Co-first Authorship is a lie and a sham and an embarrassment to our profession

February 28, 2012

Oh yes, “again“*.

As mentors and lab heads we should make it emphatically clear to all members of our labs that “co-equal” is only equal in the Animal Farm sense. I.e., not. And to secure the specific understanding that it is a nearly valueless sop.

As reviewers, we should start criticizing the practice with some StockCritique action. I suggest “The co-equal credit is a lie and a sham and serves only to buy off the authors who are not listed first. Please explain in full how the contributions are equal”.

As Associate Editors, ditto. Only in spades and with the full weight of accept/not accept behind us.

As Journals, generically, there should be a required statement signed by all co-equal authors. To the effect that “I understand that despite the foot note about co-equal contribution, this will not be viewed as such by the academic community at large. I recognize that it is not permitted to re-order the author line on my CV or biosketch or website. I have made this decision to accept the author position of my own free will with full understanding of the career consequences.

If you cannot sign onto this behavior you are admitting you are an exploiting jerk who is full willing to lie to mentees and/or your fellow trainees about their best career moves and have nothing but your own** selfish interests at heart.

ps. it is an absolute OUTRAGE that PubMed doesn’t include the symbols. This should be a trivial fix.
*for those who think this is a mere trifle, why does it keep coming up, eh? The websearch hits coming to our older posts on this topic never die down.
**if you are the lab head or listed-first author

No Responses Yet to “Co-first Authorship is a lie and a sham and an embarrassment to our profession”

  1. proflikesubstance Says:

    In the sense that co-first (or co-whatever) is bullshit, we completely agree.


  2. becca Says:

    pshaw. Like grad students get to make any decisions of their own free will.


  3. anon Says:

    What to do, then? I have seen situations where co-workers put their heads together on a project, each do an equal amount of work, and put in an equal amount of intellectual contribution. Are you saying that teamwork and pulling your weight, under all circumstances, should be avoided because co-first authorship is bullshit? In the case I am thinking of, the group pretty much drew straws to decide who to put first, second and third. It would make sense to do what you ask only if there is some alternate way to give equal credit where it is due.


  4. drugmonkey Says:

    1) endeavor to set up the workload so this doesn’t come up

    2) be as fair as possible about everyone getting a first and everyone pitching in “equally” on someone else’s first

    3) dismantle the GlamourChase that put so much premium on one single paper that requires what should be first-author contribution from several people.


  5. Zen Faulkes Says:

    Anon: What to do is replace the literary model of “authorship” with the film-making model of “credit”.


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    Really Zen? Put the full credits right up front do they? Let all 3000 people up on the Oscars stage do they?


  7. arrzey Says:

    Someone should own the project. The science is much better, the projects get done much more efficiently and lab harmony is maintained. The owner gets to go first. If you want to own the project, then do it. If you falter, and someone else has to pick up the pieces and turn it into a publishable work, then you don’t.


  8. Namnezia Says:

    OK, DM, let’s go through a few specific examples that might lead to first co-authorships, and see if you come up with a better solution. These are all loosely based on cases I’ve come across:

    1. Lab wants to introduce a new technique to answer a specific question. Two newish grad students volunteer to pioneer the technique in the lab and both work together to figure out from scratch how to do it. This technique results in a publication where the work within it represents true equal contributions. PI writes the paper. Who is first author?

    2. Multidisciplinary lab. 2 postdocs decide to collaborate on a project where one will acquire experimental data. Second postdoc does large-scale computational analysis. Both parts are time-consuming and require equivalent effort, however neither part is sufficient to stand alone as a single paper, when combined, they present a powerful demonstration of an important result, worthy of glamour mag publication. What’s better, to publish two low visibility papers where each author is first author (with the other as second author)? Or to publish a high-visibility paper with both authors a co-first authors? The same could be asked in a situation when two labs collaborate.

    3. Rotation student starts a project in lab, gets exciting and significant results with lots of original intellectual input but does not complete study. Ultimately decides to join another lab. New grad student picks up where rotation student left off, significantly expands the findings and writes the draft of the manuscript. Who should be first? Could a co-first authorship be merited?

