How to determine author order when collaborating with multiple authors

Determining author orderWhen multiple authors collaborate to write a journal article, the task of determining authorship order inevitably arises. In some situations, the order may be obvious, but in many cases, it can be difficult to decide, and having a plan in place to establish author order can help the process go more smoothly.

Collaborating authors are usually listed in order of the relative size of each author’s contribution to the article, but sometimes it can be a challenge to gauge the size or importance of each author’s contributions. One way of facing this challenge is to take a mathematical approach to determining each author’s contribution, and thus author order. For example, Christine Beveridge and Suzanne Morris, the authors of the July 25, 2007 Nature article entitled “Order of merit,” recommend using a multi-criterion decision making approach, which involves the following steps:

  1. Decide which items will appear in the manuscript, including text, ideas, figures, tables, etc.
  2. Determine the percentage of each item that was created by each author.
  3. Rank the items based on their importance to the overall manuscript, and assign a weight to each item accordingly.
  4. Calculate each author’s total contribution to the article based on his or her contributions to each item and how important those items are to the manuscript, and order the authors according to overall contribution.

Beveridge and Morris stress that this process must be a collaborative one, involving each coauthor and a great deal of negotiation.

Elaine Hull, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Florida State University with over one hundred co-authored journal articles and book chapters under her belt, takes a less formal approach that varies according to each situation.

For example, when working with students, the graduate student who did the most work is typically the first author and Hull is typically listed last, as corresponding author, to indicate that she oversaw the student’s work and provided the lab in which the research was conducted. If the research is part of a student’s MA or PhD project, then that student will establish the order of the other contributing authors based on the relative size of their contributions.

In situations like this, sometimes two or more contributing student authors may have done roughly the same amount of work on a paper. “If everyone contributed more or less equally, I would probably order the authors according to seniority in the lab or according to the degree of difficulty of the students’ contributions,” Hull said.

Things can become a little trickier when deciding how to order colleagues who contributed lab space or necessary equipment (a common practice in the sciences). Hull recommends placing these colleagues between the graduate students who did the work and before the corresponding author. If there are multiple authors in this category, Hull considers how important their equipment was to the research and how much of an imposition it was for them to share equipment, expertise, and/or lab space when negotiating author order. If colleagues lend a minor piece of equipment or contribute in ways that do not directly affect the article as a whole, Hull will thank them in the acknowledgements rather than listing them as authors.

Like Hull, Patricia Goodson, a prolific author and professor of health and kinesiology at Texas A&M, considers the process of determining author order a continuum that varies based on the perspectives of the contributing authors, the field, and even the journal the paper is being submitted to. For example, Goodson has submitted to journals that required an explanation of the contributions from each author, with instructions outlining the role that each author should have played in the creation of the paper.

Goodson also notes that there are professional organizations, such as the American Psychological Association, that provide guidelines for determining author order as well.

Beveridge and Morris, Hull, and Goodson may have somewhat different approaches to establishing author order, but all of them agree that it is best to determine author order at the beginning of the project.

“Negotiation up front is the best way to prevent sticky situations, and it gives clarity to the whole process,” said Goodson. “Don’t assume anything—get something in writing up front, before you write the first word on the paper, because having those decisions made up front, even if they later change, protects everybody from the get-go. It also makes any disputes over authorship that may arise in the future easier to resolve.” This is especially true for contributing authors that are lower in their department’s political hierarchy, such as graduate students, and therefore do not have as much clout in a dispute.

If a dispute about author order does arise, collaborators can try to hash it out themselves, or they can consult an impartial higher authority. “If disagreements do arise about which is the most difficult part or about who is more ‘senior,’ consult the Chair of the department, or someone on the editorial board of the journal to which the article is to be submitted, or some other third party who is respected by all partisans,” suggested Hull.

Both Hull and Goodson reported that, in their experience, negotiations about author order tend to go smoothly, but it doesn’t hurt to take preventative measures. In addition to negotiating at the beginning of the process and maintaining written records, Hull recommends being clear on who’s in charge of the project and fostering collegial relationships.

How do you determine author order when you are working on a book or article project?

About Dionne Soares Palmer

Freelance writer specializing in college textbook supplements and other educational materials for adult learners.