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How to Order Authors in Scientific Papers

order of names on research paper

It’s rare that an article is authored by only one or two people anymore. In fact, the average original research paper has five authors these days. The growing list of collaborative research projects raises important questions regarding the author order for research manuscripts and the impact an author list has on readers’ perceptions.

With a handful of authors, a group might be inclined to create an author name list based on the amount of work contributed. What happens, though, when you have a long list of authors? It would be impractical to rank the authors by their relative contributions. Additionally, what if the authors contribute relatively equal amounts of work? Similarly, if a study was interdisciplinary (and many are these days), how can one individual’s contribution be deemed more significant than another’s?

Why does author order matter?

Although an author list should only reflect those who have made substantial contributions to a research project and its draft manuscript (see, for example, the authorship guidelines of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors ), we’d be remiss to say that author order doesn’t matter. In theory, everyone on the list should be credited equally since it takes a team to successfully complete a project; however, due to industry customs and other practical limitations, some authors will always be more visible than others.

The following are some notable implications regarding author order.

  • The “first author” is a coveted position because of its increased visibility. This author is the first name readers will see, and because of various citation rules, publications are usually referred to by the name of the first author only. In-text or bibliographic referencing rules, for example, often reduce all other named authors to “et al.” Since employers use first-authorship to evaluate academic personnel for employment, promotion, and tenure, and since graduate students often need a number of first-author publications to earn their degree, being the lead author on a manuscript is crucial for many researchers, especially early in their career.
  • The last author position is traditionally reserved for the supervisor or principal investigator. As such, this person receives much of the credit when the research goes well and the flak when things go wrong. The last author may also be the corresponding author, the person who is the primary contact for journal editors (the first author could, however, fill this role as well, especially if they contributed most to the work).
  • Given that there is no uniform rule about author order, readers may find it difficult to assess the nature of an author’s contribution to a research project. To address this issue, some journals, particularly medical ones, nowadays insist on detailed author contribution notes (make sure you check the target journal guidelines before submission to find out how the journal you are planning to submit to handles this). Nevertheless, even this does little to counter how strongly citation rules have enhanced the attention first-named authors receive.

Common Methods for Listing Authors

The following are some common methods for establishing author order lists.

  • Relative contribution. As mentioned above, the most common way authors are listed is by relative contribution. The author who made the most substantial contribution to the work described in an article and did most of the underlying research should be listed as the first author. The others are ranked in descending order of contribution. However, in many disciplines, such as the life sciences, the last author in a group is the principal investigator or “senior author”—the person who often provides ideas based on their earlier research and supervised the current work.
  • Alphabetical list . Certain fields, particularly those involving large group projects, employ other methods . For example, high-energy particle physics teams list authors alphabetically.
  • Multiple “first” authors . Additional “first” authors (so-called “co-first authors”) can be noted by an asterisk or other symbols accompanied by an explanatory note. This practice is common in interdisciplinary studies; however, as we explained above, the first name listed on a paper will still enjoy more visibility than any other “first” author.
  • Multiple “last” authors . Similar to recognizing several first authors, multiple last authors can be recognized via typographical symbols and footnotes. This practice arose as some journals wanted to increase accountability by requiring senior lab members to review all data and interpretations produced in their labs instead of being awarded automatic last-authorship on every publication by someone in their group.
  • Negotiated order . If you were thinking you could avoid politics by drowning yourself in research, you’re sorely mistaken. While there are relatively clear guidelines and practices for designating first and last authors, there’s no overriding convention for the middle authors. The list can be decided by negotiation, so sharpen those persuasive argument skills!

As you can see, choosing the right author order can be quite complicated. Therefore, we urge researchers to consider these factors early in the research process and to confirm this order during the English proofreading process, whether you self-edit or received manuscript editing or paper editing services , all of which should be done before submission to a journal. Don’t wait until the manuscript is drafted before you decide on the author order in your paper. All the parties involved will need to agree on the author list before submission, and no one will want to delay submission because of a disagreement about who should be included on the author list, and in what order (along with other journal manuscript authorship issues).

On top of that, journals sometimes have clear rules about changing authors or even authorship order during the review process, might not encourage it, and might require detailed statements explaining the specific contribution of every new/old author, official statements of agreement of all authors, and/or a corrigendum to be submitted, all of which can further delay the publication process. We recommend periodically revisiting the named author issue during the drafting stage to make sure that everyone is on the same page and that the list is updated to appropriately reflect changes in team composition or contributions to a research project.