    In general I think co-first authorships are OK when truly merited, and as long as they are not the trainee’s primary project. Also, I think it is important to include an “Author Contribution” section to detail exactly what the contributions were (eg. Billy Bob acquired and analyzed the experimental data, Mary Jo did the computational modeling. Both authors collaborated on the writing of the manuscript equally). I think that having a co-first author should be seen as just that, meaning that you did less, than if you were the sole first author. Obviously if someone else also contributed equally, then it means that they did half the work you didn’t do. But sometimes, the combined effort is more than the sum of each of the individual efforts, so having co-authorship is for the better.


  9. Jekka Says:

    “1) endeavor to set up the workload so this doesn’t come up”

    Seriously? Neither of my co-authorships started out as overlapping projects. In the case of the first, both of us were characterizing different transcription factor KOs which, unexpectedly (both for us and the field), turned out to form a complex. That *was* the story, how does one plan for that?

    In the case of the second, a 7th yr student was scooped. Scoopage was abetted by our collaborators who had been collaborating with two groups simultaneously, unbeknownst to us. My histology data was added to the student’s behavioral data, significantly enhancing both of our stories and allowing us to build a better model. Now our paper is known in the field and the scoopers are forgotten. Do you do disapprove?

    Lastly, there are many data-heavy, next-gen sequencing papers in my field. Often the bench scientist and the bioinformatician share co-authorship. How do you suggest splitting those projects up?


  10. another anonymous person Says:

    Co-first authorship will just become more common as interdisciplinary and collaborative work becomes more common. And those who don’t pay attention to it need to get their heads out of the places they shouldn’t be keeping their heads.

    How else do you work co-equally between multiple laboratories with different areas of expertise without splitting up the work into tiny little fragments to be published separately without telling the full story?


  11. zb Says:

    I’ve seen Namnezia’s #2 situation, and I think co-authorship was justified and should be respected. You’re right that it’s not appropriate to use it as a cop-out when people just can’t agree on who should be first.

    But, there are plenty of times (and there will be more) when true expertise and collaboration is required (i.e. the classic data + modeling) example, and as another anonymous writes, the solution is not to present the story is pieces that require reading two papers (potentially in two different journals).

    I agree with your first suggestion that co-authorship should require a justification on how the authors are equal contributors. But the disclaimer — well that would be about as reasonable as a similar disclaimer when choosing to publish in a non-glamor mag, pointing out how, given the current state of the world, you’ll be hurt by the choice.

    I’m guessing you’re giving field specific advice that might work for your field but not others, or are still stuck in the dark ages when novel work didn’t require as much multi-disciplinary input as it does now.


  12. zb Says:

    The solution is to demand that co-authorship mean something (that the two authors really contributed equally in definable ways) and to respect that equal contribution, not any of your other solutions.

    To use the film analogy, though the producer might get to accept the best picture award, credit is spread around among many more people than that, defined by their roles.


  13. Jekka Says:

    There are of course many cases where I agree with DM, such as the paper with four co-first and four co-last authors. Or the co-author whose major contribution to the manuscript was crying in the PI’s office.

    But it’s a bit troll-y to say that *all* co-authorships are a scam. I agree with another anon. that there will be more and more of this, especially now that patient data is included in many studies that began at the bench. Pretty awesome to go from mechanism to relevant-SNPs in one paper!


  14. drugmonkey Says:

    “mechanism”, “full story”, “fragment”…

    These are all the terms of truly deluded about the way science actually advances. Scooping? Forgotten? Pfagghhh! I reject your notions regarding why we are engaged in the enterprise. These ideas are *hinderances*!


  15. A. Tasso Says:

    Maybe we should adopt the economics/sociology conceptualization of authorship, which requires true intellectual contribution by all named authors. (Collecting data or revising the manuscript does not count — these people get named in Acknowledgments.) That way, anyone who is named on a paper is understood to be a co-equal. Consistent with this, there are generally no more than 2-4 authors on an economics or sociology paper (and more and your department chairperson starts asking questions). As a bonus, authorship in economics and sociology is assigned on the basis of alphabetical order.


  16. Namnezia Says:


    Scooping? Forgotten? Pfagghhh! I reject your notions regarding why we are engaged in the enterprise.

    Now you’re just ranting…


  17. drugmonkey Says:


    1) the PI

    2) you blew your claim that the works wouldn’t “stand alone”. You confess your lodestone is “as a GlamourPub”. It is better to publish two papers. “visibility” is nonsense in the PubMed era. We’ve been through this.

