Poll: what are your views on last and corresponding authorship in ecology?

Recently, I had a series of tweets related to authorship order and corresponding authorship practices in ecology. There was a ton of follow up discussion on twitter, and it’s clear that there’s a lot of interest in and confusion about this topic. The goal of this post is to do a poll to collect data on current views on authorship practices in ecology. I’ll follow up with a post summarizing the results and giving my thoughts on the topic.

Update April 21st: The poll is now closed.

Note added April 6th: There have been a few questions about the first few questions in the poll, regarding what is meant by “senior author”. By that, I mean the person who runs the lab (that is, the PI).

Note added April 7th: based on twitter reports, it sounds like sometimes the poll isn’t displaying the buttons correctly (perhaps only on Chrome). You can still select those options, though, as shown in this very handy gif made by Kara Woo:

Here’s the poll, which I’ll run for two weeks. It should only take a few minutes to fill out:


In case that poll doesn’t show properly, you can fill it out by clicking on this link.


Many thanks to Alex Bond, Linda Campbell, Kathy Cottingham, and Andrea Kirkwood for providing feedback on the survey questions!

20 thoughts on “Poll: what are your views on last and corresponding authorship in ecology?

  1. Question Meg: why ask questions about corresponding authorship, but not first authorship? I think of authorship order as summarizing overall contribution to the paper. Usually, the first author would also be the corresponding author, but there are circumstances in which it makes sense for the corresponding author to be someone else (e.g., first author is a grad student who’s now left academia, so the PI handles the correspondence). I guess I never thought about corresponding authorship status as being a particularly fraught topic. I don’t see any problem if different people have different policies for determining corresponding author, since that’s nothing to do with apportioning credit for the science reported in the paper. But if different people determine authorship order (and who gets to be an author at all) in substantially different ways, that makes it very difficult for others to apportion credit.

    • My impression is that policies related to first authorship criteria haven’t changed much (except for the newer practice of having “co-first authors”.

      I think your view of corresponding authorship is the traditional one in ecology. But some people view it as one of prestige. This is exactly what I’m interested in. But I feel like I shouldn’t say more while the poll is open!

  2. “what are your views on last and corresponding authorship in ecology?”

    My views on authorship order are that the conventions (whatever conventions there are) are non-uniform within fields, completely different among fields, and just overall confusing. It would be much, much better if we just stated what each person did.

    I’m currently writing a paper with three peers. So the person who contributed least will be last. But that will make this person seem like senior author in the eyes of some! It’s crazy.

    I have never understood what the “corresponding author”. In ecology it seems to me that it’s usually the first author, but sometimes someone else. I pretty much ignore it. (Maybe it’s a legacy of times past, pre-Internet, when you couldn’t just look up the contact info for all of the authors if you wanted to? I mean, they still ask for your *fax* number as mandatory info when you submit a paper…)

    • “But that will make this person seem like senior author in the eyes of some! It’s crazy.”

      generally it won’t, unless everybody involved is completely unknown to the field. its usually pretty obvious when last author is the lab PI or large project manager.

  3. I co-supervise graduate students with a colleague. The students are always first author and we tend to take it in turns for who is second and last author (we usually provide approx. equivalent contribution). I have a feeling it is better to be last than 2nd, but am not really sure.

  4. I recently moved from academia to government, and one of the biggest surprises is that they don’t use senior author at all. In practice, this means that there is more tension over authorship order. The PI who loosely oversaw things (staff are more independent than grad students) are in competition for spots with those that did the work and writing. I know a case where someone was second (and corresponding) author on papers she should have been first author on. I don’t think that would have happened if last author was considered senior and prestigious.

    • Hmm, interesting, never thought of it that way. Like most ecologists until recently, I don’t use and don’t like the senior author practice. But maybe I need to rethink a bit.