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How to Order and Format Author Names in Scientific Papers

David Costello

As the world becomes more interconnected, the production of knowledge increasingly relies on collaboration. Scientific papers, the primary medium through which researchers communicate their findings, often feature multiple authors. However, authorship isn't merely a reflection of those who contributed to a study but often denotes prestige, recognition, and responsibility. In academic papers, the order of authors is not arbitrary. It can symbolize the level of contribution and the role played by each author in the research process. Deciding on the author order can sometimes be a complex and sensitive issue, making it crucial to understand the different roles and conventions of authorship in scientific research. This article will explore the various types of authors found in scientific papers, guide you on how to correctly order and format author names, and offer insights to help you navigate this critical aspect of academic publishing.

The first author

The first author listed in a scientific paper is typically the person who has made the most substantial intellectual contribution to the work. This role is often filled by a junior researcher such as a Ph.D. student or postdoctoral fellow, who has been intimately involved in almost every aspect of the project.

The first author usually plays a pivotal role in designing and implementing the research, including the formation of hypotheses, experimental design, data collection, data analysis, and interpretation of the findings. They also commonly take the lead in manuscript preparation, writing substantial portions of the paper, including the often-challenging task of turning raw data into a compelling narrative.

In academia, first authorship is a significant achievement, a clear demonstration of a researcher's capabilities and dedication. It indicates that the researcher possesses the skills and tenacity to carry a project from inception to completion. This position can dramatically impact a researcher's career trajectory, playing a critical role in evaluations for promotions, grants, and future academic positions.

However, being the first author is not just about prestige or professional advancement. It carries a weight of responsibility. The first author is generally expected to ensure the integrity and accuracy of the data presented in the paper. They are often the person who responds to reviewers' comments during the peer-review process and makes necessary revisions to the manuscript.

Also, as the first author, it is typically their duty to address any questions or critiques that may arise post-publication, often having to defend the work publicly, even years after publication.

Thus, first authorship is a role that offers significant rewards but also requires a strong commitment to uphold the principles of scientific integrity and transparency. While it's a coveted position that can be a steppingstone to career progression, the associated responsibilities and expectations mean that it should not be undertaken lightly.

The middle authors

The middle authors listed on a scientific paper occupy an essential, albeit sometimes ambiguous, role in the research project. They are typically those who have made significant contributions to the project, but not to the extent of the first author. This group often includes a mix of junior and senior researchers who have provided key input, assistance, or resources to the project.

The roles of middle authors can be quite diverse. Some might be involved in specific aspects of data collection or analysis. Others may bring specialized knowledge or technical skills essential to the project, providing expertise in a particular methodology, statistical analysis, or experimental technique. There might also be middle authors who have contributed vital resources to the project, such as unique reagents or access to a particular patient population.

In some fields, the order of middle authors reflects the degree of their contribution. The closer a middle author is to the first position, the greater their involvement, with the second author often having made the next largest contribution after the first author. This order may be negotiated among the authors, requiring clear communication and consensus.

However, in other disciplines, particularly those where large collaborative projects are common, the order of middle authors may not necessarily reflect their level of contribution. In such cases, authors might be listed alphabetically, or by some other agreed-upon convention. Therefore, it's crucial to be aware of the norms in your specific field when deciding the order of middle authors.

Being a middle author in a scientific paper carries less prestige and responsibility than being a first or last author, but it is by no means a minor role. Middle authors play a crucial part in the scientific endeavor, contributing essential expertise and resources. They are integral members of the research team whose collective efforts underpin the progress and achievements of the project. Without their diverse contributions, the scope and impact of scientific research would be significantly diminished.

The last author

In the listing of authors on a scientific paper, the final position carries a unique significance. It is typically occupied by the senior researcher, often the head of the laboratory or the principal investigator who has supervised the project. While they might not be involved in the day-to-day aspects of the work, they provide overarching guidance, mentorship, and often the resources necessary for the project's fruition.

The last author's role is multidimensional, often balancing the responsibilities of project management, funding acquisition, and mentorship. They guide the research's direction, help troubleshoot problems, and provide intellectual input to the project's design and interpretation of results. Additionally, they usually play a key role in the drafting and revision of the manuscript, providing critical feedback and shaping the narrative.