    3) new grad. I even wrote a post on that awhile back.


  18. PQA Says:

    Along with pubmed acknowledging it, I think it would be great if endnote had a way for citing co-authorship… Say (Doe, J and Smith B 2010) for co-authors rather then just (Doe, J). I find it strange and sad that journals that allow co-authorship don’t acknowledge it in their citation style.


  19. drugmonkey Says:

    For those of you coming up with the truly collaborative examples that even I might agree with, what fraction of co-authorships rise to this standard. What fraction reflect “crying in the PI’s office”? Or just plain poor lab management (I.e. no real reason the first author couldn’t have done the work that earned the listed-second his asterix?)


  20. kevin. Says:

    What happens with three co-first authors? Certainly no chance of a single author paper there. Two papers with two different first authors and a shared second?

    And what the hell is that PI doing in that office, anyway? How do you feel about forgoing senior authorship on behalf of a peon? “As long as the grant is cited, I don’t care about authorship…”



  21. drugmonkey Says:

    How do you feel about forgoing senior authorship on behalf of a peon? “As long as the grant is cited, I don’t care about authorship…”

    There exist several examples in the literature in which others are in authorship positions for which I am more deserving*, yes. I don’t go around looking to efface my contributions but I don’t generally engage in authorship wars. I am contented that over the long haul the truth of who did what will be readily apparent. Naturally I have this privilege because I am already in the PI chair…

    *going by some common practices, assumptions, etc


  22. drugmonkey Says:




  23. Jekka Says:

    Although using the word “synergistic” makes me retch, I do believe that there are times where having a breadth of approaches provides deeper insight to a problem than, say, three smaller, separate papers on the same topic.

    Are you advocating Least Publishable Unit papers here DM?


  24. Alex Says:

    Regarding Namnezia’s scenarios:
    1) No opinion, but it would probably be best for the trainees if each one got to the point where they’ve identified and taken ownership of their own unique question. They should work together and learn from each other, of course, but each should take ownership of something ASAP.

    2) This dead horse has been thoroughly flogged.

    3) I’m skeptical that the new grad should get first author. Carrying something to the finish line and writing it up requires a lot of checking, double-checking, triple-checking, rethinking, contextualizing, discussion, and literature comparisons. The checking, the thinking the explaining, these are the essential safeguards of science. These are what distinguish a good start from a well-supported hypothesis. If the time spent on the “boring” double-checking and rethinking isn’t at least as long as the amount of time spent on the exciting surge of new results, you’re doing it wrong. I am skeptical that the rotation student really had enough time to be there for both the exciting head-rush of new results and the “boring” but crucial checking and re-checking and all that. If the new grad wants the full first author credit for the exciting thing that they started, they should find a way to stay actively involved until the finish line. Otherwise, second author.

    BTW, I’m a theoretician, not a laboratory scientist, but even in my line of work there’s an exciting head-rush when something comes together, and then there’s months of tedious work where the idea is checked in every conceivable case, simulations are run, comparisons are made, and the idea is basically examined from every possible angle. Everything I’ve ever seen of lab science leads me to believe that experimental work is similar, at least if it’s done right.


  25. Mike_F Says:

    Well, methinks this rant is (somewhat) overdone. Here are two true stories from the past year:

    1) One of the bioscience dept’s in my institution wanted to appoint a new faculty member in a ‘hot’ field before his/her main postdoc paper had been published. He/she had three ‘equal contribution’ authorships where he/she was second or third, all short technical reports in high profile journals. There was an animated discussion in the institute review committee, and the decision was made to approve the appointment.

    2) Ranking of cv’s in a postdoctoral fellowships competition. A candidate with one ‘equal contribution’ high profile publication where he/she was second on the authors list was ranked above another candidate with two bona fide first author papers in run of the mill journals. The cut-off point for funding was just between these two candidates…


  26. drugmonkey Says:

    1) and why “animated” pray tell?

    2) just plain wrong


  27. drugmonkey Says:

    Are you advocating Least Publishable Unit papers here DM?



  28. postdoc Says:

    Surely we can handle the complexity of a situation where two or more people have contributed equally to a project.

