Friday, 8 February 2008

Authorship Order

When preparing a scientific article for publication, there is often the question of who are the authors, and in what order should they be listed. In some cases, it is easy - the person who conducted the research (and in many cases, this is also the person who wrote the article) is listed first, while the supervisor is listed last. When there are more than two authors, however, the additional authors are usually added in order of their contribution and/or seniority between the first and last authors. As this is generally the accepted order of authorship, it is immediately apparent to the reader who did the work and who oversaw the research. But is the order of the authors important? Within a scientific article, reference may be made to another publication, e.g. "In previous studies, Smith et al. found...", and in most cases, the citation refers to the first named author of that publication. Similarly, when discussing an article with a colleague, we often referred to it as "the so-and-so paper" according to the first named author. Furthermore, when searching for articles using a bibliographical database, the results are listed by both year and the first named author. However, it has been brought to my attention on a number of occasions that having your name last on an article is even more important. As the last author, you are assumed to be the innovator behind the research, which attests to your ability as a project leader. Consequently, it is also used as a quantifier of productivity and excellence, where not only the number of publications is important but also how many have your name last. Making the transition from first to last author can be difficult, particularly when seniority and politics come into play. But unless alphabetical ordering is adopted, this authorship hierarchy is unlikely to change.

'Piled Higher and Deeper' by Jorge Cham is the popular comic strip about life, or the lack thereof, in grad school. Check it out by going to