Who should be senior author on papers resulting from collaborations between multiple research groups?

I am pretty much through with revisions to my manuscript on authorship, with one exception. One of the reviewers is (quite reasonably) pushing me to make a stronger recommendation about how authorship decisions should be made in the increasingly common case of collaborations between groups. But, of course, this is a tricky issue, and I’m waffling on what exactly to recommend. This blog post is me trying to work through that, and looking for feedback at the end. I’m quite interested in hearing how others think decisions about authorship should be made when multiple groups collaborate substantially on a project!

I’ll start by recapping some of what my results, since they set up the general question. Then, I’ll give some of my thoughts on what might be a proposed solution. And, as I said above, I’ll end by asking for feedback on what I propose.

My manuscript is interested in who is last and corresponding author as well as in the factors that influence peoples’ views on last and corresponding authorship. To assess the former, I did a literature survey of papers published in Ecology from 1956-2016, as well as in American Naturalist, Evolution, and Oikos from 2001-2016. To assess the later, I did a poll on Dynamic Ecology last year.

To no one’s surprise, the number of authors on papers is increasing:

Prior to the late 1990s, it was rare for the corresponding author of a paper to be designated; now, the first author is usually the corresponding author, with the last author being the corresponding author in a minority of cases.

Corresponding authorship of papers published in AmNat, Ecology, Evolution, and Oikos. In cases where no footnote was given to specify corresponding authorship, I used email addresses as indicators of corresponding authorship. “ND” means an email address wasn’t given for any author. In some cases, all (or both, in the case of papers with two authors) authors had email addresses (with none singled out as the one to whom correspondence should be sent). Finally, in some cases, a combination of authors (e.g., first and last) were corresponding author.

Most ecologists view the last author as a position of emphasis, though this view is not universal.

And most ecologists view the corresponding author as taking responsibility for the paper, but, again, there was variation in views (not to mention potential confusion about what the different survey options meant – one of my main conclusions from this work is that it would be really great if someone with qualitative research training tackled this topic!)

Poll respondents were asked about current practices (shown in blue) and best practices (shown in gray)


With all that as background: in the discussion of my paper, I note that attempts to infer the contributions of different authors based on who is last author and who is corresponding author will continue. We live in a world where many people who are assessing applicants (and even whole departments) do so by quickly looking over someone’s CV, at least as a first cut. So, for me, saying that we should not try to infer anything from authorship order is a non-starter. People are doing it and will continue to do it, so my goal is to see if we can at least make it a more reliable signal.

Given current practices (as indicated in the literature survey) and views (as indicated by the poll responses), I recommend that discussions of authorship have as their starting point that the senior author (that is, the head of the research group where the work was done) as the last author.

The big, sticky problem, of course, is what to do when multiple groups collaborate, making it so that there is not a single “senior” author. In some cases, multiple groups collaborate, but one group was driving most of the work with the other playing a much more minor role; in those cases, it still seems clear who should be viewed as the “senior” author. But it is increasingly common that there are multiple groups that are both contributing in roughly equal ways to a project. As just a few examples:

  • One group carries out an intensive field study, collecting lots of data that is then paired with novel theory developed by another group
  • An experiment is carried out by one group, but requires extensive chemical analyses by another group, with both groups investing roughly equal amounts of effort in the project
  • One group discovers a new interesting phenomenon and carries out studies documenting it, with another group then using molecular techniques and additional experiments to explain the phenomenon.

And those are just a few examples based on projects that my lab has been involved in! In all of those cases, both groups expended considerable effort (and, with the exception of the case where theory was developed, considerable expense).

When I wrote the discussion for the initial submission, I sort of punted on the issue, noting that it’s a tricky issue, saying that other fields use footnotes to indicate multiple last authors but that this isn’t common in ecology, and saying that, given the high stakes of tenure and promotion decisions, it would be advisable to include a short note in one’s dossier describing the authorship system used and noting exceptions. I also noted that, when making these decisions, it’s important to keep in mind that we surely have biases related to who is viewed as “senior”, and that this might impact views on who should be last author. (Notably, a recent study by Charles Fox et al. found that women are underrepresented as last/senior authors.)

That’s all fine, but one of the reviewers has pointed out (again, quite correctly!) that it would be a whole lot more useful if I had a recommendation for how authorship decisions should be made in these cases where multiple groups collaborate. If you’re thinking “authorship contribution statements!!!”, I think it worth keeping in mind that many people ignore them and/or don’t trust them.

