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I am transitioning from junior to senior researcher status. I have several publications as first author, many as coauthor, and a few as senior (last and corresponding) author.

As people perceive differently the role of authors according to their position, especially when looking briefly at a scholarly paper, I am wondering when it is most appropriate to transition from first to senior author.

Does it depend on biologic age, academic age, ranking, tenure, or what else?

My field of interest is cardiovascular research, but I think that a general answer followed by some details on the main different academic fields would be beneficial for ACADEMIA readership.

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    I think this is going to depend a lot on your field. In particular, how much role are graduate students, post-docs, and other junior people likely to play in your ongoing research. This can be very different in different areas. – Buzz Dec 22 '16 at 17:37
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    Can you specify your field? (In my subfield of electrical engineering, the last / "senior" author is the one who obtained the funds.) – Mad Jack Dec 22 '16 at 17:37
  • @Buzz I agree that it is field-dependent, but a general discussion followed by specific details on different fields could be useful. – Joe_74 Dec 22 '16 at 17:42
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    @Joe_74 we don't really do discussion on SE. – StrongBad Dec 22 '16 at 18:48
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    @Joe_74 so called big list questions, which I think of as discussion like you used it, are not a great fit. In this case, I am pretty sure the answer is not field dependent within the subset of fields that have a concept of a senior author. – StrongBad Dec 22 '16 at 18:53
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I think in most fields in which author order denotes the relative level of contribution, while people talk about the last author as being the "senior" author, this is more of an artifact of the fact that the PI of the group generally makes the least contribution to the work. I have never heard of some one striving to be senior/last author. Rather, the author order simply reflects the order of contribution.

If I have the highest academic rank, am the oldest, been in academia the longest, have a name that comes last alphabetically, and obtained the funding, but contributed the most to the project, I would want first authorship. More often than not what happens is people in my lab do most of the work and I make contributions through guiding the research. This generally leads me to making the smallest contribution and naturally being the last author even though I have the highest academic rank, am the oldest, been in academia the longest, have a name that comes first alphabetically.

A related question is when do you start structuring your research program such that you make more less "first author" like contributions. This tends to happen naturally as your time for research decreases and the number of projects that you are involved in increases. Typically this means you have enough funding for a small team of research assistants, PhD students and Postdocs.

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    I think maybe the real question is: How do I decide when in my career it is appropriate to start transitioning away from making "first author" contributions and towards making "last author" contributions? – Nate Eldredge Dec 22 '16 at 19:07
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    @NateEldredge does the edit help? – StrongBad Dec 22 '16 at 19:14
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    This answer might apply to some field but definitely not all; I know many people (in ecology/biology) that strive at (or value) the last/senior author position. And in my experience it is generally not true that "the PI of the group generally makes the least contribution to the work". – fileunderwater Dec 22 '16 at 20:05
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    I'm in a field of applied physics where the PI is always last, regardless of contribution. If there are many PIs on a manuscript, the last position is the most prestigious. – user8001 Dec 22 '16 at 20:11
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+50

For life sciences, usually until you get a faculty position (PI) first-author papers are those that count, and once you get a position last-author papers count.

When I say "papers count", I mean that until you become PI, first-author papers have the most weight when applying for fellowships and faculty positions. For PIs, last-author papers count the most for grants and tenure. By the way, this is not just informal weighting: some institutions and funding agencies explicitly state that only co-first (for pre-PIs) / only co-last (for PIs) papers count, and if there is an exception you need to justify it.

So I think that if this applies to your field, the transition point is well-defined. However there may be grey areas (for example in countries where there are intermediate positions such as "super postdocs").

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In my experience, regarding fields in Faculty of Science ( biology, chemistry, physics, geog...etc ) it is requered by the statute, that if you are the associate professor, you need to have certain amount of senior authorship. Regarding research institutes, as far as I know, if you are PI you are always the senior author, a corresponding author can vary but usually is from person that was most involved in research. my university, not allow students ( PhD candidates ) to be senior or corresponding author. Some institutions, make differences between first, co-author, senior and corresponding author. General advice is to make sure at your institution what are rules, or in your coutry.

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Depends on the culture of a particular field. Some fields use alphabetic order to remove this problem, so there is no one true answer, if you do not specify the field you are participating. You may take the answer of a StrongBad as a good rule of thumb.

In short, the first person is the one that actually wrote the paper. The later ones have an order of contribution/hierarchy/original idea for the paper/you name it...

And the particular culture really changes how to give an answer to your question.

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