I'm doing research in two different subfields, one of which usually orders names alphabetically and one of which usually orders by contribution. My last name starts with Z, so I'll always be last author in the former field. Both fields are close enough to the divide that it's not clear to an outsider which convention they would use.

How can I point this out in my CV? I can see three options:

  • Don't do anything, and just be last author on half of the papers.
  • Write "the author listings in items 2, 4, and 7 are alphabetical", which feels tacky.
  • Write "the author listings in papers in this subfield are alphabetical", which also feels tacky.

Is there anything else I could do? Should I be worrying about this at all?

  • Possible duplicate of What does author order indicate? – Darrin Thomas Jul 26 '16 at 22:25
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    @DarrinThomas I don't think so. That question is about the many things author order can mean. My question is about etiquette in dealing with a situation where two of those meanings are present. – knzhou Jul 26 '16 at 22:27
  • I have seen grant calls, I can't remember now if the Academy of Finland or the ERC ones, where you are requested to explain what the ordering convention is when you compile your list of publications. In general, I think anything that helps make a fairer evaluation of the candidate will (or at least should) be appreciated by the committee. – Miguel Jul 27 '16 at 6:33

I would suggest adding a remark like the following to your list of publications in your CV.

I publish in multiple fields, with different standards for ordering authors, some ordering by contribution and others ordering alphabetically. In the list below, first authors are indicated in bold when authors are ordered by contribution; the symbol = indicates a paper with alphabetically-ordered authors.

[1] Bozo T. Clown and K. N. Zhao. This is a chemistry paper. Science, 2014.

=[2] Bozo T. Clown and K. N. Zhao. This is a mathematics paper. Annals of Mathematics, 2016.

[3] K. N. Zhao and 4278 others. Higgs bosons are made of cheese. Nature 2020.

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    My institution encourages everyone to include a note explaining author-order conventions for their field on the CVs submitted in tenure/promotion files. I happen to know that least one colleague of mine, an applied mathematician who frequently publishes in biology journals, used essentially the system suggested by JeffE when preparing his CV for his tenure file. – Mark Meckes Jul 28 '16 at 13:39

If this is for a job search/promotion: one way around it is to find yourself a champion to explain the situation for you, and leave it out of the CV. Your champion could be a (senior) collaborator who is writing a recommendation letter for you, or in the case of a tenure promotion, your department chair.

You can ask them to include a line when describing your most significant works explaining the conventions, something like:

In article [3] which I worked on together with Dr Zhou, he made the important contribution .... (footnote: conventionally the journal in which the research was published list authors alphabetically and not by contribution).

If it is not for a job search/promotion: I don't see why random reader of you CV would care.

Incidentally: I am quite surprised to hear the particle phenomenology orders by contribution; it is close enough to theoretical HEP that I would've thought the opposite (most articles on arXiv/hep-ph are listed alphabetically).

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  • Thanks for the advice! That makes sense, I'll ask my recommendation letter writers about it. This is for grad school apps, but I left the level ambiguous to make the question more general. Pheno is by author name; the other field is biophysics. – knzhou Jul 27 '16 at 2:04
  • @knzhou If you think this answer is useful, please give it upvote. In my opinion, this answer is very useful for people with last name started with last English letters (Z, W or Y) and working on different subfields with different authorship conventions. – scaaahu Jul 27 '16 at 2:25
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    @knzhou: Ah ha! Your profile said pheno and math, so I assumed wrongly. :-) For grad school apps you don't need to worry that much. If you are an author on (multiple) publications, you are already so far ahead of the game that any other optimization is probably just a waste of your time. You are better off just contacting potential advisors directly. – Willie Wong Jul 27 '16 at 13:14

The concern here is that someone reading your CV may think that you have never had the lead role in a research project that led to publication. This is something that should be addressed in your recommendation letters. Your recommenders can say

"Dr. X spearheaded project Y and made the most significant contributions; of course she is listed as last author because in field Z we always order authors alphabetically."

It doesn't sound tacky coming from the recommender, whereas (as you correctly believe) it would coming from you. You should speak with your recommender(s) in field Z and make sure they raise this point in their letters. They can also make comments regarding your independence and leadership as a researcher in general.

You can also address this indirectly in your research statement, by referring to some of the papers where you are last author and describing the magnitude of your contributions to them.

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If you are the corresponding author of an article in which the author list are ordered alphabetically, it would be advisable to do the following:

Assume the name Zeta

In the paper:

Alphonse, Betty, Charlie, ... Zeta*

Add in footnote/address field (depending on the paper format),

*Corresponding author

In the CV, include two subdivision in the publication section:

Articles with authors ordered by contribution:


Articles with authors alphabetically ordered:

  • Alphonse, Betty, Charlie, ... Zeta*
  • Aalan, Banners, Conor*, ... Zeta
  • Dan, Ein, Ferry, Zeta*
  • ...

*Corresponding author

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    In theoretical CS (and presumably math), where we always order authors alphabetically, "corresponding author" carries no prestige whatsoever. It just means "the author that submitted the paper". – JeffE Jul 28 '16 at 4:16
  • @JeffE: Yes, that's also true in pure math. – Mark Meckes Jul 28 '16 at 13:34

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