The first author is usually the person who directed the research and did the most work, and other authors typically follow in order of contribution. In general, authorship requires:

  • A research contribution,
  • A writing contribution, and
  • Responsibility for the final version.

All three are required. An author is someone who has participated in the research journey, the write-up, and believes in it. A good rule of thumb is that co-authors understand the paper well enough to present it at a conference and respond to questions. If not, recognize them by acknowledgement rather than authorship. Just reviewing a paper, or making a useful suggestion, does not in itself entitle authorship, nor does helping in the research but not the write-up.

Establish author order initially. Author order can be a bone of contention so it often pays to agree on it at the start, along with the responsibilities involved. If the author order is not clear initially, rest assured it will not get less so as time goes by. Knowing where they stand lets people tailor their contribution as they see fit.

The publication mill. In academia, promotions depend on publications, so maximizing them is a way to get ahead. Some aim to join research groups to free-ride, i.e. get credit while not adding value. Others specialize in having a “bright idea” and getting a sucker to do the work while they claim “authorship. Be aware that ideas are cheap but turning them into research takes time and effort. Research is a knowledge journey and those who fake it never even start.

Always ask permission. Don’t add a power player in your department to the author list to ensure their political patronage in your future, as this is academic corruption. The success of science is based on it being a meritocracy not an aristocracy. If you accept fake authors on your publication what next, fake data? If in doubt whether someone barely involved in the research should be an author, ask the other authors what they think. Or ask the person directly – they may say “Why? I didn’t do anything.” Research is about the unknown future not past precedence or current academic power.

Seniority. A feature of academic publishing is that author order is often based on contribution not seniority, so professors often put a student’s name first because they did most of the work, even if the idea was the advisors. Students learn a more when they are first authors. The aim is to list authors in order of research contribution not seniority.

Acknowledgements. The acknowledgements section goes at the end just before the references but it is covered here because it relates to authorship. It is important to acknowledge those who helped the paper, whether an assistant who helped gather data or a colleague who edited it. Also mention any companies that helped and especially acknowledge any grant support from institutions. Acknowledge those who have helped the research.

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