It's common in my field to have articles with many (>>6) authors including several "co-first authors." For example:

A. Anderson*, B. Brown*, C. Clark, D. Davidson, ..., Z. Zed

* These authors contributed equally to the work.

When citing a paper with many authors in APA style, one would normally use the following citation (Anderson et al. 2017).

However, in this case where there are multiple co-first authors, would it be appropriate to include all co-first authors in the citation e.g., "(Anderson, Brown et al. 2017)"?

Obviously, once there are 4 or more co-first authors, it gets cumbersome to include all of them. Also, I realize that this alternate citation format is by no means necessary if it's even allowed at all. My gut reaction is that this still would be inappropriate since it would look out of place; at the same time, I want to acknowledge all of the main authors' work on this article.

2 Answers 2


Short Answer: You should follow the standard citation style. E.g., "Anderson et al".

As far as I'm aware, there is nothing in APA style that speaks to an exception for the situation where the authors of a paper contribute equally or that set out multiple "first authors".

More generally:

  • Ultimately, author order is a thing that exists independent of contribution. It is often related to size of contribution. In particular, being first author is often related to making the greatest contribution. But disciplines vary substantially in the meaning of author order. And even in fields where first-author usually indicates greatest contribution, authors in other positions sometimes make greater or equivalent contributions. For example, in some cases the first and second author will have contributed equally. It seems more sensible to say that both authors contributed equally than to say that they were both "first authors", because at the end of the day, a reference has to have a canonical order to the authors. So whether the order of authors is determined by contribution, agreement, a coin toss, or a game of croquet, there is an order to the authors, and someone is first.

  • It seems strange that it would be the citing person's responsibility to adopt a citation style that captures every nuance of relative contribution in a given cited paper. An appropriate place to mention relative contribution of authors is in the author note in a paper. More generally, there are a lot of variants on the "co-first-author" scenario. In some cases, authors will note equal contribution or that author order was determined by a coin toss. Ultimately, this could all get very fuzzy.

  • It would make citations and references even more challenging to compile. Relative contribution of authors is not usually encoded in abstract and indexing services. And it is not encoded into reference management software such as Endnote or BibTeX formats as far as I'm aware. So it would be an additional hassle to keep track of these things.

  • The primary goal of citation styles is to unambiguously direct readers to sources. Managing author credit effectively is a secondary goal.

  • 1
    "Managing author credit effectively" might have been a secondary goal initially, but this is what is used nowadays by deciders to direct funding...
    – gaborous
    Oct 11, 2018 at 15:54
  • 3
    This is an interesting interpretation, but ultimately does not answer the question, since there are journals / publishers which do specify a citation policy for joint first authors. I believe the answer to this question is that while some publishers specify such guidelines, the APA specifically seems not to. Also I agree with gaborous; the theoretical considerations of consistent referencing versus the practical implications of what it implies about one's publication activity are two entirely different things. Jun 7, 2020 at 11:43

My take: Language only changes when people change it, and the "authorities" catch up eventually. If you want dual first-authorship to be a thing, you need to CITE IT LIKE ITS A THING. Otherwise, being the second co-first author is functionally no different from being the second author. I believe the most appropriate method is a citation such as "(Anderson & Brown et al., 2017)". Most citation formats can already accommodate listing two or three authors in the in-text citation. There's no reason these two names can't be the co-first authors. This format implies that Anderson and Brown led a study, and others were involved who are omitted for brevity. It rewards the co-first authors with actual ACKNOWLEDGMENT of their contributions, rather than letting most people, who won't read the footnotes on the original study, think that there was only one first author, whoever was listed first. Cite your papers like this and let the editors tell you if they don't like it. Change has to start somewhere.

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