I'm in physics where the order of authors is meaningful. The first author is the lead author and the last author is the principal investigator. I am an undergraduate who has collaborated on a topic with two post docs and a professor. We are nearly ready to submit the paper to a top journal (Nature physics).

I proposed the topic after I discovered a huge idea in the field. I proved a variety of theorems and generated the supporting data independently. I used post doc 1s previous work in the paper - but it has already been published. Post doc 2 made a very small contribution, the other has contributed significantly more. I wrote the "main results", "applications" and "technical discussion" section. Post doc 1 wrote the intro, conclusion, abstract and a minor background section. The appendix is very long and I wrote 90% of it. The proof techniques and methods are my own creation with no input from any one else. Post doc 1 has helped greatly in improving my presentation since he has far more experience than me in writing papers (I have never written one). Post doc 1 made a lot of edits and helped restructure some arguments for clarity of presentation.

The paper has just been posted online to Arxiv. I am second to last author. Post doc 1 made himself first author. I have read a number of articles on the topic and since I contributed the most I believe I should be first author. What is the best way for me to approach the situation? I really feel like I am being ripped off. 3rd author could be given to any undergrad and I imagine the difference for grad school/future career could be substantial. Thanks!

  • 4
    Talk to your supervisor ASAP. Are you sure author order is not alphabetical? Some subareas of physics do so.
    – Shake Baby
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 5:51
  • 1
    I wasn't aware Nature Physics ever publishes theorems and proofs. Commented May 12, 2017 at 6:41
  • @ShakeBaby I am certain since none of the other names are in that ordering. Also every publication my supervisor has been on recently has him as last. It is definitely the convention. AnonymousPhysicist It is very physically relevant for many experimentalists and theoreticians alike. There are 2 main theorems and nearly all the proofs fall into supplemental material.
    – user417833
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 6:54
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    And OP, if you're an undergrad publishing in a Nature journal, I really don't think your author position will matter that much in terms of PhD applications. Commented May 12, 2017 at 10:33
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    From the OPs description, I could easily make an argument that the post doc could say that they substantially guided the effort and had to work a lot on the research and paper to get it in to good shape.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 13:27

1 Answer 1


You should openly discuss your concern with the co-authors. As a matter of fact, all co-authors have to agree on the author order before submission. Nature Physics requires a statement of authors's contributions and this the ground you can use to initiate the conversation. According to what you wrote, you deserve to be the first author and the postdoc should be the corresponding author, which is often regarded as equally important as the first author. Your PI should be the one who makes the final decision. Also, he does not neccessarily have to be the last author, if he did not make substantial contributions to the project. For your situation, the reasonable author order that would make everyone happy is: you, everyone else, the postdoc. There might be political game involved. In that case, be prepared to fight for your rights.

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    I am not saying this is the case here: but in quite a few cases, undergraduates substantially overestimate their contribution, not realising how much contribution there is in setting context, direction, scientific environment right to the spot where an undergraduate can make real and material inroads. Of course, OP may be just as brilliant as they represent themselves. Asking the right question may be no less of a contribution than answering it (without diminishing the importance of the latter). Commented May 12, 2017 at 19:00

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