In academia, the last author position is a symbol of leadership and scientific maturity. It indicates that the researcher has progressed from being a hands-on contributor to someone who can guide a team, secure funding, and deliver significant research projects. Being the last author can have substantial implications for a researcher's career, signaling their ability to oversee successful projects and mentor the next generation of scientists.

However, along with prestige comes significant responsibility. The last author is often seen as the guarantor of the work. They are held accountable for the overall integrity of the study, and in cases where errors or issues arise, they are expected to take the lead in addressing them.

The convention of the last author as the senior researcher is common in many scientific disciplines, especially in the life and biomedical sciences. However, it's important to note that this is not a universal standard. In some fields, authors may be listed purely in the order of contribution or alphabetically. Therefore, an understanding of the specific norms and expectations of your scientific field is essential when considering author order.

In sum, the position of the last author, much like that of the first author, holds both honor and responsibility, reflecting a leadership role that goes beyond mere intellectual contribution to include mentorship, management, and accountability.

Formatting author names

When it comes to scientific publishing, details matter, and one such detail is the correct formatting of author names. While it may seem like a minor concern compared to the intellectual challenges of research, the proper formatting of author names is crucial for several reasons. It ensures correct attribution of work, facilitates accurate citation, and helps avoid confusion among researchers in the same field. This section will delve deeper into the conventions for formatting author names, offering guidance to ensure clarity and consistency in your scientific papers.

Typically, each author's full first name, middle initial(s), and last name are listed. It's crucial that the author's name is presented consistently across all their publications to ensure their work is correctly attributed and easily discoverable.

Here is a basic example following a common convention:

  • Standard convention: John D. Smith

However, conventions can vary depending on cultural naming practices. In many Western cultures, the first name is the given name, followed by the middle initial(s), and then the family name. On the other hand, in many East Asian cultures, the family name is listed first.

Here is an example following this convention:

  • Asian convention: Wang Xiao Long

When there are multiple authors, their names are separated by commas. The word "and" usually precedes the final author's name.

Here's how this would look:

  • John D. Smith, Jane A. Doe, and Richard K. Jones

However, author name formatting can differ among journals. Some may require initials instead of full first names, or they might have specific guidelines for handling hyphenated surnames or surnames with particles (e.g., "de," "van," "bin"). Therefore, it's always important to check the specific submission guidelines of the journal to which you're submitting your paper.

Moreover, the formatting should respect each author's preferred presentation of their name, especially if it deviates from conventional Western naming patterns. As the scientific community becomes increasingly diverse and global, it's essential to ensure that each author's identity is accurately represented.

In conclusion, the proper formatting of author names is a vital detail in scientific publishing, ensuring correct attribution and respect for each author's identity. It may seem a minor point in the grand scheme of a research project, but getting it right is an essential part of good academic practice.

The concept of authorship in scientific papers goes well beyond just listing the names of those involved in a research project. It carries critical implications for recognition, responsibility, and career progression, reflecting a complex nexus of contribution, collaboration, and intellectual leadership. Understanding the different roles, correctly ordering the authors, and appropriately formatting the names are essential elements of academic practice that ensure the rightful attribution of credit and uphold the integrity of scientific research.

Navigating the terrain of authorship involves managing both objective and subjective elements, spanning from the universally acknowledged conventions to the nuances particular to different scientific disciplines. Whether it's acknowledging the pivotal role of the first author who carried the project from the ground up, recognizing the valuable contributions of middle authors who provided key expertise, or highlighting the mentorship and leadership role of the last author, each position is an integral piece in the mosaic of scientific authorship.

Furthermore, beyond the order of authors, the meticulous task of correctly formatting the author names should not be underestimated. This practice is an exercise in precision, respect for individual identity, and acknowledgement of cultural diversity, reflecting the global and inclusive nature of contemporary scientific research.

As scientific exploration continues to move forward as a collective endeavor, clear and equitable authorship practices will remain crucial. These practices serve not only to ensure that credit is assigned where it's due but also to foster an environment of respect and transparency. Therefore, each member of the scientific community, from fledgling researchers to seasoned scientists, would do well to master the art and science of authorship in academic publishing. After all, it is through this collective recognition and collaboration that we continue to expand the frontiers of knowledge.