So what should we do? The main recommendation I can come up with (and which is used sometimes now, albeit rarely in ecology) is to have a footnote indicating multiple “senior” authors on a paper. But I keep fighting against that in my head – at some level, I think that’s because it feels like salami slicing, and it makes me wonder how far it will go (6 “senior” authors on a single paper?) Then again, it might be that it feels wrong to me simply because I am used to the old system where there was one “senior” author, and I’m resistant to change because it’s different and I’m used to the old system. (I’ll file this under “signs that I am no longer ‘early career'”.) But I agree that the old system is outdated – modern ecology often involves collaborative projects between groups, and it is inescapable that people will try to quantify contributions to a project. So, perhaps the best option is to acknowledge that times have changed, that ecology today involves collaborations between different research groups, and to accept that the natural outcome of this is that, for some papers, it will make the most sense for there to be multiple “senior” authors on papers (and/or multiple corresponding authors).

Based on all that, right now, I am leaning towards recommending that, for papers where multiple groups contributed substantially to the project, in a way that makes it so that no one group can be viewed as having “led” the project, that should be indicated with a footnote (e.g., an asterisk next to the names of the last two authors with a footnote saying “these authors contributed equally”). I am also considering recommending that, in place of (or perhaps in addition to) author contribution statements, it would be helpful for some papers to say something like “Empirical work on this project was carried out by X, while mathematical modeling was led by Y” (where X and Y are either a person’s name or the name of a research group). There would still be the logistical issue that you have to list the authors in *some* order. Personally, I would default to alphabetical, but if the collaboration results in multiple publications, they could rotate through the order. (As much as I enjoy reading about things like brownie bakeoffs to determine authorship order, I don’t think they’re actually a practical recommendation.)

What do you think? What would you recommend as the best system for determining authorship in cases where multiple groups collaborated on a project, with no group as a clear leader of the work?

24 thoughts on “Who should be senior author on papers resulting from collaborations between multiple research groups?

  1. I think the footnote system is the way to go. There is no perfect 1:1 mapping of authorship contributions onto authorship order, and never will be; and you can’t make people use the information you give them to correctly infer what you meant. Nonetheless, authors have to be in SOME order, and the footnote system offers the key information compactly. If the journal permits, add authorship contribution statements. Sure, some folks don’t read them or trust them. Again, you can offer information, but you can’t make people use it. (You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it think.) For those who want them, the contribution statements are useful, while the fact that some will ignore the statements doesn’t carry a cost.

    • Yes, and to me the idea of “this was done in X group” seems less likely to be inaccurate (one of the concerns with authorship contributions) than things related to who conceived the project, who did the stats, etc.

      Also, this weekend I went to the Wayne County Fair. There were two girls there with a horse. One of them thought there was no point in bringing the horse over to the water but the other thought they should. They brought the horse over to the cattle tank and the horse drank quite a bit. So, you can lead a horse to water, and sometimes it will surprise you and drink. 🙂

      • Oh, and I’ve merged your suggestion with others in a new comment down below. 🙂

  2. How does ecology usually determine author order for multiple “first authors”? Or where junior people contributed equally. Can these same techniques be used for “senior authors”?

    As a side note, it is surprising how different authorship is treated in different fields. You’ve probably seen this Academia.SE question on supervisors and authorship, already. But in case you haven’t, I think it’d be interesting to share some of your observations and recommendations there, too.

    • I’m not sure if there’s a typical way that ecologists tend to determine author order when there are multiple first authors. I always find it interesting when there are multiple first authors but they aren’t alphabetical (and when it isn’t explained). Presumably *something* led to them being in the order they’re in!

      I agree that the differences between fields is really interesting. It was a bit hard to find actual references to support those differences, though (which I wanted to do for the introduction for this paper). I suppose these tend to be the unwritten rules/norms in fields!

  3. Personally I don’t interpret author order past first author (first author is almost always truly meaningful; everything else is too variably interpreted to be reliable). For multiple senior authors I suspect one will often have been the intellectual leader. For true ties, I say let it go to whoever can benefit most (e.g., early career).

  4. One option is to make decisions based on relative differences in how authorship position could benefits individuals differently. For example, if two lab groups collaborate where one PI is pre-tenure while the other is already at full professor level, it would make most sense for the pre-tenure collaborator to be listed in the last author position because, presumably, it would be more beneficial to their career vs the well-established scientist. Clearly this would need to be on a case by case basis, requires some willing altruism, and doesn’t help if collaborators are at similar career stages.