    That it might be mathematically nearly impossible for people to have EXACTLY equal contributions is not relevant. The bounds of human error and diverse perspectives can make contributions effectively equal.

    I ended up making a very substantial contribution to a project that was “owned” by someone else. The contribution really changed the impact of the paper. It was nice to get credited (though I was a young grad student and barely thinking about authorship). It would be silly to discourage collaboration because “there can be only one.” That’s just b.s.


  29. Alex Says:

    Wait, who said that the two papers have to be LPU’s? 95% of these controversies seem to be for Glamour papers. Most of the time the supplementals are poorly-written and only partially describe what’s going on. If the work is really as earth-shattering as the Glamour authors and editors believe, the work could easily be turned into two meaty contributions to good society-level journals, each thoroughly describing a key aspect of the project while giving sufficient detail to put it in the context of the other portion.


  30. Isis the Scientist Says:

    Are you saying that teamwork and pulling your weight, under all circumstances, should be avoided because co-first authorship is bullshit?



  31. Olivier Boss Says:

    I once (PTP-1B KO) declined to be co-first author because it was not needed, and I thought there should be only one 1st.
    There are instances where co-first authors are fully legitimate (and used wisely). But nowadays 2 (or 3) co-first authors (and even co-last authors) are more and more frequent – sometimes unjustifiably. (I have seen this.)


  32. alethea Says:

    I’m on a 3-1st-author-coauthor simulation paper. Each 1st author simulated a different state of a protein and did all their own analysis and then we combined our data to describe state changes. We’re listed in alphabetical order by last name, with asterisks. We each did 1/3 of the simulation, 1/3 of the analysis and 1/3 of the writing with the later stages being highly collaborative as we synthesized analysis and did the writeup together.


  33. molliebatmit Says:

    I’m a grad student, and I work with another grad student in my lab. We share multiple projects, and although we each have a sole-first-author project on which the other is second author, we also have two co-first-author projects where we’re analyzing different aspects of a protein’s function. In addition, we’re writing a review together where we will be co-first (and we’re flipping a coin to decide order on submission).

    We conceived the projects together, have done all the bench work side-by-side, and are writing the papers (which we plan to publish back-to-back) together, in the same room, on Google Docs.

    I fail to see why we ought to publish our co-first papers as anything other than co-first, or why I should feel that I am being “bought off” by being second-listed co-first-author on one of my own projects.


  34. Odyssey Says:

    I fail to see why we ought to publish our co-first papers as anything other than co-first, or why I should feel that I am being “bought off” by being second-listed co-first-author on one of my own projects.

    Because once it’s published no one, other than yourselves, will give a rats arse about the second author. The first gets all the glory. Period.


  35. GMP Says:

    I am a theory/simulation person who collaborates with experimentalists a lot. We have cases of Namnezia’s #2 all the time. I don’t like the following, but it’s an unspoken rule, especially in high visibility joint publications: the experimental student/postdoc is always first, my theory student/postdoc is second. This unfortunately reveals the secondary status of theory/simulation when compared to the very expensive experiments in my field. These papers are true co-first-authorships, but we never stated them on paper.

    Still, no one stops my student/postdoc in this case from writing next to such papers on their CV — “I did all the theory, the first author is an experimentalist.” And nothing stops me from explaining my protegee’s contribution in a letter of reference. And no one stops me and my student/postdoc from submitting a comprehensive follow-up theory-only paper to a society-level journal.


  36. bob Says:

    DM, this may be a more idealistic, “the way it should be” post, but you’re also into the careerism and here you’re wrong. There may be some asses who refuse to acknowledge authors’ claims about contribution but from the comments here you see this isn’t always the case.

    Another practical example: HFSP requires a first author paper for applicants for their postdoc fellowships but they accept equally contributing second authors as passing the bar.

    IME credit is not equal in these cases, but the second author+ is somewhere between a first and second authorship.


  37. lylebot Says:

    Most fields don’t have any kind of system for recognizing “equal contributions”, I think. In many fields that are more mathematical/theoretical, authors are always listed in alphabetical order. If that’s not the standard and authorship is unclear it can be negotiated. I have a frequent collaborator with whom it might make sense to claim “co-first” authorship on a few papers, but since that isn’t done in our field, we just decide on a case-by-case basis (often the “decision” happens when one of us puts in the author list with the other one of us first).