Header image by Jon Tyson .

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  • v.43(2); Jul-Dec 2010

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Authorship issue explained

Surajit bhattacharya.

Editor, IJPS E-mail: ni.oc.oohay@hbtijarus

When it comes to the fact that who should be an author and who should not be offered ghost authorship, it seem we are all in agreement.[ 1 ] Each author should have participated sufficiently in the work to take responsibility for the content. Authorship credit should be based only on substantial contributions to (a) conception and design, or analysis and interpretation of data; and to (b) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and on (c) final revision of the version to be published. Conditions (a), (b), and (c) must all are met.

However, when it comes to the sequence of authorship there seems to be a grey zone and exploitation at both ends of the spectrum. We have come across aggrieved Unit Chiefs and displeased residents in almost equal numbers. It is important for young authors to understand that there are two positions that count, the first author and the last author. Attached to either position is the status associated with being the author for correspondence. The best combination when one is young is to be first author and the author for correspondence. As one’s career progresses, being last author and author for correspondence signals that this is a paper from one’s Unit, he/she is the main person responsible for its contents, and a younger colleague has made major contributions to the paper, hence he/she is designated as the first author. The guidelines here are not as well defined as for authorship in general, Riesenberg and Lundberg[ 2 ] have made certain very important and simple suggestions to decide the sequence of authorship:

  • The first author should be that person who contributed most to the work, including writing of the manuscript
  • The sequence of authors should be determined by the relative overall contributions to the manuscript.
  • It is common practice to have the senior author appear last, sometimes regardless of his or her contribution. The senior author, like all other authors, should meet all criteria for authorship.
  • The senior author sometimes takes responsibility for writing the paper, especially when the research student has not yet learned the skills of scientific writing. The senior author then becomes the corresponding author, but should the student be the first author? Some supervisors put their students first, others put their own names first. Perhaps it should be decided on the absolute amount of time spent on the project by the student (in getting the data) and the supervisor (in providing help and in writing the paper). Or perhaps the supervisor should be satisfied with being corresponding author, regardless of time committed to the project.
  • A sensible policy adopted by many supervisors is to give the student a fixed period of time (say 12 months) to write the first draft of the paper. If the student does not deliver, the supervisor may then write the paper and put her or his own name first.

The second issue raised in this letter is about the use of plurals. Our insistence of avoiding pronouns I, me and mine in all publications is very sound and logical. Even if it is a single author paper, surgery is a team game and we are virtually powerless without our unsung colleagues - residents, nurses, technicians etc. By using plurals we recognize their vital role in our success story. Where as in a multiple author paper, the author has no option but to call it ‘our work’ instead on ‘my paper’, even when he is writing the paper all by himself / herself, there were many hands helping him / her and it is our Journal policy to acknowledge the same.

Redwood Ink

How to Choose the Author Order in a Manuscript

As a researcher, a key part of your career is to conduct research and publish your findings, all to advance the body of work in your research area. The primary way to recognize your contributions and the contributions of others is through authorship.

But who should you list as an author? And in what order should you list them?

Granting Authorship

A great way to select who should be an author is to use the guidelines created by the  International Committee of Medical Journal Editors . According to the ICMJE, each author should fulfill all four of the following criteria:

Were they significantly involved in designing the study, collecting data, or analyzing the data?

Were they involved in drafting or revising the manuscript?

Did they approve of the final version of the manuscript for publication?

Were they responsible for the accuracy and integrity of all aspects of the research?

Honorary Authorship

Some groups give honorary authorships to someone who has not substantially contributed to a research project. For example, they give a  gift authorship out of respect for or gratitude to an individual, such as a department head or senior researchers. Or they give a  guest authorship to a well-known researcher to increase the apparent quality or prestige of a paper.

While honorary authorships do happen, they are unethical. And they can be equated with research misconduct. Instead of adding an honorary author, play it safe and mention the person in the acknowledgements section.

Corresponding Author

When you submit a manuscript, the journal requires you to choose one of the authors to serve as the corresponding author. This author receives all updates from the journal, such as the submission status, the reviewers’ comments, and the final decision. The corresponding author is often the principal investigator. In some cases, research groups have the first author or another author fulfill this role.

