Scientific papers and authorships increasingly constitute the currency in which researchers and scholars are evaluated and assessed. Publishing interesting work in the right journals is crucial when it comes to academic employment and funding for future research.
In addition to being an author on a paper, it is important where in the author list your name is. The author name order is important and has a more or less well-defined meaning.
The most prestigious is to be either the first or the last author of the paper.
The last one is often the senior author of the paper, the person that has conceptualized and supervised the work, and the person in whose group or lab all or most of the work has been done.
The first author is the person whose name appears first on the paper and thus, often, the person whose name is remembered. I, like many others, name PDFs of papers according to the last name of the first author and therefore have a particularly good recollection of first-author names. Much better than any other author names, including the last author name.
So who should be the first author of a scientific paper?
In some cases, it is a no-brainer; someone did most of the work, did the bulk of the measurements or calculations, collected input, and wrote the manuscript. This person, without any doubt, is the first author of the paper.
In other cases, in particular for papers with more than a few authors, it may be less clear who should be the first author.
Someone collected some of the data, someone else collected the rest, someone did the data analysis, someone started to write the manuscript, someone finished it. And who should then have their name appear first, once all the dust settles down, and the polished manuscript is ready to be published?
That can be a delicate question.
Sometimes papers have multiple first authors, in the sense that it is stated explicitly in the paper that “These authors have contributed equally to the work”. But in citations and reference lists this information is often not preserved, and so the paper will, for many purposes, only have one first author. Only one author whose name is remembered.
It happens that politics decides the order of author names.
For example, when a senior author of a paper wishes to invest in a collaboration with another group or lab and sacrifices one of the good author name spots – whether the first or one of the following – to show goodwill towards the collaboration.
Or when a young and ambitious researcher, who needs to prove him- or herself towards funding bodies, is “given” a last-authorship from a more senior researcher – to be able to document scientific leadership.
It also happens that the ability to insist and to not give up a good author name spot decides the first-authorship – whether justified or not. Some people, even though they feel entitled to a better spot in the author list, do not want to fight and argue over it – and as a consequence may end up with a poorer position than their contribution justifies.
For my own first paper, we were two first authors, and before submitting the manuscript we had to decide who of us should have his name appear first. We discussed our contributions and efforts, but did not reach a conclusion.
Therefore, we asked the senior author of the paper what he thought. Quite understandably he did not want to make the decision for us, but instead proposed that we could flip a coin to make the call. And so we did – with a random number generator in Matlab.
Flipping a coin is not ideally suited for deciding first-authorship in most cases. But it is at least a more gentlemanlike approach than to decide it based on politics or selfish insistence.
Because first-authorship, and author order more generally, is not something to be decided based on politics. And also not on the ability to insist. It is to be decided based on ideas, effort, and contributions. And after a discussion among all authors, not by a single author.