Authorship in academic publishing

Besides all of the problems there may be with academic publishing from the point of view of readers, editors, and authors (in general) there are also often specific issues related to authorship on scientific papers and the related level of attributed credit for the work. To non-academics this may seem like a weird issue, but especially to students and members of academic teams lower on the ladder of power, it can seem like the biggest issue there is. It manifests in different ways in different fields of study, but most issues come about due to oversized egos and lack of communication.

As a physicist, I’ve experienced this myself. This is because in physics, at least in optical physics and photonics, the order of authors on the first page of an article (and therefore the webpage) matters a lot and confers meaning. The first author is the person who’s done most of the work and can answer any question about the paper (usually a student). The second author generally did slightly less work, or at least the second-largest amount of work. The last author is generally the senior author and the person who had the original idea and supervised the work (and got funding), but maybe didn’t step foot in the lab or run any code. Between those known positions it gets less clear, but generally the later you are listed the less work you’ve done and the less “credit” you will receive from the community, except for the last author (or the last few authors if it is a collaboration). If you know a field intimately or know a research group well, then you can probably tell a lot by the list of authors.

But even the few rules I listed may not apply to all physics papers. If the author list is very short or very long it’s hard to get any meaning from the order of authors and they may use a different strategy. Some large physics collaborations (tens, hundreds, or thousands of coauthors) will just list authors alphabetically and always list everyone in the collaboration regardless of who did what. Sometimes though, the first author is the main author and then everyone else is alphabetical. In these cases you can imagine that it’s no longer where you are on a paper (or even whether you are listed as an author on a paper) that gets you credit, but rather giving seminars, presenting at conferences, or word-of-mouth.

But it can get even more confusing when you go to the social sciences. Apparently in academic economics students and assistants are almost never listed on the author list, even if they did the majority of the work, and rather listed in a short acknowledgements section at the end of the manuscript. This is in contrast to physics where generally anyone that contributed significantly will be on the list. Conversely in some fields manuscripts usually only have one main author (for example a doctoral student or a young researcher), like in history or literary analysis, and the senior professor is just known to have supervised them.

This makes it clear that authorship can be important, although it surely is sometimes overemphasized in grant proposals or in CVs, but also that it is not a trivial thing to decide on. If one is being fair it not only requires first an honest and correct assessment of each contribution, but also a detailed knowledge of the expectations of the community for how that should be communicated in the list of authors. On the other side of the coin, if one wants to be unfair then it is easy to take advantage of the complexity and the unspoken rules to get more credit than deserved, or to take away credit from others. This is of course especially true for those in power who can decide unilaterally and have superior knowledge of the rules and norms.

Some physics journals have methods available to add nuance or at least add information to authors’ contributions. Journals from the publisher Nature generally have a paragraph at the end that lists the individual contribution of each author, which should in principle be agreed upon by all authors beforehand. This allows it to be clear that one author did a lot of work and another author just prepared some samples or something like that—regardless of the author order (not to say there is anything wrong with making samples, but there can be a clear difference between the level of contribution). Some journals also allow the addition of an asterisk that denotes equal contribution between two or more of the first-listed authors (however, if they aren’t listed alphabetically, then the first listed author still probably contributed slightly more, right?). But none of these methods are perfect themselves: they might just shift the argument from author order to deciding something else, and are still subject to abuse by those in power. But, they are a step in the right direction, and add nuance for those that are looking closely enough. On the other hand, some propose radically to always list authors alphabetically to avoid confusion. But wouldn’t this obscure the credit that young researchers need?

My biggest advice for any reader is to learn the norms of their own field and to not hesitate to be open and upfront about them when entering into any academic relationship (a new supervisor or a new collaboration). These discussions can always be a bit thorny, and tact will always make it easier, but it is better to speak about it early and awkwardly, but openly, than to talk about it when it’s too late. Supervisors should also make it clear that they understand these issues and they will be fair and transparent. This won’t stop people from being unhappy sometimes, so a supervisor may still need to make a final decision—there are outsized egos at all levels and it’s hard to stay unbiased—but by being open and transparent it decreases the chances of something going wrong.

Probably any physicist reading this already knows everything, but for anyone else: next time you see a paper linked in a recent news or tech article, realize that the order of the authors listed isn’t meaningless and was probably the result of careful thought, but also that it’s not always a fair representation. Like anything, there’s more than meets the eye.

Are there any outside-the-box authorship methods that you know of? Comment below!

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