Fun ways of deciding authorship order

Last spring, I did a poll related to authorship order in ecology. I’ve written up a couple of posts presenting the results of that poll (part 1, part 2), and plan on writing more. But, for now, I want to focus on some . . . less standard ways of deciding authorship for ecology and evolutionary biology papers.*

It all started with this tweet (which makes me also want to write a post with best opening lines of ecology & evolution papers — give suggestions in the comments!**):

My reply to that was that there’s another Hairston & Hairston paper (1993 AmNat) where authorship was determined alphabetically:


I realize that it’s not that uncommon for folks to alphabetize authorship order, but it probably doesn’t usually require getting to the 21st letter of the name to break the tie!

That sparked this tweet about Fauth & Resetarits (1991 Ecology), which is what motivated this post:

Authorship determined by basketball skills is certainly an early contender for most fun way of determining authorship order. That led me to ask on twitter for other examples . . . which got lots of replies!

It turns out there was precedent for using athletic pursuits to determine authorship order. Hassell & May (1974, J. Animal Ecology) chose authors based on a 25 game croquet series (ht: Robin Choudhury, Noam Ross, Adam Stuckert).


(Is croquet an athletic pursuit? Whatever, I’m sticking with it.)

Some choose to go with random approaches. There’s the classic coin flip, used by Miller & Ballard (1992 Wildlife Society Bulletin) and surely others (ht: Jeremy):


Or the more modern version:

However, sometimes geography makes a coin flip difficult, in which case authors use more creative approaches, as in the case of Feder & Mitchell-Olds (2003, Nature Reviews Genetics) (ht: Stephen Heard, in his book on writing)


I wish they’d explained more!

Others have used very practical concerns to determine authorship order of Roderick & Gillespie (1998 Molecular Ecology) (ht: Jeremy, Stephen Heard)


And then there’s the chance to use game theory to figure out authorship order, as done by Riechert & Hammerstein (1983 Annual Review of Ecology & Systematics). (ht: Don Schoolmaster)


Or, one could go with the rock-paper-scissors approach, as used by Kupfer et al. (2004 Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment) (ht: Stephen Heard, in his book on writing)


But all the ones above pale in comparison to this one by Young & Young (1992 Ecology):


That’s right: a brownie bake-off! (ht: Robin Choudhury, Ryan McEwen, Don Yee) The competition is over, folks! Clearly this is the best way to determine authorship order, and I’m happy to volunteer to judge these competitions, as a service to the field. Though, I fully agree with Jeff Hollister’s call for open science on this one:

Of course, even once you’ve determined authorship order, there are still other questions related to authorship that might need to be addressed.*** It turns out that, if you feel your coauthors didn’t pull their weight, you can address that with a footnote, too, as done by Hendry et al. (2013 Evolutionary Ecology Research).



If you know of others that I missed, please let me know!


Right as I finished this post, I learned (thanks to being tagged into a conversation on twitter by Stephanie Carlson) that a banjo played a key role in determining the order of authorship of Hilborn & Mangel’s Ecological Detective (which was one of the most popular responses in Brian’s poll of favorite ecology books). The story is told in a piece by Hilborn:


It is a very nice banjo!:

* After starting this post, I learned about this compilation by Sylvain Deville (ht: Jeremy) and this one from Academia Obscura (ht: Stephen Heard)

** An obvious follow up to that would be one focused on acknowledgments sections. There are definitely some good acknowledgments out there. Suggestions for those are also encouraged!

*** And then there are the questions of interesting (co)authors, such as Student (really William Sealy Gosset) and F.D.C. Willard (who was actually a Siamese Cat named Chester; ht: Rebecca Clark)

33 thoughts on “Fun ways of deciding authorship order

  1. Fun post! Always nice to hear about whimsy in science. As for acknowledgements, my favourite has long been this concluding line from Woese & Goldenfeld (2009):

    “Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation or the Department of Energy, although they should.”

  2. Slightly different topic, but my favorite author list…

    Vincent, T.L., Van, M.V. and Goh, B.S., 1996. Ecological stability, evolutionary stability and the ESS maximum principle. Evolutionary Ecology, 10(6), pp.567-591.

    …not really sure how Vincent got Van and Goh to go along with it, but it was a good one.

      • Van is definitely fake. I’ve talked to both Mike Rosenzweig (the editor) and Tom Vincent (first author) about this paper. They always play it straight and say “I’ve never met Dr Van but I’m sure he exists” but there is a twinkle in their eye if not a wink (or sadly in Tom’s case was as he’s passed away). Goh is a real person and it was a genuine collaboration between he and tom

    • Les Real has mentioned that he was in grad school with someone whose last name was Batty and that he hoped they would publish together so there could be a Real-Batty hypothesis. Sadly, it didn’t happen.

      • That reminds me of my dream to culture the giant amoeba Chaos chaos* under conditions causing it to exhibit chaotic population dynamics, just so I could write a paper called “Chaos in Chaos chaos”.

        I’ll probably just have to settle for culturing it, writing a paper on its non-chaotic population dynamics, and calling the paper “Chaos in Chaos chaos?” It would be a boring paper, but I could get it into a journal that only judges papers on technical soundness. And the abstract could just be “No.”