  5. I’ve always assumed first author (or when indicated, co-first authors) did most of the writing, editing and take responsibility for post-publication follow-ups. As we ecologists play more with molecular biologists, I see increasing use of the last author as “senior” author, usually meaning PI or overall project guidance. This seems to be happening more in straight ecology papers too (including many multi-authored papers that I’ve been involved with in the last 5 years or so). Sometimes, when there are lots of co-contributors, we go alphabetical. I also think it’s important to ensure that grad students or post-docs both exercise leadership in projects *and* get credit for it in the authorship lineup (whatever that is per discipline). But in general I think we’d all be better off with explicit author contribution sections in mss. They could also be pasted into CVs.

  6. I wasn’t able to answer the first few questions without distinguishing between principal (person who does most of the work & writes the paper) & supervising/senior author – convention most I know use is that principal author first (student or more senior), order of contribution next & supervisor (of student and/ or primary grant applicant) last

  7. My views on this have changed over the years. When I was a student and new PhD (25+ years ago), I assumed the author order reflected the relative contribution of each person, so that the second author would usually be the PI if the paper was written by a student or post-doc. I used that model for over a decade. After I became chair of a Biology department about 15 years ago, I realized that, in bio-molecular sciences, the PI or lab director almost always was the last name in author lists. I adopted that policy in my own lab at that time (it ended a lot of debates about relative contributions, and one more second-author pub was not going to matter one way or another in my career advancement).

  8. I have myself fallen into the trap of letting the last spot be for the senior author. But I do not like it, for the already discussed reason that it causes ambiguity. One never knows what the last spot really means. If we all just worked with decreasing order in terms of contribution, in combination with listing the actual contributions, I think we would be better off. I wonder to what degree this is a regional issue, just as much as a discipline one. An ecology colleague from Australia, working with marine field ecology and statistics, was shocked to hear me describe that many people view the last spot as important. He said that they would never practice that in Australia.

    I never pay attention to who is the corresponding author.

    • The last author as PI is common practice in Australia, at least in marine ecology. Eg, I was part of an NCEAS working group that Anthony Richardson (CSIRO) organized (he was the PI of the proposal). Thus he has been last author on every paper we’ve published (usually first authored by Burrows or Poloczanska), yet he usually did nearly as much work on the ms as the first author and far more than most the other authors. Also see any of dozens of papers coming out of Pete Mumby’s lab at UQ. In marine ecology and oceanography, if appropriate its common for the project PI to be last author. (Note I’m not endorsing the practice)

  9. The different authorship cultures in different regions and subdisciplines does make evaluation difficult. Some places (like here in China where I am on sabbatical) strictly count the last position when evaluating researchers for promotion, grants, etc.

    I’m in a biology department and feel that I do need to add the qualifier to my CV and annual reports that I adhere to author order = contribution.

    We also have a post about this: http://evol-eco.blogspot.sg/2013/05/navigating-complexities-of-authorship.html


  10. This is a difficult question because I recognize that there are very different views on this, and by recognizing the different views, I cannot say I follow which view because there is no point in stating my preference. For example, cultures (e.g., in some countries) that put weight on being a corresponding author created many papers to be published with multiple corresponding authors. Although I see there are cases in which the use multiple corresponding authors is justified, I recognize that the flexibility to have multiple corresponding authors is often (not rightfully) exploited for earning credits, e.g., for promotion and getting grants.

  11. I used to pay little attention to corresponding author, and I don’t think many people did in the UK. In recent years, however, we have been unfortunate to have had a plague of managers inflicted on us. Being managers they want to manage and they want metrics of research output, and they use proxies like publication output as these metrics. One of the wheezes they’ve come up with at my institute is to count a publication as an output only if you’re a “significant author” which is defined as first author or last and corresponding author. At a stroke, therefore, corresponding author has suddenly had a weight attached to it that it ought never to have had. One effect of this, of course, is that PhD students don’t get to go through the whole publication process even when they’re first author of a paper, because that will now go to the supervisor who will necessarily be the corresponding author.

    This might all sound silly but people in my department have lost their jobs on the basis of their reserach outputs, which suddenly makes it all rather serious.

  12. Pingback: Fun ways of deciding authorship order | Dynamic Ecology

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