Author order and disorder

Debra Carr has a BSc (Hons) in Materials Science and a PhD in Engineering.

Prior to joining Cranfield University, she was employed by the Ministry of Defence (SCRDE), Imperial College (Mechanical Engineering) and The University of Otago (Clothing and Textile Sciences).

Debra is a Chartered Engineer, a Fellow of The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining and a Fellow of The Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences.

In 2012, Debra was a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellow. Debra’s research interests include personal protective equipment design and testing, and behind armour wound ballistics.


I’m a materials engineer specialising in textile science. After I finished my PhD, I first worked in Government and now I’ve been an academic for nearly 20 years.

I love working with my research students (MSc and PhD) and I try to give them as many opportunities to publish as possible.

When a student first approaches me, I talk about where their work might be published – should it be a journal, or conference proceedings? I encourage them to think about their work as publishable and plan the work right from the start for publication. I think this is as important for my students who are completing a taught Master of Science (MSc) that includes a 3-month research project resulting in a dissertation, as for my PhD students who are in a 3-year program.

Most of my personal research projects, and those that my research students conduct, are for customers who have a real-world problem (i.e. most of the work is applied in nature). Some projects cannot be published due to confidentiality and I let my students know this ASAP in the process. I always ensure we meet with the client.

As far as I am concerned, if an article is written from a thesis by either the student or me, then they are first author on the publication and I am usually second author as their supervisor. My boss and my institution (I believe) expect me to be second author. Obviously, these articles contribute significantly to my career progression as well as theirs and I have benefited from my students with respect to promotion. Other authors on the articles might be another research student or a staff member who has helped (academic or technical), and an industrial supervisor or a sponsor (particularly if the work was originally their idea – so an acknowledgement of their intellectual property).

Breakfast queue by Ross Strahan | www.flickr.com/photos/ross_strachan | Shared via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Breakfast queue by Ross Strahan | http://www.flickr.com/photos/ross_strachan | Shared via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Over the years, I’ve heard horror stories about supervisors who leave their students off the author list (if they are lucky, they are included in the acknowledgements). Then there are the Heads of Labs or Departments who insist on being the author on every paper even when they have physically had nothing to do with the work. I don’t believe in that. There are also those authors who include sponsors and others as an author in the belief this will increase funding in the future and/or improve how the paper is perceived by journal editors and readers. There is often pressure to include colleagues who ‘need’ publications for whichever brand of Research Assessment Exercise occurs in their country. I wasn’t brought up that way as an academic. I play fair and encourage my students and colleagues I am mentoring to do that as well. Call me old fashioned, or maybe naive as a junior colleague recently suggested.

I’ve always been aware that different disciplines have different rules regarding author order. Personally, I’ve always subscribed to the ‘considering the magnitude of the contribution’ style. The person who has made the greatest contribution is first, etc. I’ve published in a wide range of journals from engineering, science and medicine. Within the medical area I’m often asked to declare the contribution the individual authors have made to the article when I submit the paper for review (e.g. AA initiated this research project; BB collected and analysed the data with advice and assistance from CC and DD; DD wrote this paper from BB’s MSc thesis with assistance from AA, BB and CC). This helps with assigning author order to my simple engineering brain.

However, I have recently found find myself in an interesting situation. I’m supervising a PhD student who has an industrial ‘supervisor’ who has a disciplinary background different to mine (i.e. they are not an engineer). They are external to my institution and responsible for sponsoring the work, which is funded by their organisation. They have no formal position with respect to my student as far as my institution is concerned. In their discipline, the person doing the work is typically the lead author and the last author is the superior (e.g. Head of Lab/Supervisor). My student has written an abstract for a conference their discipline requires them to attend. My student asked me about author order and would I like the honour of being the superior (i.e. last author). I said I’d actually rather be second as that’s what my discipline expects. Now, we find the industrial supervisor is unhappy I am second author and believes I should be last author. I have told them it is my choice to be second author as that is what my discipline/institution expects.

It turns out that author order is a trickier topic than I previously thought, particularly when an inter-disciplinary team is working together! I think it is important for this to be addressed and the issue put to bed as soon as possible. The last thing anyone wants is for this large issue to affect the important work our students are doing.

As researchers (students, supervisors and collaborators), we all need to think long and hard about initiation of project ideas, where intellectual property lies particularly as the project develops, who is actually doing the work (practical and written), the provision of funding, and day-to-day-supervision. All of these things are critical; the project cannot be done without them all. With time, the boundaries can get blurred and the proportion of contribution changes. In addition, we all need to be aware of each other’s authorship rules and work with different disciplinary protocols if necessary.

Other posts that give good advice and offer different perspectives:

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4 Responses to Author order and disorder

  1. The author order issue was always in my head during my PhD study. I’m in the discipline of medicine and we are usually based on the magnitude in writing i.e. the first author must be the one who writes most of the article. The last author would be the supervisor of the project/department. However, the first author may not be the one who contributes the most to or participate heavily in the research study. That “first author” may be just assigned by the supervisor and given the results of the study to write the article. I have seen this happening in my discipline when some academics (in their early career) need more articles to support them to proceed to a tenure position/secure their position in the department, at the expense of students and other junior staff who also need publications for their career.

    I hope this only happens in my discipline, but seems not…

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    • Tseen Khoo says:

      There are different protocols in different disciplines, but there’s an underlying foundation of ethical authorship as well. There’s the Vancouver protocol (PDF), and national versions of authorship codes of conduct. To get a feel for whether something is right or not, it’s good to share the situation with a colleague who’s not in the immediate unit. Some units can get pretty toxic and what becomes ‘acceptable’ is actually not acceptable at all.

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  2. schlind says:

    In our workshops “Visibility and Research Impact” I learnt about an incidence where two groups cooperating in a research project could not agree about the order of the author list – and did not publish!

    So our conclusion was (as you point out) that all cooperators decide and fix beforehand how to publish (document type, conference/journal, author order, …).

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    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Working out author order early is a very good way to avoid bad situations later. I’ve always thought that if you can’t talk about these issues with your co-authors (because it’s too awkward, or difficult), then why are you working with them? There needs to be a certain level of trust present in those relationships so they can grow and lead to bigger things. Having a misunderstanding or bad situation can lead to a lot of anxiety and potentially career-stalling incidents.

      Like

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