I have completed experimental research on a novel topic. I was the instigator of the direction of the research and the one to find the results. Then, theoretical work was performed to support my experiments. While the theory confirmed all my work, there was nothing original or new in the theoretical support. I wrote the paper and drafted the manuscript.

The group supervisor wants the theory paper to have the theory researcher as first author. The group leader's arguments is that "there will be two papers, so share the first authorship".

I think this is unfair. Why should I have to share my work just because there will be two papers out of it?!

I am asking for guidance on this. In particular as scientific supervisors, is it fair to put the main researcher as an "et al", just because someone else in the group has not got a paper?

  • 4
    I tried to frame the question more generally. However, I still struggled a bit to work out what is the general question. Obviously, a lot of the issue comes down to whether your judgement of whether the theory contribution is much less than yours is shared by others. I'm not saying you're wrong. I just imagine that it might be good to get an outside perspective on this issue. Aug 15, 2016 at 8:03
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    ...theoretical work was performed to support my experiments. Using passive voice to obfuscate the actor is fine in a research paper, but here it adds ambiguity. Who performed the theoretical work - you, or the "theory guy"? It seems clear you wrote both papers, but did you also do the work? Was the "theory guy" someone you went to for help or guidance, or did he actually originate the work in the paper? If the latter, it's pretty clear that he should be first author.
    – J...
    Aug 15, 2016 at 10:26
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    I remember when I was on an academic placement and a fellow student was belittling my theoretical/simulation based project. When came to him having to simulating something for his experimental project he told me how much harder it was than he expected! Don't assume there's not effort put in or that there's nothing new done by the theorist! Aug 15, 2016 at 15:48
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    "there was nothing original or new in the theoretical support" is a statement about the quality of that paper, but not relevant in assigning authorship for that paper, it still matters who did the research on it.
    – Peteris
    Aug 15, 2016 at 20:40
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    I'm probably out of touch with your reality, but translated to mathematics your story sounds like this. "I conjectured something, I verified it for a huge amount of cases, but not all. Someone else came and provided a proof for my conjecture. I think my contribution is more valuable." And in mathematics this is ridiculous.
    – Git Gud
    Aug 16, 2016 at 8:37

3 Answers 3


Generally speaking, it is infeasible for us to judge whether authorship or the order of authors on any given project is "fair", as all of those depend a great deal on discipline and the particularities of any given project.

That being said, from the little text you provide the 1/1 split does sound fair. There are two papers coming out of the work, one experimental and the other theoretical. The person who did the experiments first-authors the experimental one, the "theory guy" leads the theory paper. So far, so good, I would say.

You say that there was "nothing new" in the theoretical work. This seems highly unlikely to me, what would even go into the theory paper if that was indeed the case? In general, providing a solid theoretical basis to experimentally observed results is a very valuable contribution, that you maybe need to learn to value higher. Sometimes the theoretical methods to achieve this are straight-forward, but this does not diminish their value for your project.

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    Taking a look at it from the other perspective, the "theory guy" might think that his part is what required a lot of ingenuity, while performing experiments could be done by anyone, requiring no more ability than to follow instructions.
    – vsz
    Aug 15, 2016 at 15:18
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    OP said that the experiments came BEFORE the theory. If this is not clearly stated in the two papers, others might think OP just followed the theory, rather than originated the idea.
    – jf328
    Aug 16, 2016 at 12:37

I kind of agree with previous answers. If there is a second paper with theoretical aspects, the person doing this aspects should be first author. You need to question yourself: "Would you have been able to write the second paper without the second researchers influence?", if yes "How much time would you have needed to do so without him.", "How much time did the second researcher spent on this topic?"

The unfair part is, that you seem to have done already all the writing work. This should in general the main authors duty. Did you also do the literature research to back up the theoretical aspects? Did you summarize in material and methods what has been done without the second researcher?

You wrote that there is no novelty in the theoretical aspects. If this is truely the case, then this paper should be considered anyway unethical, e.g. it should not happen at all. Why to publish trivia, why you care about? It is always easy to say this is trivial, when you got presented the results in a polished form. The underlying model is quite simple to understand. But how many other models you do not think of have been tried out to get to this point?

Anyway, the best thing to do is to communicate. First with the theoretical researcher. He is not your boss, you can presumingly talk more open to him. If you find a solution which satisfies both your desires, go together with him to your boss to back you up. If you do not find an agreement, make sure at least that the writing aspect (you did the work here) is communicated to your boss. You only did that part in the expectation to be first author.


First of all, thank you for not sharing all the details about the subordination within the group. To my opinion, it is largely irrelevant whether you are a bachelor student or a senior postdoc. These facts should not have any influence on the author list.

For your actual question, I have experienced several times that in such "shared" papers, only the first manuscript makes to the publication. So you might end up with a single paper where you are not the first author.

Therefore, do agree to share your first place if you believe in the future fruitful long-standing collaboration with these theorists, if you trust their altruism and honesty, if you believe you can harvest more than one paper out of such collaboration (not an unheard thing).

However, do not be afraid to defend your first place. It shows your confidence in your work and determination to pursue further goals in science, and will minimize further occurrences of such "fair offers" in the future.

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