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A first author, second author problem

  1. Nov 12, 2010 #1
    So, I started a research project with my professor some time back. I suggested that we apply for an undergraduate research award and so we started discussion on it, and we narrowed down our problem and all. Then I suggested that I find some other undergraduates to collaborate with on the project and he agreed.

    I looked around for some people who were interested, and I found someone I knew who was quite enthusiastic about it and I hooked him in on the week that we started working on the submission for the research award.

    I typed out the initial draft where I didn't think much about it and typed my name in front of his. I mean, it is true that I started the project, call the shots/make the major decisions, and am the senior of the two of us - but I don't care that much about credit - at that it was only because I was more familiar with typing my own name.

    But some time afterwards, we were writing the paper side-by-side (he was typing) and I told him let's format the cover page. In the process, I thought a while and suggested, let's put our advisor's name as the first author because we'll rank by merit, and he agreed and shifted my advisor's name ahead of mine.

    Then I told him to line our names horizontally instead of vertically because it's the proper formatting. So at this moment, he pasted his name ahead of mine - then fumbled saying something about alphabetical order looking nicer. But of course, he knew the implications of that because we agreed to putting my advisor's name ahead by order of merit/seniority in the first place. Besides, my advisor's name is still out of the sort-called 'alphabetical order'. So from being not really concerned about the naming order, I felt a little annoyed that he came up with this strange device just to put his name ahead of mine.

    OK, let's just say now I'm bothered by it because it's starting to feel unfair to me. I'm also bothered that he might be trying to covertly imply that he did equal or more work.

    I didn't want to kick up a big fuss about it because I've had an amiable partnership with him so far, so I told him "It doesn't matter for now," and got on with editing other parts of our submission... but now I can't think of a right way and moment to bring it up again and rectify it without making it awkward for both him and me at least! What should I do?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 12, 2010 #2


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    I'd speak to your advisor about it. Often, ordering of author names differs greatly from field to field, and he will know what the norm is in your area. For example, some fields are strictly alphabetical, others are ranked by amount of work, some put the most senior person last, etc.. When you know what the norm is in your field, then you can speak with your advisor about how the authors should be ordered.
  4. Nov 12, 2010 #3


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    I definitely agree with cristo. Go to your advisor, and in one of your and ask him flat out in what order should you list the names of the authors. If he has any sense, he won't even put his name first, because he didn't do most of the work! You did!

    So unless this is a field such as high energy physics, where authors go by alphabetical order, the authors' list is ordered by the degree of contribution to the work.

  5. Nov 12, 2010 #4
    Astrophysics has very inconsistent conventions, but in most situations, the most senior author gets in front regardless of actual contribution. However, what that means is that when people look at the paper, it's assumed that the third author did most of the work, and if you are an undergraduate, you may *want* your name to be near the end of the list.

    I've also seen the situation in which the fundraiser in the group gets their name first, because people with money want to see the famous name first, whereas the people in the research community don't care since they figured that co-author #3 did all the real work.

    I'd bring up that issue with your adviser. One thing that you may find is that in your field, it really doesn't matter. One other thing is that formatting in journals never really matters, because the journal has a standard format and everything is going to get reordered anyway.

    Also there have been rather embarrassing situations in which a famous author put their name on a paper that was later found out to have serious holes in it. At that point is becomes really embarrassing when famous author tries to disclaim responsibility for the paper making it really clear that they just rubber stamped it.
  6. Nov 12, 2010 #5
    @cristo, Zz:
    Thanks for the sound advice. It's mainly mathematical physics research, by the way.

    Lol, that's funny, and really ugly. It goes to show some of the bad things about our community which you should actually expect less of, oh well.

    It was really helpful to know that there's so much that could go into the naming order, I didn't know most of these from a google search. After going through all of your suggestions, it seems that bringing it up with the other person first is a bad idea. (My friends, being standard college students, voted to confront!) So I decided this is what I'm going to do... right before we submit the paper, I'll ask my advisor for his permission to be listed as a co-author and use that opportunity to ask if there are any special orders in which the names should be arranged, and so bring it up to my teammate if (or more likely, that) we'll have to rearrange the names. That way it should be an agreeable settlement without sounding confrontational.


    Last question... I realized that some people actually drop a part of their name (usually the middle name). Is it acceptable to alter your name from how it's on your passport/legal documents? What if you are about to change your legal name (I'm changing my family name soon because of my parents' divorce) but haven't done it? Will you submit your name in the way it should be "ahead of time"?

    Won't it be really strange if you write your CV/resume and your listed publication(s) have different names?
  7. Nov 12, 2010 #6


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    From what I've seen in astrophysics (just starting a postdoc now) the person who wrote the bulk of the paper and did most of the research is first author, followed by the people who made significant contributions in the order in which the contributions mattered, then if there are a lot of others, alphabetical from there. My adviser actually took the last spot out of about 50 authors on my first paper, even though he did a substantial amount of work on it, just to stop the other co-authors from complaining about the order.
  8. Nov 12, 2010 #7


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    You should try and avoid different names; pick one name and stick to it. Otherwise, some of your papers may get missed when people search for you (this is especially important at the beginning of your career). My scientific name is my first name, middle initial, last name.
  9. Nov 12, 2010 #8
    Not really, since there are dozens of things that happen that could cause your name to change. Something that is a more confusing situation is if you have two people in the same field with the same name. This sometimes happens because you have two people in astrophysics who are related either by birth or marriage.

    One reason that you shouldn't get too obsessed over publication order is that in most fields, everyone that does some sort of research knows everyone else that does the same type of research so people very quickly come up with opinions on other people that are based with direct interaction rather than publication order.
  10. Nov 12, 2010 #9
    That happens a lot in astrophysics. If something doesn't need funding or bragging rights, then they'll put their name at the end just to get the paper out. Then there is experimental high energy physics where you have 100 of names on papers.

    Also, if you want to see somewhere that names make a huge difference, look at the movies. There are a ton of rules for how movie credit work. This happens because it's a community in which credit -> reputation -> money and power.
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