As promised from a previous blog post. I have been involved directly or indirectly in several academic papers where there was considerable unhappiness and acrimony over authorship, especially who should get first, last and corresponding author positions.

Wikipedia actually has quite an informative article about academic authorship, including the potentially controversial area of authorship order in a list, but here are two articles (among several) – one published in 2008 in the American Journal of Physiology Cell Physiology and a second by members of the Committee of Publication Ethics in 2013 – that are even more useful, offering up ways to avoid (or at least minimise) conflict in addition to providing background understanding of the issues.

Conflicts arising from authorship positions in a list of authors in an academic paper (as well as “ghost” and “honorary” authorships) are unsurprisingly common, and some even require external mediation within an institution. These arise because academic authorship conveys considerable benefits, influencing hiring, promotion & tenure, performance bonuses, and community prestige, among others. How authors should be placed on a list of authors for a paper appears to be “cultural” in some ways – for instance, physicists, mathematicians, and business/finance academics often list authorship alphabetically, whereas this is exceedingly rare for biomedical papers. There is a certain degree of convergence in that alphabetical authorship has become less common over time, even in the fields listed above.


Intentional alphabetical listing of authorship in one of my older papers. The first-listed author here actually did the most work.

Part of this has to do with the concern about author contribution and credit. In the biomedical fields, there is cultural acceptance that the first-placed author has done the most work, whereas the last-placed author is the “senior author” who has provided the driving force for the work in terms of funding, guidance, and/or intellectual input. In one department where I worked, the first and final authors received the highest “points” (i.e. credit) for the papers they were involved in (which of course was also judged by the impact factors of the journals they were published in), which was tabulated and counted towards their annual performance. First and last author positions also counted more in an arcane way towards academic promotions.

Problems arise when there is collaboration across multiple disciplines or institutions. Such collaboration is inherently desirable, since they result in more impactful and nuanced work. But the assignment of authorship (and implicitly, credit), becomes tricky. Several strategies for minimizing conflicts have been published, as mentioned above. Most involve constant communication, assigning of work roles and authorship positions prior to even initiating the research collaboration, and/or even the use of “author determination worksheets” or agreements – almost like pre-nuptial agreements. Each has its own issues, and I am not certain at all what works best. 

There is one other development which is getting increasing popular, and which I favour. This involves putting up a listing of exact author contributions in each paper. Many of the more prestigious journals require it now, although this part of the manuscript is not vetted or verified. The difficult – but potentially worthwhile – part is getting institutional evaluation and promotion committees to adopt a more nuanced approach to assessing author contributions in academic papers.

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Public Health, Singapore