        *yes, that’s a real Latin binomial, though I believe Pelomyxa may be the more accepted term for the genus.

  3. Fauth and I actually had that now-famous (thanks Meghan!) shootout one summer at the grade school basketball court in Pearisburg, VA, with a dozen or more other folks from Mountain Lake Biological Station as witnesses. Of course, Fauth had a decided advantage being a shooting/point guard, while I was more the the power forward/rebounding specialist type! Henry (our PhD. advisor, Henry Wilbur) actually edited it out of several drafts of the ms, but we kept putting it back in, since that was how it was determined!

      • Nah. HORSE essentially tests the same skills. Now, had we chosen a home run derby, the advantage would have flipped to me. Maybe a triathlon of sorts: free-throw shooting (advantage:Fauth), home run derby ( advantage: Resetarits), brownie bake-off (advantage: neutral). However, this is based on conditions 26 years ago (yikes!). Now we might just have to skip to the bake-off!

  4. I’m not surprised regarding the originators of the bake-off idea. Our lab was next door to Truman Young’s at Davis. I’d go over there and BS with him from time to time–the guy was a total case, laughed more than he talked, had all kinds of field work, and other, stories. He’d grab one of his reprints, shove it at me and say “Read this, it’ll change your life”.

  5. I haven’t commented on the other posts, so I apologize if this overlaps with some of that discussion.

    There’s a large body of research into different schemes of authorship, mostly coming from library sciences/infometrics. For example, authorship is commonly alphabetical in the social sciences, especially when there are few authors, and strongly benefits authors with last names early in the alphabet ( Cool stuff, and important!

    Clement (here: has a really neat way of representing the work contribution (see Table 2), that is actually pretty simple & straightforward, and would be easy to understand, but it requires honest dealing among co-authors, which is difficult, especially when early-career researchers have to stand up to senior authors.

    I think that while these funny examples are interesting, they point to a clear problem that you’ve pointed out elsewhere. We regularly use author order as a proxy, it’s hard to honestly assign effort, and its hard to interpret contribution from author order. Sometimes the Kobayashi Maru (change the rules) solution — I’d argue the ones presented here follow that model — seems the best but it doesn’t solve the problem.

  6. “However, sometimes geography makes a coin flip difficult, in which case authors use more creative approaches, as in the case of Feder & Mitchell-Olds (2003, Nature Reviews Genetics)
    I wish they’d explained more!”

    I passed this question on to Tom Mitchell-Olds. He says that they decided that whichever currency went up overnight would indicate the first author. The dollar went up against the Euro that night.

    • This raises the theoretical possibility of gaining a first authorship by manipulating the forex markets. Which in practice would be a much more expensive and risky way of trying to gain first authorship than simply trying to outbid your co-author a la Hilborn and Mangel.🙂

  7. My favorite acknowledgements:
    all from Alan Christensen at University of Nebraska…
    … in a 1993 Genetics paper
    “We are grateful .. to Brian Mariani for many helpful comments on the manuscript, and to Mary K Barry for keeping her comments to herself”
    … in a 1995 Genetics paper
    “We are grateful … to Dave Barry for not reading this paper”
    (probably in response to the famous humorist’s then-recent column on visiting Jim Thomas’ lab in Seattle
    … in a 2000 Genetics paper “Cats as an aid to teaching Genetics”
    “Larry Harshman, John Osterman, Aleata Triplett, Patricia Pukkila and two anonymous reviewers made helpful comments on the manuscript. Tony Joern did not.”

  8. Pingback: Weekend reads: World's most prolific peer reviewer; replication backlash carries on; controversial PACE study re-analyzed - Retraction Watch at Retraction Watch

  9. And why not…
    For a team based in the USA: order defined by playing poker
    For a team based in the UK: order defined by playing bridge
    For a team based in France: order defined by playing belote
    For a team based in any ex-USSR territory: order defined by playing Russian roulette

  10. Howdy, this is a playful way to illustrate creative solutions to difficult conversations about authorship order. I am a co-author on a paper in which author was in increasing order of the number of letters in each of the co-author’s last name. Thanks for the post!

  11. In physics, there’s the famous example of George Gamow and his grad student Ralph Alpher writing a paper on the creation of elements during the Big Bang; Gamow decided to add his colleague Hans Bethe’s name to the paper just so the author list would be “Alpher, Bethe, Gamow”…

    (There was a follow-on paper by Alpher and Robert Herman, who resisted Gamow’s suggestions that he temporarily change his name to “Delter”.)

  12. I was lead author of a paper in Science reporting the mineralogy of comet Wild-2, and had over 100 coauthors. Since my last name is Zolensky I decided to list the authors in reverse alphabetical order. The editors did not notice.

  13. One here from Jamie Oliver (1) and Russ Babcock (2, 3) from their paper: “Aspects of the fertilization ecology of broadcast spawning corals: sperm dilution effects and in situ measurements of fertilization.”

    3 Authorship in order of decreasing fertility

  14. Pingback: The funny papers on my CV | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  15. Pingback: Who will be first author? Flip a coin « Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!

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