I just noticed a weird aspect about this paper (which was of interest here and recently came up again here). If you look at the author list, it reads

L. P. Gaffney, P. A. Butler, M. Scheck, A. B. Hayes, F. Wenander, M. Albers, B. Bastin, C. Bauer, A. Blazhev, S. Bönig, N. Bree, J. Cederkäll, T. Chupp, D. Cline, T. E. Cocolios, T. Davinson, H. De Witte, J. Diriken, T. Grahn, A. Herzan, M. Huyse, D. G. Jenkins, D. T. Joss, N. Kesteloot, J. Konki, M. Kowalczyk, Th. Kröll, E. Kwan, R. Lutter, K. Moschner, P. Napiorkowski, J. Pakarinen, M. Pfeiffer, D. Radeck, P. Reiter, K. Reynders, S. V. Rigby, L. M. Robledo, M. Rudigier, S. Sambi, M. Seidlitz, B. Siebeck, T. Stora, P. Thoele, P. Van Duppen, M. J. Vermeulen, M. von Schmid, D. Voulot, N. Warr, K. Wimmer, K. Wrzosek-Lipska, C. Y. Wu and M. Zielinska

In particular, it splits into an initial, non-alphabetic component,

L. P. Gaffney, P. A. Butler, M. Scheck, A. B. Hayes, F. Wenander

and then an alphabetic list from M. Albers through M. Zielinska.

How should I interpret this authorship convention? What fields is it used in, and to what purpose? My initial reaction would be to assign to the initial component a ranking down in 'importance' more akin to the "first author did most of the work, middle authors supported, and last author sponsored and oversaw the work" convention used in fields with smaller collaborations (at least in physics), but that leaves the alphabetic component in an awkward position, so I'm not sure my interpretation is right.

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    I think it depends on why you need to interpret the list. – StrongBad Jul 6 '16 at 11:10
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    @StrongBad In this particular example, it's mostly curiosity. (In particular, I'd like to get a feel for the role of one team member of this and a later paper, whose statements on a press release seem to me to be misaligned with what's actually in the paper.) On the other hand, I imagine this question would also be useful for people evaluating publications like this one on other (e.g. hiring) grounds to get an initial feel for the role of a given author in a collaboration. – E.P. Jul 6 '16 at 11:12
  • Notice anyway that at the end of the paper there is a statement about the individual contributions. – Massimo Ortolano Jul 6 '16 at 15:50
  • @Massimo d'oh, of course. The question still retains much of its interest, though, I think. And the second paper has no such statement. – E.P. Jul 6 '16 at 16:27
  • By chance M.Wenander was not M. Aenander.It would have been difficult to know in what list he were supposed to be ... – Ratbert Jul 6 '16 at 19:20

How should I interpret this authorship convention?

The non-alphabetic people are primary contributors, with their own ordering, while the alphabetic ones all worked together to contribute something that lead to the paper. It might be impractical or undesired to rank authors within the latter group.

You can't assume too much more than this. For example, the last non-alphabetical author need not have been a funder, but could simply have been the least important of the contributors who actually input text into the paper. Also, it's entirely possibly for there to be multiple alphabetic sections, ordered relative to each other based on which contributed component was most pertinent.

What fields is it used in, and to what purpose?

Observational astronomy, for one. I know firsthand since I have just such a paper. The author order is this:

  1. Primary contributors. Those who did the primary analysis and wrote the paper, in order of who did the most work.
  2. The leaders of the subgroup of the larger collaboration directly involved in this branch of science (here the Type Ia supernova people in a group looking at all transient phenomena in the sky). The order here is also non-alphabetical, and somewhat pre-arranged in the collaboration.
  3. The builders of the collaboration, in alphabetical order. Those responsible for setting up the instruments and data pipeline and such.
  4. The data reducers, in alphabetical order. Those who manually slogged through the raw data at the level of instrumental considerations, getting it into shape so that later reductions at the level of astrophysical interpretation could be done.

I'm sure there are other fields where this also applies. I would expect to see it wherever there is a large group behind the scenes (so ordering based on anything other than alphabetical becomes impractical), but where there is a small group writing each focused paper.

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  • How standard is that convention within that field? Given that you went to the trouble of having a ~three-part list, would you expect an analogous researcher in a similar group in a related subfield to be able to interpret it? Say, suppose they want to identify the group leaders to contact them after a few years, or tell whether a candidate was a 'builder' or a 'data reducer'. – E.P. Jul 6 '16 at 19:23
  • Things aren't so standardized. Someone could probably tell "Group A did one task collectively, and Group B did another, and probably one of them was reducing data." – user4512 Jul 6 '16 at 19:32
  • OK, yeah, that makes sense. – E.P. Jul 6 '16 at 19:33
  • FWIW I use ~the same convention in theoretical astrophysics: adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2015MNRAS.452.3650O, with the first two authors having done most of the work directly on the manuscript, then two alphabetical sections for two collaborations involved, the first heavily, the second mostly by contributing an important private code (& related support). – Kyle Jul 6 '16 at 22:12

How should I interpret this authorship convention?

The first (non-alphabetic) authors are likely the main contributors in order of contribution significance as you guessed. Starting from the alphabetic ordering the authors would be those with lesser contributions (but equal to each other).

What fields is it used in, and to what purpose?

I do not know what fields this is specific to, but I would not be surprised if this is a common strategy for papers with many authors irrespective of the field. Ordering a long list of authors with equivalent contributions in some manner simply seems sensible and alphabetic ordering is a simple and common ordering scheme. Unless the publisher has a policy on how this should be handled, alphabetic ordering seems to be a simple go-to strategy.

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    This is precisely the convention we've used on papers I've been on with this type of structure. – jakebeal Jul 6 '16 at 13:50
  • @jakebeal And what field did you work in? – Mario Carneiro Jul 6 '16 at 23:36
  • This has been my experience in both computer science and synthetic biology. – jakebeal Jul 6 '16 at 23:38

I would make an ideological suggestion: Don't interpret it at all.

I believe that the custom of choosing author list positions to express degrees of contribution, seniority, who-is-whose-daddy etc. is unbecoming and should be discouraged in favor of alphabetical author lists. To this end I would suggest applying a sort of "color-blindness" to the order of listing.

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    This doesn't answer the question. If the authors intended to communicate something by the ordering (and they clearly did) it is worth understanding what and why before you choose whether or not to ignore it. – Richard Rast Jul 6 '16 at 14:52
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    For a small number of authors the order does not matter much. In this case however it is a good indicator of which of the many authors may be most useful to get in contact with for questions. An indicator of a corresponding author is another solution, but this is not always present for example it is not in the paper linked by the OP. – J. Doe Jul 6 '16 at 14:57
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    @einplokum How can you know whether something is worth understanding, if you don't understand what it is? You argue it's unbecoming, which is indicative only of etiquette, but clearly other fields don't have the same social conventions as yours. If you choose to misunderstand or fail to understand based on applying irrelevant social conventions, how can that have value? – Richard Rast Jul 6 '16 at 17:04
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    @J.Doe Actually, this paper does list a corresponding author. – user29175 Jul 6 '16 at 17:39
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    @Benjamin I stand corrected! I overlooked it since I'm used to this information being on the front page. – J. Doe Jul 7 '16 at 7:48

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