How to Order Co-Author Names on a Journal Article

grad school journal articles peer-review Jun 19, 2022
How to order co-author names and a journal article

When you are submitting a journal article for publication, one of the decisions you have to make is how to order the author names. There are guidelines on how to do this. In this blog post, I will discuss the different ways to order co-author names, explain why it matters, and suggest ways to ensure that all co-authors are happy with the final decision.

What are the guidelines for author order?

There is no single answer to this question, as guidelines do differ between disciplines. However, there are some general principles that most disciplines follow. In most cases, the first and last positions carry the most meaning. Between those positions, authorship order may, but not always, reflect the amount of contribution to the research project.

First author

The first author of a journal article is typically the person who did the most work on the research project and the paper. They are usually the person who came up with the idea for the project, designed and executed the experiments and wrote most of the paper. The first author is generally responsible for bringing together the contributions of the other authors, incorporating their feedback, navigating the online submission portal, and responding to the reviewer's comments (in consultation with the other co-authors).

Last author

The last author position is sometimes as important as the first author position. Often, the last author is the researcher who supervised the project, provided funding, and/or is the most senior member of the research group. This is typically the principal investigator (PI) or group leader. In some cases, it may seem as though the PI may have done very little work on the project themselves, but remember that a lot happens behind the scenes to support the research projects of graduate students.

When discussing author order among co-authors the group must agree on this. If you are a postgraduate and are unsure about who should be the last author of your paper, make sure to discuss it with your supervisor(s). It is this position that tends to be the most political and you may not be aware of all the factors that came into play to make your research project happen.

Middle authors

The order of authors between the first and last positions varies between disciplines, but some general principles apply. In general, the middle authors are listed in order of contribution to the project. For example, if one person did a lot of work and another person wrote only a small section of the paper, then the author who did most of the work would be listed before the other.

If co-authors contributed equally to the project, then their names can be listed alphabetically. Sometimes all middle authors are ordered alphabetically, with only the first and last authorship positions given the distinction.

Corresponding author

When you submit your article to a journal for publication they will ask you to indicate which co-author is the "corresponding author". This person is the point of contact for the journal and will be responsible for dealing with editorial queries, reviewing proofs, and disseminating information to co-authors. In other words, this individual will receive emails about the article and have access to all the features of the online submission portal.

Most commonly the first author is the corresponding author. The last author is the next most common corresponding author, but any co-author can be designated.

Equal contributions

In some cases, it may be appropriate to indicate that authors have contributed equally to the work. For example, if two people did the same amount of work and took responsibility for writing different sections of the paper, you may want to list them both as 'first authors'. Each journal will have different procedures for this, but usually, this is indicated with an asterisk after the authors' names and a note following the authorship list stating "*These authors contributed equally".

The authorship of a journal article indicates who contributed to the research project and the role they played.


Why does author order matter?

Author order on a research article matters because it can affect the credit that individual co-authors receive for the work.

Publications are one of the most widely used measures of success in academia, and your authorship roles will be evaluated by those considering your applications to graduate programs, jobs, grants, promotions, etc. Thus, authorship roles must be represented accurately for published manuscripts.

Early in your academic career, it is important to publish first-authored papers. The role of the first author carries the most responsibility, and when others are evaluating research performance, the first authorship of journal articles carries the most weight. It shows that you can design, implement, finish, and publish a research project. Thus, first authorship is an important distinction and can have a significantly positive impact on someone's career. The first author's name also has the most visibility because it is cited as "et al." after their name (meaning "and others") when others refer to the work.

Mid- and later career academics must demonstrate research leadership in their field. Thus, leadership roles need to be properly acknowledged with the last author position when it is appropriate.

All authors of a journal article have made important contributions to the research project. The first author, and sometimes the last author, have generally made the most significant contributions.


How can I ensure all co-authors are happy with the decision?

All authors must agree to the authorship order before the manuscript is submitted. It is difficult and sometimes impossible to change the authorship order after the initial submission.

The best way to ensure that all co-authors are happy with the decision is to ask them. Occasionally this may be sorted out before work on a manuscript commences. Probably more often this is decided once an early draft is completed.

As the first author, you may suggest an author order using the guidelines above when you share the first complete or near-complete draft with your co-authors for feedback. Your email may say something along the lines of "I have suggested this author order, but please let me know if you would like to discuss a different order".

Remember, the last author position is sometimes a political decision. If you are a postgraduate and feel unsure about which author should be in this position you may want to ask your supervisor first.

Author order matters

In conclusion, ordering author names on a journal article can be a complex decision. However, by following the general guidelines and discussing the order with your co-authors, you can ensure that everyone is happy with the final decision.

Are your getting ready to submit a journal article and wondering how to choose the best journal? Check out this guide on how select a reputable journal.

Happy writing!

Hi! I'm Dr Jayne Wilkins.

I'm a research scientist and academic publishing coach. I've been writing, reviewing, and editing academic publications for 12+ years.

In 2021, I achieved my long-time ambition to publish in Nature (woot woot 🎉).

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