Authorship when the first author is the senior author


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?

10 thoughts on “Authorship when the first author is the senior author

  1. Terry, I am in a similar bind. I am working on a manuscript of which I am the senior author, with two faculty collaborators who are taking care of important angles (course design and statistical analysis). I will have my name first, but am foreseeing similar misunderstandings if and when it gets published.

  2. The whole “last author is the PI” convention used to be just for biomedical types, not ecology and evolution. I think it’s creeping into ecology and evolution, and I think that’s unfortunate.

    Here’s an old post with some friendly disagreement in the comments over whether you should even be an author at all just because you’re the PI on the grant that paid for the work:

    I think the answer to changing conventions, and different conventions in different fields, is formal statements of author contribution. Some journals now require these, and I’ve taken to including them in the acknowledgements even when they’re not required.

  3. Why don’t we just disclose author roles explicitly in our publications? I think this would in principle be a good thing, but I can see why authors might be reluctant. As long as the actual author roles are “kept secret”, readers cannot reasonably assume that any particular author contributed more than any other and so, I suspect all authors implicitly receive a substantial amount of acknowledgement for the work. If we had to state it explicitly, it would become painfully clear that some authors contributed next to nothing. The closest I have been so far to a journal actually requiring disclosure of author roles was in the Journal of Open Research Software:

  4. I agree with Jeremy, because the different assumptions from different fields are confusing, particularly for inter-disciplinary research. I had a recent experience of this with the following review article:

    Parker, W. & Ollerton, J. (2013) Immunology enlightened by evolutionary biology and anthropology: an approach necessary for public health. Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health 2013(1): 89-103 doi:10.1093/emph/eot008

    The idea for this, the main concepts, and most of the writing, came from William Parker, and as a biomed researcher he assumed he’d be second (senior) author, which is how it looked on the first draft. But my contribution was just to set his ideas in a wider context of species interactions, particularly mutualisms, and so as an ecologist I assumed I’d be second author. In fact I would have been deeply uncomfortable as first author, which William (to his credit) accepted, hence it was published as Parker & Ollerton.

    Worth bearing in mind for anyone stepping outside of their broad field.

  5. I’m kind of with Jeff & Jeremy on this. I don’t recognize “senior author” as a valid role on a paper and have appreciated that ecology has not given as much weight to this role (although I think it is changing). I may be hopelessly old fashioned but I still list authors in decreasing order of contribution (although obviously when I coauthor with others following other conventions I have to flex).

    On my CV and documents for evaluation I do use asterisk-style notation to identify students, postdocs, etc in authors of publications I list because to me that is a much more important thing to denote (successful mentorship of students that resulted in papers).

    Although in a nod to the real world when I recently submitted a package for university-wide evaluation I did add a footnote explaining what conventions I used. so the evaluation committee (which does have a notion of senior author from other fields) didn’t get confused.

    As for the rest of the world and academic reputation – I think people who really pay attention to my field will note that I am a common thread across papers in a certain vein of thought. regardless of my author position.

  6. All of my experience has been authors in (approximately) descending order of contribution. But I’ve been involved with two virology papers where the last author is “senior” and know of one further case where the 2nd last author is “not-quite-as-senior-as-the-last-author-but-still-senior”. Foolishness. That said, I know some people in ecol/evol to whom not being listed as the last author is rage-inducing.

  7. Sometimes there also problems if two (or more) institutes are involved in the study and they have different policies on who will be included as an author. Like some institutes include also research assistants and some not. I think the above mentioned idea to always clearly tell who did what is a good one.

  8. From an idealistic viewpoint, I agree with the sentiments above. It would probably be most transparent to get rid of the ordered author list altogether (including the first author) and simply have an unordered group with explicitly disclosed contributions, ideally in a form that is machine-readable.

    From a practical viewpoint, however, I think specially younger researchers have to consider that last author positions are sometimes important for grants (e.g. and applications for faculty positions (at least I heard it said that committees look at the number of last author papers when you apply for a faculty position, as a measure of “seniority”). So, specially if the author list is >3, it may be more beneficial for you to be last than in a middle position. Silly, but that is how it is.

  9. I’ll admit to a very mixed and inconsistent practice on this. Working in a School dominated by biomedical types means I’ve had to shift to preferring last author, if only because when I come up for review or promotion it’s not going to be people in my field making the judgement calls. Collaborations cause some interesting authorship conflicts though. I’ve just published a paper with some colleagues in Engineering. I deferentially offered last authorship to my collaborator, who was offended by the suggestion because it means nothing to them. Apparently this is the way to fix it — work with people in a field whose citation style differs from your own.

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