Ordering Authors

When many authors collaborate on a paper, they face the task of figuring out the order of authors. In some cases, the order may be obvious. But in others, deciding on the order can be difficult. Here are a few guidelines to help you decide how to order the authors in a manuscript.

First Author

The first author is the most sought-after position in a publication. Postdoctoral researchers use this “ranking” to get funding, get hired, or get promoted. Graduate students use it as their ticket to their PhD, because they often need at least one first-authored paper to earn their degree.

The first author is most often the person who has contributed the most to the work. This contribution can be through designing the study, performing experiments, collecting data, analyzing data, writing the manuscript, or other tasks related to the project.

You can choose to have more than one “first” author. But the first “first” author will still enjoy more visibility than the other “first” author. The first “first” author is the first name a reader will see. In some citations, the first author may be the only name a reader can see. When possible, avoid having more than one first author by planning your project carefully.

Last Author

The last author is usually the supervisor or principal investigator who oversaw the project. This person receives much of the credit when the project is successful, or the criticism when something goes wrong.

Similar to choosing more than one first author, you can recognize more than one last author in a manuscript. This practice is increasing as research becomes more interdisciplinary. Some groups also use the practice to show that several senior group members reviewed the data and analysis in the manuscript.

In-Between Authors

After the first author, the authors are usually listed according to their contribution to the work, from the most to the least. If more than one author contributed equally, you can ask the journal editor to note this in the publication. You can also order these authors by their seniority in the group or the degree of difficulty needed to carry out a specific part of a project.

If your group debates on the author order, you can use a mathematical approach to order the authors. First, decide which items will appear in the manuscript. These items include text, figures, tables, and ideas. Determine how much each author contributed to each of those items. Then rank the items and assign a weight to each of them based on their importance to the overall manuscript. Finally, calculate each author’s total contribution based on this system. Then order the authors from the most to the least contribution.

Planning Authorship from the Start

The best way to mitigate any issues in authorship is to have a plan. Discuss the order of authors when you start the project. As the project progresses, keep track of everyone who contributed and how they contributed to the work. Remember to discuss authorship at regular intervals or at major milestones. This can help reduce the risk of disagreements later on in the project.

When negotiating the order of authors, remember that it takes a team to successfully complete a project. You are all working together to accomplish the same goal—a successful publication that advances your field.

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order of names on research paper

Crystal is an editor, educator, coach, and speaker who helps scientists and clinicians communicate with clear, concise, and compelling writing. You can follow her on LinkedIn .

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Agree on the order of authors names

Why does it matter in what order names appear on the title page of a typescript or published paper? One reason is that the order implies the authors' relative contributions. The first name to appear is generally assumed to be the individual who played the largest part in the study. This person is called the senior author. In some laboratories, the head of the laboratory, department, or research team is automatically included on any paper coming from the laboratory. In various science disciplines, the last author by convention is the head of the laboratory where the research was done.

Visibility is a second reason. If several people have worked together on a project, and you are not one of the first three authors named, be prepared for your name to be invisible in other authors' articles. In reference lists (and sometimes in text as well), journals typically print all the names up to some arbitrary number (three or six are common choices). Beyond this number, they usually include only the first one or three names, and use et al. for the rest.

When many people all have contributed more or less equally to the research, alphabetical or reverse alphabetical name order is sometimes used. Alternatively, if more than one paper logically comes from a cooperative project, authors sometimes rotate as first author on successive publications.

Many research reports result from the efforts of large cooperative teams. Perhaps the greatest number of coauthors on a single publication to date is the 488 individuals from 39 institutions for an article in Physical Particle Physics! For other examples of unwieldy multi-authorship, see Yang (1995).

Although authors generally would like to see their individual names appear, when this many people are involved, editors may like to see authorship credited by group titles. Rather than listing the names of individuals, none of whom can really take responsibility for the whole, the group could coin a designation, such as "The National Cooperative Atherosclerosis Study" A footnote would list group members, and each could legitimately list the paper on their personal resumes .

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Readers' Questions

What if the authors failed to agree on the order of their names on a paper?
If the authors cannot agree on the order of their names on a paper, they should contact their journal's editor or publisher to determine the proper order. Most likely, the order of authors' names is determined by the research contributions each author made. If the authors all contributed equally, then their names can be listed in alphabetical order. Alternatively, authors can agree to a randomized alphabetical order for their names.


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