I am PhD student in mathematics and am writing a joint paper with a computer science PhD student. As we will submit the paper to a computer science journal we discussed the author ordering and agreed to equal distributions for us PhD students and our respective supervisors.

The computer science student has now ordered the author names in an non-alphabetical order for us PhD students, which makes him the first author, and an alphabetical order for the supervisors, which makes his professor the last author.

Is this common practice in computer sciences? I can understand that it is their community, but this confuses me. I think it should be at least in the same order for both categories.

My supervisor told me to talk to the other PhD student. How can I address this issue without offending anyone?

How does equal distribution authorship in computer science work, anyway?

Edit: I just don't want to be fooled. I understand that being first author is important in computer science, this is why we decided to have both PhD students as co-first authors. Our supervisors are co-last authors. Having a non-alphabetical order for the PhD students and an alphabetical order for the supervisors seems to abolish this equal distributions again to me. I just have no idea how this equal distribution thing works and how to address this issue without messing up everything. I am not sure if we PhD students will work together again, but I could imagine that our supervisors do.

  • 2
    I'd first ask what it is that you'd like to achieve by any action you take? Is the ideal outcome that you become first author? Will you do further collaborative work where you can alternate first authorship?
    – kwah
    Oct 17, 2016 at 16:16
  • "... discussed the author ordering and agreed to equal distributions for us PhD students and our respective supervisors." What did you agree on?
    – Karl
    Oct 17, 2016 at 16:39
  • Added answers to kwah's questions. This should also answer Karl's question.
    – mekidozut
    Oct 17, 2016 at 21:02
  • The "hierarchial" ordering you're proposing, with authors sorted in distinct ways within each group, seems way overcomplicated. Nobody is going to be able to read the author list and be able to extract the kind of information you're trying to encode there. Unless this other PhD student made a dramatically huge contribution compared to everyone else, I would be inclined to just order everyone alphabetically and be done with it. Include a note saying "Authors are listed alphabetically" so Prof. Aaaaarhus doesn't seem to benefit unduly. Oct 18, 2016 at 0:32
  • 1
    I understand that being first author is important in computer science -- That really depends pn what kind of computer science. At the more mathematical ends of CS (like mine), authors are alphabetical, period.
    – JeffE
    Oct 18, 2016 at 3:11

2 Answers 2


Go with your supervisor's advice, talk to the Computer Science student and ask him/her, in a very gentle manner, why the authors were ordered the way they were rather than alphabetic in both sections. This is the norm for equal distributions. Can't imagine what reason the other student would have to go a difference way. If he/she does not have a very good reason, ask them to reorder the names in alphabetical order. If they do not comply, you can always ask them, again, in an email copied to the supervisors. At all times, exercise grace and patience - being firm but gentle gets results much more often and burns bridges much less often.

PS: be very careful if you ask that student in an email. Written communication on what could be a negative issue, will by default come across as confrontational. Even if you are not trying to, they will usually see it as you confronting them on something they did that was non-kosher. So if you do email him/her, make extra efforts to explicitly communicate a non-confrontational tone. Maybe start by thanking them for their work in the paper and telling them how much you appreciated the opportunity to work on it as well. Make your question about author order very light, do not point out his/her name came first, just that it was not in alphabetical order and you are wondering why that is, especially since you note the advisors are ordered alphabetically.

  • 1
    @Karl - you are assuming that a question is only for eliciting a useful answer, a query, and neglecting what illocutionary force brings to the table. Rhetorical questions, for example, are not asked to get a gainful answer, but to highlight a fact that is assumed as shared knowledge. In this case, the question would be neither query nor rethorical. In this case, the question is used for its pragmatic effect - softens the initial communication. It still says "I have noticed what you did and do not agree", but in a more gentle way, giving him/her a chance to change without confrontation.
    – user51808
    Oct 17, 2016 at 16:57
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    @Karl - and "best way is probably to toss coins." I could not disagree more. I see an article with author names in random order and I think they must be ordered by importance - i.e. contribution. I see an article with authors ordered alphabetical and I think the order means nothing... it's just alphabetical. There is a reason why people want to be first. Random order is foolish, accomplishes nothing and could miscommunicate.
    – user51808
    Oct 17, 2016 at 17:02
  • @Karl - Nonsense. A potentially embarrassing question can be asked in a gentle enough way as to be way more kind than jumping to a face to face confrontation which will be far more likely to be seen as immediately confrontational. And, who said not to be interested in the answer. Second point: If there are two names, you can see whether they are in alphabetical order or not. It is not hard.
    – user51808
    Oct 18, 2016 at 15:05
  • @Karl, do John and Scott have last names? If they are like Madonna and have only one name, then, in that order, yes they are in alphabetical order - J comes before S. I don't know if that is what you wanted to do, but I do know that is what you did, in case your concern is with intent.
    – user51808
    Oct 18, 2016 at 22:13

Ask the editor. It's unlikely you're the first to submit a paper with two authors who have contributed equally.

If the publishers have no policy how to tell the reader about this, push them to make one.

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