    So that’s the answer to those who are asking “what else makes sense?” Now I will grant that in my subfield we probably publish a lot more since the cost of experimenting is low. A good grad student can graduate with 5+ first-author papers, so ending up as second on a few isn’t a huge deal. But the question doesn’t come up in other subfields that publish less either.


  38. drugmonkey Says:


    I think you evidence my desire. If even a grad student is getting a handful of first author pubs, then the effort/credit is sufficiently shared. As with the comment from molliebatmit, above. The problem really only becomes acute when there are not enough first author slots to go around….and that is what we find in situations where the standard for publication is first-author type contribution from more than one person.


  39. Grumble Says:

    The solution is obvious. Journals should list the authors in a circle, with no beginning and no end. And that’s the way EndNote should put them in each citation.

    Slightly more seriously, maybe the standard should no longer be to cite papers like this: “DrugMonkey et al, 2010”, but by a short descriptive title of no more than 4 words (e.g., “Beer Self-administration in Chickens, 2010”). Authors would then be ranked in order of importance to the work, with the same rank given to ties: e.g., 1,1,1,4,4,6,7,8. In the latter example, there are 3 first authors (maybe 2 grad students and the PI), but, under this system, the paper would never be referred to by any of the first authors’ names, so it’s completely fair to everyone.

    When listing papers on CVs and biosketches, it would also be standard to note each author’s rank with a superscript. That way promotion and hiring committees would be forced to take the rank as the important thing, not the position on the paper.

    In this age of mega-collaborations, this seems like a very fair way of doing things. Let’s start tomorrow.


  40. […] jekka asks: Are you advocating Least Publishable Unit papers here […]


  41. hn Says:

    How about listing senior author first, and then everyone else alphabetically? Short blurb follows with individual contributions. This is consistent with how we really talk about papers, “cool paper from Prof. X’s lab”. And we all know Prof. X didn’t get his hands dirty on the project.


  42. Spiny Norman Says:

    DM, you do understand that in fields other than biomedicine, authorship conventions are not the same, yes? See, for example, various synthetic organic chemistry papers, such as K. C. Nicolaou’s syntheses of various large organic products. He does none of the bench work and is generally the FIRST author.

    At the other end of the spectrum, there are PI’s who allow their trainees to publish without taking co-authorship for themselves so long as grant numbers are acknowledged. My postdoc PI did this for me on one paper, and he’s done it for others since then. I’ve got a (very successful) friend who published two of his grad papers as sole author because he obtained the funding, did all the work, and wrote the papers. That was in biomedicine. In ecology and evolution, it’s very common practice for trainees to get sole authorship.

    The fact that the “scoring” is the way it is in biomedicine is not inevitable, and it is not necessarily the best of all possible worlds, Panglossian blather aside.


  43. drugmonkey Says:

    Yes, SN, I grasp this just fine.


  44. Spiny Norman Says:

    Figured. But it was not blindingly obvious from the post & comments.


  45. drugmonkey Says:

    I have chuckled over this very issue in prior threads. Mostly when some clown starts screaming about “unethical” authorship conventions or about how his/her subfield convention is the only way.

    It is a *communication*. We just don’t have very good Dictionaries and Thesaurii for the dialects.


  46. hugues Says:

    I really like your implied suggestion that truly equal first co-authors should be allowed to reorder the order of authors.. this might mean a lot of software rewrite (which is only good for the economy).

    Stimulate career and the economy! What a wonderful idea.


  47. Tim Says:

    I feel like this is a bigger issue within academia than it is within industry – coming from someone who straddles both.


  48. drugmonkey Says:

    As always, Academia fetishizes and over works irrelevant crap because the stakes are otherwise so low. I mean think about it…..


  49. Well, I agree that co-first authorships are a joke in the sense that nobody really treats the second listed author as anything other than, well, the second author, but I’m deeply disturbed by the idea that you can’t seem to understand that contributions to a paper really can be equal. For example, I’m a computational biologist, and this means most of my papers are in collaboration with experimentalists. I’d say that generating the data and analyzing it are equal in importance — neither can be done without the other.


  50. drugmonkey Says:

    you can’t seem to understand that contributions to a paper really can be equal

    While many have made exactly this leap of logic in the comments I said no such thing.


