I was reading through a journal article by an author. Let's call him Author X. The author while referring to some of his own journal articles cite them as Author X et al., even though Author X is not the first author in the cited article. Is this allowed or should it be treated as academic dishonesty?

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    Assuming there is no citation style would appear it as "Author X et al." then I believe YES; it is dishonest. Reviewers/Editors supposed to detect this before publishing.
    – seteropere
    Commented May 11, 2013 at 0:32
  • 1
    Could the answer to this depend to some degree on the author-order-convention in the field? In my field authors are listed in alphabetical order, so listing a different one first would be somewhat odd, but wouldn't really amount to claiming a more important role in the paper. Also, it might make some sense in the case of undergrad research where the supervising researcher of a larger group doesn't have the earliest surname.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 20:38

4 Answers 4


The only reason I would use a formulation such as this is if the work being "cited" were multiple works performed by a changing group of members with a "constant" member who was probably the group leader. And, even in that case, I would use the formulation "X and coworkers," rather than "X et al.," to indicate that the it's not a "direct" citation, but a matter of convenience. The reason for this is that it's quite distracting to have to write:

as discussed in A et al. [cite], B et al. [cite], C et al. [cite], A et al. #2 [cite], . . .

when there's a bunch of different references that are all part of the same research effort.

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    I have seen "X and coworkers" a couple of times and would also recommend its use.
    – matth
    Commented May 11, 2013 at 9:10

It depends on how literally you are using the word "cite". If you mean the articles are listed in the bibliography with the authors in a different order from how they were published, or the author order is changed in a formal citation such as "(Author X et al. 1994)" even if the bibliography is correct, then yes, it would be considered dishonesty, because it misrepresents the author listing.

On the other hand, it's possible to give correct formal citations to some papers and then go on to talk about "Author X et al." without actually implying that this represents author order at all; instead, you are just highlighting X among the researchers who have worked on these problems. Overemphasizing a particular author's role could be offensive, but it's not necessarily dishonest in the same sense as misrepresenting the author order on a specific paper. (And it might even be appropriate in some unusual cases. For example, imagine that X has been working in this subfield for many years and has published a dozen papers, each with a different student as first author. If you need a brief way to refer to this group of researchers as a whole, then "X et al." might not be crazy.)

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    Even in the case you describe, I'd be leery of using the "X et al formulation". It seems unfair to whoever the first author really is.
    – Suresh
    Commented May 11, 2013 at 5:32
  • @Suresh what if you are in a field where authorship is alphabetical and the name starts with Z? Commented May 12, 2013 at 3:39
  • I'm not sure why that makes a difference. I agree that in alphabetical ordering the "first" author gets unreasonably prominence, but listing the authors as "Z et al" doesn't solve the problem.
    – Suresh
    Commented May 12, 2013 at 4:40

I have a hard time seing any other answer than NO, it is not ethical. If the paper referenced is published it is very clear. If one neds to reference an individual other than the first author, it is always possible to quote the name followed by the refeence for (a very hypothetical) example

... X made the Y analysis (Z et al., yyyy) ...

If the work is unpublished, it typicaly should not be referenced using typical references so then the "personal communication" or whatever for would be pertinent could be given in any way relavant to the particular case.

The main point is of course to give credit where credit is due. so,if it is clear that someone has performed a very specific task (indicated in the paper referenced) then it might be ok to point that out but never to change the original citation which has to match the reference in the reference list, which in turn has to match the published article. So for me exceptions to the general rule are vanishingly few and I have never encountered a case where this has happened either as a reader of journals or as an editor.


It is definitely misrepresenting the situation, but I am not sure it is intentional. I met several (where several means a large number) researchers who were not aware that the "et al." phrase can only be used with first authors, and they used it in the meaning of "and his/her coworkers". If the given person's mother tongue is not English, I would say it is more of a mistake than intentional dischonesty.

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