  5. If the collaboration is ongoing, then an alternating approach may work. I often collaborate and cosupervise students with other researchers. In the resulting student-led papers we simply alternate who is in last position from one paper to the next.

      • Yes, this seems like an ideal thing in cases where there are likely to be multiple pubs. You still need to make a decision for the first paper (which I address in my comment below), but it makes that decision feel less weighty if you know others are likely. Then again, it might not always make things easier if, say, one paper is much higher profile than the other.

    • That is what we do too and it works well. For a one-off paper I would suggest that the first author choose the senior author as the one that was most helpful to them in preparing the manuscript. I think there would rarely be a tie there.

  6. I agree with Mark and erikblomberg that a system where a tie goes to the person who could benefit most makes sense. My hesitation for recommending that for this paper was that I thought it might seem — I’m not sure what the right word is. Maybe unscientific? But, of course, these decisions are messy and there’s no clear objective means of making them (or we wouldn’t still be having this debate). And I do think being pragmatic about it is a common and reasonable way to do it.

    So, combining pretty much all of the above comments, maybe the system should be:
    1. Recognize that first AND last author positions are positions of emphasis.
    2. If there seems to be a true tie between two people, use a footnote to indicate that the contributions were equal.
    3. Since you still need to have authors in *some* order, use an approach of:
    a. if one person would benefit more from the position (say, because they are earlier in their career), default to having that person in the position of emphasis (first or last) [by the way, if you follow the link for the brownie bakeoff, you’ll see an image from a Roderick & Gillespie paper that indicates authorship order was determined by proximity to tenure decisions]
    b. if the two people are at similar career stages (or there’s some other reason why a doesn’t make sense), flip a coin (or use alphabetical order) and indicate in the footnote that that’s how the decision was made.
    4. If the situation arises again on another paper with the same two people tied, reverse the order.

      • Because they are on the first page. Most people will read only the title, the author list and the abstract, unless they are interested enough to read until the end. But then most will stop at the end of the discussion and ignore what comes next. It is more likely that footnotes on the front page will get some attention than an authorship statement stuck between the acknowledgements and the reference list. Regarding the trust, it is probably equivalently valued though.

      • Yes, I think part of why the footnotes are less likely to be ignored is because they are on the first page.

        I also think that comments indicating which group did which work are less likely to be viewed as inaccurate, since it’s bigger picture and not as prone to differences in perception (such as the ones that arise when people try to indicate who came up with the idea for a project, who wrote it, etc.)

  7. I like the proposed idea of listing authors by research group. Each group could have a first author (the person who wrote their group’s part of the ms, handles revisions, etc) and a senior author. I would want a contribution statement if I were an author in this arrangement so that I could get credit for whatever skillset I used. The first author of each group could be a corresponding author. For a given paper, let groups work out which group is listed first (though this seems silly to worry about).

    Just me, but I would not want to be first author for a collaboration among groups simply because I do not enjoy herding cats much and if a substantial proportion of the herd was physically remote, herding would be that much more tedious. It seems less efficient.

    As a reviewer/reader I like this arrangement as well.

    Thanks for the post Meghan.

  8. While I cannot speak for everyone, I know for myself that author order has never mattered. Typically, if I read one paper about subject X, then I am going to read a dozen papers about topic X, and then a hundred, and maybe even a thousand. Why? Well, because I very likely have a vested interest in topic X- i.e., I am researching the idea too.

    By the time I have plowed through maybe a hundred papers or so for a topic that is new to me, I pretty much know who the established people are in that particular arena of work. Smith & Blah Blah Blah 1999, Blah Blah Blah & Smith 2005, Blah Smith & Blah 2012…. and so it goes. Notice it does not matter by what order Smith occurs, but that over time, Smith appears again and again. The Blahs come and go. In the past seven years, for example, I’ve had eleven coauthors on my varied publications. I never cared where I appeared on those publications, although in general I was either first or last. Truth is, it did not matter.

    Anyone of the dozen or so people globally that have even a marginal interest in my work will discover fairly quickly that I am the common thread concerning my particular area of work. And of those dozen or so people that recognize it, maybe two or three actually give a hoot.

    We all need to get over ourselves. In the end we all get a headstone with our name on the central marquee… that should be enough for anyone.

  9. Jeremy, Did you published anything on conceptual problems of stability concept after Grimm, V. & Wissel, C Oecology 1997?

  10. Pingback: Last and corresponding authorship in ecology: a series of blog posts turns into a paper | Dynamic Ecology

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