  51. You said:

    The co-equal credit is a lie and a sham and serves only to buy off the authors who are not listed first. Please explain in full how the contributions are equal

    This suggests to me (and others) that you find it unlikely that two people can really have equal contributions to a paper. Is this not what you meant? If the authors replied “Andy did the experiments and Brenda did the computational analysis, and we feel that that these are equal in worth”, would you be satisfied?


  52. drugmonkey Says:

    No, it means it will never be *perceived* as equal credit. Different matter entirely.


  53. Ethsci Says:

    This is a topic that interests me. I have published papers and books on research ethics, and I am not sure what to think about co-first authorship or co-last authorship (which also occurs now). It seems to me that it could serve a valid purpose, in theory, but that it is often used just to appease people. I think that very often co-first is granted when people do not really do equal work. It is granted simply so both can put a first author paper on their CV. I mediated a dispute a few months ago in which the authors were fighting about whose name should go first, even though they were both designated as co-first authors. Email me if you are interested in carrying on this dialogue.


  54. […] took up the issue of the Least Publishable Unit of science in the wake of a discussion about first authorships. In that context, the benefit of having more, rather than fewer, papers emerging from a given […]


  55. dodo Says:

    You sir are a joke!


  56. Just saying Says:

    Spoken truly like someone who has never had a high-impact publication. I have multiple single and co-first authorships in top journals, including the glossy ones (both as a sole first and with others) and I am now with my own lab. Believe you me, I worked just as much as my co-first authors and as in my single authorship articles.
    Here’s an idea I’ve been meaning to throw at you and your pal, PhysProf of whatever his username is: The kind of PI that has the time to blog about shit like both of you do is the kind of PI whose science is mediocre and meaningless. So stop saying shit you have no balls to say with your real names and go train your postdocs and grad students. Some of the complaints you guys are so vociferous about dismissing are totally legitimate.
    Assholes like both of you should never be in charge of people.


  57. Pedro Says:

    Even if equal contributions are a joke to the general scientific community, as they cannot be interchanged, i think it’s still better than plain second. That gives the idea, at least in your lab and to close collaborators, that you did a really important contribution to a project, specially if you don’t have any important publication of your own yet. Of course, you should as quick as possible publish something else as sole first author for your career.


  58. Pedro Says:

    Even if you are the first equal contribution author and fail to mention it in your CV, potential employers check the paper by themselves (which you should also provide anyways).


  59. […] * And doesn't do your chances of landing a grant as much good as you might think. ** If you want to offer up the multiple equally-contributing first author Kool Aid, go elsewhere. […]


  60. GS Says:

    Agree with all comments where the co-authorship is justifiable. but what abt those situations where a person has to share first authorship with other just because he’s favourite of PI?? or PI wants to enhance the career of this student?? Won’t it be just a mere exploitation!!!!

    Every Journal should make it mandatory to include Authors contributions and then decide the journal committee shout make a decision if the co-authorship is really justifiable or not…


  61. […] tricky to navigate, but as a trainee they can become downright treacherous. Set aside the issues of 4 equal first authors for a second and think about the way we talk about science. At least in my field, it is extremely […]


  62. Susan Says:

    @DM, a recent situation in our lab:

    Grad student did the majority of experiments and wrote the paper.

    Undergraduate student did one experiment that became an important figure, using novel ideas and techniques well outside of grad student’s (and PI’s) expertise and skill set.

    Postdoc trained undergraduate student, contributing those ideas and techniques.

    Who is on the paper? Grad, PI? Grad, Undergrad, PI? Grad, Undergrad, Postdoc, PI?


