What does the order of authors mean?

September 19, 2018

Pär SegerdahlHow should we interpret the sequence of author names in academic publications? Does it inform us about how much each author contributed to the publication?

After reading an article on the topic by Gert Helgesson and Stefan Eriksson, I realize that authorship order is a very disorderly matter. The first and last positions are often counted as the most important. But not always. To my surprise, not even a first position necessarily signifies first authorship. Sometimes, the asterisk after the author whose contact details are given is interpreted as a sign of first authorship. Sometimes the asterisk means that this author is subordinate and handles all practicalities associated with the publication.

Sometimes the second position is of particular importance. Sometimes not. Sometimes the next to last position has a particular interpretation. Sometimes another. Helgesson and Eriksson talk about group traditions and describe conventions in different scientific fields. Are there really no guidelines to follow? No, actually not. Author guidelines at most recommend authors to agree well in advance on the order of authors. However, since the guidelines do not specify what the order signifies, the meaning of the agreed upon authorship order is unclear!

Considering how meritorious authorship is in academic competition for positions and grants, this lack of order is surprising. Is the question too sensitive? Will an overly clear order lead to time-consuming quarrels between authors about who should stand first, last, second place, second to last, with asterisk, without asterisk, and so forth?

Helgesson and Eriksson discuss different proposals for clarifying authorship order. One proposal they encountered is that the first and last positions each render 40% of the total value of the paper. The remaining 20% ​​is shared equally by the authors in the intermediate positions. For five authors, authorship value would thus be divided: 40, 6.7, 6.7, 6.7 and 40%. This type of proposal is dismissed, because fixed values ​​would be fair only if work efforts actually happened to be distributed just that way (which is unlikely).

A more flexible system could be to provide actual percentages, on a case-by-case basis. But how are actual percentages determined? Different authors contribute qualitatively differently: by designing the study; by analyzing data; by drafting the paper. What kind of contribution has most weight?

Another suggestion is not to assign a relative value to the authors’ contributions. Instead, one specifies what each one contributed. Contributorship instead of authorship, where the contribution is described in absolute terms rather than relative. For example: “contributed to designing the study,” “contributed to data analysis,” “contributed to drafting the paper.” A problem with this proposal, Helgesson and Eriksson point out, is that it in fact says very little about absolute contributions. “Contributed to designing the study” can mean both substantial and lightweight contributions.

The article ends by taking a step back. For perhaps we took a step in the wrong direction when we required a more orderly authorship order? The problem about the meaning of the sequence of author names presupposes an individualistic and competitive outlook on science. Today, there are also other tendencies, which may be more worthwhile, such as striving to make science open and socially responsive. Perhaps we should avoid attaching too much importance to authorship order?

Should our focus be on collective contributions to science, with and for society, rather than on individual merit ​​in the competition for employment and funding?

Thus the article ends, with a question calling for more contemplation.

Pär Segerdahl

Helgesson, G. & Eriksson, S. Authorship order. Learned Publishing, 2018, doi: 10.1002/leap1191

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