How do researchers decide whose name comes first on a paper?

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Is it based on who contributed the most? How is this determined? Is it alphabetical? If so then someone with an A last name can contribute barely anything and everyone will still call it “Alberts et. al”

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Guess what? It depends. It should be based on who contributed the most, especially because academic careers depend on level of contribution, but in some fields (for example mathematics and economics) it’s alphabetical.

It’s supposed to be by how much each person contributed. In practice, it gets more complicated. Group projects usually have the names a little more randomly.

In the case of professors advising or working with students, here’s how its supposed to work. Ethical professors will list the student first, ASSUMING the student did most of the work. As you can guess, not every professor is ethical. There are a few in every field who will insist on being first author, even if all they did was say hi to the student one day at lunch.

Being first author can be an ego thing. That is the name that will be associated with that paper and concept forevermore. Sometimes second authors will also be recognized, but rarely more than that.

My PI recently said it’s

1. The person who contributed the most to the project, ie it was *their* project
2. next most important contributor, eg lab-mate or direct collaborator who worked on it
3. collaborators who didn’t work directly on it but supervised/advised decisions
4. reviewers
5. the lab PI

Et al isn’t something anyone should have to suffer…from the little I know about research I’d say it’s got a lot to do with the squeaky wheel getting the grease.

The first author did most of the work, it was their project. Last author is the supervising professor or group leader. In between are contributors.

Most medical journals have rules regarding who can claim authorship on a paper, and the authors work it out amongst themselves, ideally at the beginning of the project…

If the study is your idea AND you do the bulk of the work, you will generally be first author. If the study is your idea and you pass the framework off to others to do the legwork, and you remain involved as an editor and to some extent referee, you may end up as the senior/last author. In academic medicine, first, second, and last author generally have some relevance for recognition in the academic community.