  63. disillusioned_grad Says:

    Situation happening to me right now concerning co-first authorship:

    I am a 3rd year grad student. I contributed most of the intellectual work, the writing, and the labor leading to the content (5 out of 6 figures) of the manuscript. This is my main and only project in the lab. Post-doc has been closely collaborating, but this is not Post-doc’s primary project. Post-doc contributed 1 figure, which added somewhat to the overall message, but the paper could easily stand without it, but it was a s***load of work on Post-doc’s part. There’s no way that work could stand on its own so if we don’t publish together it will just go to waste, and so that is not an option. Post-doc has been in lab for 3 and 1/2 years, and has no publications yet. PI decided on shared authorship after consulting Post-doc but without consulting me, and before the figures were made. PI tells me (now that PI sees that I’ve contributed most of the content for this paper) that I will be listed first, and cryptically says that “all that matters is what I write in my letters of recommendation for you when you are looking for your post-doc.” I take that to mean PI will write in my letters of recommendation that I did most of the work, explaining away the fact that I am listed only as a co-first. Honestly, I would fight for sole-first but I can’t decide whether I have grounds for it (it truly was a lot of labor on the Post-doc’s part), AND I really don’t want to burn bridges. I find that I’m way better at science than at playing the politcal games that go along with science, and it totally bums me out. 😦

    Do you have to be a bully to get ahead in this profession?


  64. drugmonkey Says:

    To “get ahead”? Maybe. Not to survive though.


  65. […] suggest 50 different experiments. Now I get promoted to co-1st author and have more responsibility (I know, I know). Which is fine. The thing is this: this project has taken over, and it doesn’t really do me any […]


  66. Alfred Says:

    Please do notice that different research areas have different conventions. For mathematics and (theoretical) computer science, authors appear in alphabetical order and it is encouraged to do so, as it is simply impossible to distribute credits in a fair way.

    What bothers me is that scientists tend to adapt to the way research is being evaluated, giving way too much importance to such publication metrics (i.e. number of first-authored papers), instead of having evaluators adapt their methodology to different research areas.


  67. Jemand Says:

    Your opinion is way too strong and excessive. I wonder whether you are a scientist or just some radical politician. I believe that you are not a scientist and if you happen to be one, you cannot be a good one. You must have never enjoyed a real collaboration with a peer with whom you would be equally important or instrumental to some idea, its corroboration and implementation. I understand that many people like you are outsourcing experiments that they cannot perform themselves and then, of course, you do not have real collaborators, just service providers for money. If you are a scientist, your scientific life must be poor and deprived of great experience of working together with someone who complements your ideas, who brainstorms with you and who provides critically important contribution without which your paper would never be produced and who, by doing so, becomes equally important to the paper than you. I should feel sorry for you but I don’t. I rather feel sorry for science, if people like you are in there, loud and destructive.


  68. valentina Says:

    My “big” boss and my “small” boss, another co-authors, made me the “co-first author” in an article that was published in Science. I bet that if it was another, “weaker” journal, they put my name first. Now my name is the second and I am the co-first author. And what? Everyone mentioned the first co-author, whose name appeared first, by citation, by talk, by inventing all methods, etc. It looks I am not exist. How can I emphasize it in my CV, Bio-Bib, and other career documents? None! In self-assessment I mentioned it, but it looks ridiculous and humiliating. Like second quality.


  69. drugmonkey Says:

    Exactly valentina, exactly.


  70. Pedro Says:

    I think Valentina got to the very core of the problem.
    Co-first authorship cannot be avoided in big groups or cases where multiple individuals contributed to the work significantly. It is however recognition that we are looking for. It should then become good practice to recognize the “co-first authorship” in, for example, reviews and highlights. More over it should also be personal responsibility of the first author in the list to always recognize the Co-first authorship.
    Finally we should not be ashamed of letting people know that we are “Co-first Author” It is our right. We earned.


  71. Drugmonky Says:

    So…you would what? Redo the EndNote styles do that in-text citations for co-first are always “Lee, Sanchez 2012”? Get up during the Q&A after a talk an say “excuse me, I believe that citation on slide 2 should be “Anselmo, Harcourtt”, not “Anselmo”….


  72. Jason Says:

    The conclusion I drawn from the discussion is that co-first authorship is not fair to the second author and this should be changed.


  73. Stephanie Says:

    What’s your opinion in this case:
    A post-doc does 70% of the actual laboratory work. Writes up about a third of the manuscript. Leaves the lab and never responds to the PIs emails again.

    A grad student comes along, finishes up the lab work and writes the majority of the paper, goes through the review process, and gets the paper accepted to a journal.

    How do you divvy up the author-ship?


  74. A post-doc does 70% of the actual laboratory work. Writes up about a third of the manuscript. Leaves the lab and never responds to the PIs emails again.

