advisor.

  3. A generous PhD advisor lists his students as lead authors of all his own papers, even if their contribution has been very small. He has tenure, and no-longer needs lead authorship. His PhD students benefit from the extra lead-author publications on their CVs and he benefits from the subsequent success of his students. Who loses out here? The students competing with those students for academic positions after they graduate, who do not have the benefit of artificially inflated CVs.

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    "Who loses out here? The students competing" -- and the employers who get a classic bait-and-switch scam run on them, where they think they're employing the author of a paper but actually get the typist. – Steve Jessop May 31 '16 at 13:08

It's certainly unethical to deliberately give the wrong impression in order to obtain, or to offer to someone else, a career advantage that would not be available if the truth were known. This is a general principle, not restricted to author ordering, but it includes offering first authorship to a junior collaborator who could really benefit from it but does not meet the usual requirements for first authorship. This is not as bad as offering authorship to people who didn't contribute at all, but it's a smaller misdeed in the same continuum. (I'm assuming the field doesn't have a well-known tradition of making junior coauthors the first author, in which case this could be fine. The issue is whether readers would be surprised if they found out the truth.)

It's less dramatically unethical, but still problematic, to allow a misleading situation to occur for other reasons, such as an eccentric desire for a particular author ordering that is not based on career considerations.

One partial solution is to include an explicit discussion of the ordering (in an author contribution section if that is standard in your field, or perhaps in a footnote on the first page). For example, "The authors are listed in alphabetical order" or "The authors are listed in order by seniority, with the junior author first". The ordering could still mislead people who see only a citation, so this is not a perfect solution, but it at least makes the meaning publicly known to anyone who actually reads the paper.

It also puts pressure on people to avoid situations that might look bad. I would be suspicious of anyone who wants a non-standard author ordering but is unwilling to explain the rationale behind it in the paper.

Is it problematic to give last authorship to someone who doesn't really deserve it in this case, and should other co-authors insist on the conventional ordering?

For the latter question, it depends on the costs of doing so. I'd say it's worth objecting if the only cost is a mildly awkward conversation, but not if the cost is serious career jeopardy; where to draw the line between these extremes is a personal judgment call. Estimating the risk on this scale of course depends on the particular people involved.

I want to somewhat disagree with what others have said. If we always follow conventions, then we can never change them, even if we think they are wrong.

My field has the same credit based author order convention as you describe, but many people are agitating to get rid of it in favour of alphabetical order (sometimes with micro-attribution of particular parts of the paper).

What is important is not to mislead people. If authorship is indeed alphabetical, this should be indicated on the paper (most journals will allow an * with a note that authorship is alphabetical).

For last author it is formally which author is "corresponding author" that matters, not which is last. I've seen cases where one author is listed last, but a different author is marked as corresponding. Again, as long as this is upfront, I don't see a problem with it.

The final point is that all authors should agree the order. If you feel you are being forced to give up credit that you don't want to, you should not agree to the order proposed.

There's a more general form of this question, and then your specific examples.

Is there a general obligation to make sure your papers are in the authorship order for your field: I think there is an obligation to abide by the norms of your field - while there is some give and take if you're publishing outside your field (for example, some biomedical researchers and some CS researchers working together) that might mean that some of your work uses a different authorship scheme, in general if people are expecting a thing to be one way, and that thing is important, then you need a good reason for it not to be that way.

In your specific examples, both are depending on field-specific norms in order to deceive or imply something different, and definitely qualify as "lies of omission". I'd argue both are inappropriate.

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