Authorship conventions are based around assumptions that research was done under the umbrella of a research institution.
It’s often just fine to assume that the first author did the most work, and the last author is the senior author who is the PI of the lab that enabled the project.
That’s a fair assumption, so long as the senior author and the first author are different people. In my circumstance, when a paper comes out of my lab, I’m typically the first author and the senior author.
So, if I’m both the first author and senior author, then who the heck is the last person on the paper?
There are four possibilities. The last author could be the one who: 1) contributed the least, 2) got there alphabetically, 3) got ordered by random draw, or 4) is an outside collaborator who got the spot because it would look better for them and the last position wouldn’t help a student author. (I’ve done all four approaches.)
For people who know me and the work coming out of my lab, then they’ll just look at the paper and assume that the tail of names after my own are students who worked on the project, if they’re affiliated with my institution. They’ll realize that the last author is not the senior author.
But if someone is unfamiliar with my lab, they might readily assume that the student who winds up last on the paper is the PI. I remember an awkward conversation at a conference. Someone really liked a certain paper of mine and assumed that I was a Ph.D. student in the lab of Dr. X, who had just moved on to a new faculty job. In fact, “Dr. X” was an undergrad in my lab who contributed the least to the project that was totally my baby from start to finish.
This doesn’t bug me that much, because I’m not looking to build a reputation as an Important PI. It’s just weird and a little frustrating that papers coming out of teaching-centered institutions don’t fit well into the conventional authorship system, which makes us look even more out of place. It’s not a problem I’m looking to fix. The way that credit is distributed with authorship is such a mess in the sciences. My issue is just a tiny little spill within that mess.
Have you experienced confusing assumptions about authorship? Is there some angle to this situation that I’m missing? Perhaps an official designation of Senior Author with an asterisk as well as corresponding author might be an easy fix? It it just considered gauche to label a senior author, because senior authors are expected to be adequately famous? If senior authorship is truly a convention, why can’t it just be formalized as an optional label?