    A grad student comes along, finishes up the lab work and writes the majority of the paper, goes through the review process, and gets the paper accepted to a journal.

    How do you divvy up the author-ship?

    This is an easy one. The grad student is the first author.


  75. Says:

    Point taken, but I think you exaggerate it a bit.

    Obviously the status of “co-first author” is nowhere near that of “first- first” author… but it’s also much better than “random second author”, which absolutely no-one cares about.

    So the asterisk does bring some value. No, nobody thinks it’s on the same level as “real” first author; but yes, it does give you much better recognition than not having it.

    As long as everyone is clear about this, I can see situations where it is appropriate to reward one co-author with “better than middle but not quite first-” authorship. E.g. one guy collected the data for an experiment, another guy has an idea of a completely different question that could be answered by doing a different analysis on the same data, and they both collaborate in performing said analysis.

    Stephanie and others: I understand that in general, the one who writes the manuscript gets to put his name first. A PI asking someone to write the vast majority of a manuscript, without giving first authorship, is basically being an ass. At least that’s how I see things.


  76. Dr A Says:

    I’m going to throw another hypothetical scenario out there. Postdoc works on a project for over a year, writes up 18 pages of a manuscript and 7 figures for what she thought was a complete story (and according to discussions with PI was experimentally complete), leaves lab due to husband’s job relocation, but indicates to PI that she will finish the paper. PI ignores subsequent emails from postdoc concerning the paper, decides to add more data without discussing it with postdoc, and assigns this experiment to grad student. Then allows the grad student to make changes to postdoc’s paper, add one figure, and list herself as co-first author…meanwhile, postdoc is protesting as this was her project and she would like to be permitted to complete her paper (and receive appropriate first authorship). This is within months of postdoc leaving the lab.

    Thoughts? Does one lose all rights to authorship just because they physically had to leave a laboratory?


  77. drugmonkey Says:

    This sounds like shenanigans, the way you tell it. Look, if the person who departed is engaged, and the paper IS complete, sure they stay as first author.


  78. If the grad student is listed as the second first-author, then (1) you should be happy that this poor fucker rewrote the fucken paper and is going to take it to final submission and revisions in exchange for second authorship and (2) you should not think that having a second first-author dilutes your actual first authorship.


  79. CG Says:

    I would like to chip in on this.

    Your statement is radical and in many cases miss the point. Science today flourish from collaborations (interlab-wise) and in many cases the combination of the effort of several student with different expertise can lead to a better understanding can be made. If the second co-equal REALLY contributed equally to the work and manuscript preparation, and that without his work the paper would not be possible, then there is no reason why not give the proper credit. In my field of crystallography, many times we collaborate with different labs which focus on the functional aspects. Our lab brings to the table our expertise at the structural level and complement the functional question at hand. Together, functional and structural studies can bring deeper understanding which could not be possible if each were to work separately.


  80. drugmonkey Says:

    The point is not that we should not assign proper credit. Quite the contrary in fact. The point is that the listed second person does not actually receive the functional benefit of equal credit indicated in this way.


  81. In my field of crystallography, many times we collaborate with different labs which focus on the functional aspects. Our lab brings to the table our expertise at the structural level and complement the functional question at hand. Together, functional and structural studies can bring deeper understanding which could not be possible if each were to work separately.

    So you are just as happy to be the second-listed first-author when you have grown, x-rayed, and solved the crystal structure, with the biochemist/biophysicist who did functional studies suggested by your structure as the first-listed first-author? You don’t care one way or the other where you are listed, so long as your receive “equal contribution” billing?


  82. Spiny Norman Says:

    “Does one lose all rights to authorship just because they physically had to leave a laboratory?”


    This has been another edition of simple answers to simple questions.


  83. Jipkin Says:

    So… this is really a rant about the nature of lists rather than the nature of authorship?

    I say far easier to change citation formats than to change an entire culture. Stack the names vertically in the citation and pub. Or any of the other fine suggestions in this thread.


  84. drugmonkey Says:

    No, it is really about a disgusting culture of exploitation of labor and a GlamourMag culture that actively impedes the progress of science, wasting taxpayer money.


  85. […] is raw pub # by year. Only final author counts here (if co-first is bullshit, then co-corresponding is bullshit times bullshit to the power of bullshit). In my field, a middle […]


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