I am trying to publish a paper based on my MSc. thesis in software engineering. I have considered myself, as the first name of the paper, and my supervisor as the second one, since I was the person behind everything. He was much concern about the structure of the thesis, and in scientific contribution, his share was something around %16.

But someone told me, a supervisor should always be the first name, because he has supervised the research. Is it true? But, i think it is not fair?

The questions are:

1- Does the order of authors' names convey some message?

2- Is it true that supervisor should be the first name?

  • It depends on the field but in most fields (please check if your is an exception), the first author is the person who did most of the work / wrote the paper. Supervisors tend to be towards the end of the list. Also: phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=562
    – o4tlulz
    Commented Jun 20, 2017 at 22:47

3 Answers 3


The answer depends on the field of research. For example, in most areas of mathematics and some of theoretical physics, authors are listed alphabetically. In other fields this is different, and there typically the first author is the one that did most of the work. In such fields the first author position is the most prestigious one. The last author typically has a role more on the background, for example by posing the research project and/or playing an advising role.

I have never heard of any convetion where the supervisor is the first author if they didn't do the majority of the work.

  • You mentioned authors can be listed alphabetically. So,is it ordered by the last name ?
    – Jimmy
    Commented Jun 20, 2017 at 20:23
  • @Salman Yes, at least whenever that is a well-defined term for all authors. When it is not, I am not sure what the conventions are. Commented Jun 20, 2017 at 20:29
  • 4
    Theoretical Computer Science is also alphabetical.
    – Thomas
    Commented Jun 20, 2017 at 20:37

As others mentioned, it partially depends on your field, but a general rule (with exceptions) is: First author is person who primarily conducted the work and the person who wrote most of the paper. Last author is the PI. Contributors in the middle.

Sometimes you have 'co-first authors' but even then, order matters.

In the cases I've seen where a PI takes first author, it's been due to two reasons:

  1. The PI is junior
  2. The student is unable or incapable of writing the manuscript for some reason

The best advice to take away is that authorship should be discussed upfront and in advance. This won't help you here, but will in the future.

  • authorship should be discussed upfront and in advance ... absolutely. Also, if there is any possible doubt, decide who presents at a conference, if applicable, early in the process. Don't assume you know the answer. If it's one student who's primary author, maybe you can in fact assume that. But say you have colleagues at an institution in which one has done >>50% of the work and is first author, it may be implicit that is also the presenter, but it can lead to questions nevertheless. Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 14:31

In my area of manufacturing engineering it seems to depend mostly on the professor or the cultural perspective. What I've seen in the US is: 1st person that did all the work, last: person that got the money, middle: others. Some of my German colleagues will have to put the prof first I believe, but their university research system is completely different from US systems.

I suggest asking your professor, or look to see what the papers did that you cited.

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