Chemists Talkin’ Chemistry

Standardizing Author Order

Posted by Paul on March 29th, 2007

Authorship #1 Foam FingerScientists have been pretty good about developing standards to ease communication across scientific disciplines, but we have yet to decide on a standard protocol for determining the order of authors on papers. Since papers are widely regarded as the principal metric of scholarly achievement, maybe it’s time we did.

If you asked anyone what position they’d want in an author list, the general consensus would be first. Knowing nothing else about a paper, most of us would assume that the first author made the most important contributions. In the majority of chemistry labs, the first position is usually granted to the researcher who took primary responsibility for conducting experiments, writing the paper, and shepherding the project to completion. The remaining junior authors are usually listed in descending order of perceived scientific contribution, until you get to the principal investigator, who almost always goes last (1 2 3).

But making the above assumption can lead you astray, as that’s not the way all chemists do it.  Although it has become decreasingly common for the principal investigator to take first authorship (1 2 3), some young professors are continuing this trend.  It seems to be more common in organic synthesis than in other areas.  My understanding of this practice was that it simplified finding papers out of a particular research lab back when papers were sorted alphabetically in literature indexes.  While the advent of computerized literature searches has rendered this advantage obsolete, the practice of some PIs “going first” persists.  Perhaps it is simply a matter of tradition, or maybe a means of senior authors “protecting their brand,” since long author lists are usually shortened to “First Author, et al.”

What do other types of scientists do?  Astrophysicists list authors in descending order of contribution (1 2), which means that the advisor is usually the second author listed.  While this system seems the most fair to me, I can see how some bosses might lament the prospect of getting lost in long author lists.  When I’m scanning through ASAP alerts, after the title, I usually glance quickly at the end of the author list to see where the paper came from.  In this respect, the PI going first or last is rather convenient.  An astrophysics professor I talked to here said that he usually assumes that the last author on a paper was the guy who drove the rest of the team to the telescope.

While the practice of listing authors in alphabetical order is exceedingly rare in chemistry, it turns out to be standard protocol in the economics community (1 2 3). Does anyone else find it disturbing that, when left to their own devices, economists will revert to academic communism? Isn’t there something to be said for providing incentives for hard work?  Oh well.

Aside from author order, there is also the wacky issue of joint authorship. Sometimes author order assignments are so troublesome that people choose to indicate joint first-authorship. While it is occasionally seen in Angewandte Chemie, it has actually been banned from JACS:

JACS does not permit equal or partial authorship designations. JACS assumes that all authors have made substantial contributions to the work.

I’ve got no problem with having these notices of equal contribution; I’m not sure why JACS does.  The issue of joint authorship is so important to some authors that they actually published addition/correction notices to set the record straight (1 2).

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t link to Jorge Cham’s Ph.D. comic strip that illustrates what the order of authors really means.  There’s more than a bit of truth in it.

So…what style do I advocate? First, any of the above styles is acceptable.  It’s a personal decision that is determined at the sole discretion of the PI.  So long as the community knows how each PI operates, there won’t be any problems.  That said, I like the PI-last format—with a twist.  With the PI-last ordering, the people in the trenches have added incentive to get papers out and the PI gets to stand out too. My twist is that I think the first pages of supporting information for any paper should contain a short summary of each author’s contributions. This way, anyone who wants to know who did what can find out.  The added detail would be a double-edged sword, because with each credited contribution comes the added burden of being responsible for the integrity of the data.  Assigning responsibility in this manner would make it harder for fraudsters and sloppy researchers to hide behind their colleagues.  Furthermore, I think this list should be followed by a signed statement from each author asserting that, to the best of his or her knowledge, the results are authentic, are accurate, and were obtained in an academically honest manner.  It would be naive to think that this simple change would solve all of our community’s problems, from inflated yields to outright fabrication, but it might make some people think twice about going down those roads.

34 Responses to “Standardizing Author Order”

  1. Captain Catalysis Says:

    “Furthermore, I think this list should be followed by a signed statement from each author asserting that, to the best of his or her knowledge, the results are authentic, are accurate, and were obtained in an academically honest manner.”

    Doesn’t submitting a paper imply acceptance of those conditions? It is assumed that someone has read and agreed to Section B of the following ( before submitting a paper to an ACS journal.

  2. excimer Says:

    PIs who label themselves as first author are most likely keeping alive a practice that their advisors used. Baran’s PhD advisor certainly uses it, as did Nicolaou’s advisors, etc. Though it seems that Corey has stopped listing himself as first author in recent years. I wonder why?

  3. Knuckler Says:

    FWIW, Nature articles include a list of the individual contributions of each author. They are often quite vague, however.

  4. Uncle Al Says:

    All authorships must be rerouted to award compensatory credit to diversity hires. It worked exceedingly well for paternistically-oppressed female polymer chemist Elena Ceauşescu (appointed Director of the Central Institute of Chemical Research) until Christmas morning 1989. Her husband Nicolae, self-proclaimed “Geniul din Carpaţi”, did not complain.

  5. Mitch Says:

    I highly doubt your solution would fix yield inflation or data fabrication. Since, synthetics only report their best yield, and people who commit fraud still will. A better idea to fix yield inflation is presented here:


  6. TotallyMedicinal Says:

    In the (industry) med chem community, my experience is that nobody really gives a crap, unless some pushy collaborator insists that their student/postdoc deserves to go first because their resume needs it, in which case we all mutter under our breath “Well you can just fuck off then”. For example I have a J Med Chem coming out soon, on which I am first author. I did the majority of the work, but didn’t have any input on writing the thing, as I have changed jobs between doing the work and the paper being written. I would have been perfectly happy with straight alphabetical, or even alphabetical with PI in last place. Industry interviewers will generally ask you about your contribution to any piece of work, so author order doesn’t really count for much - There Is No “I” in “Team”.

    Obviously those hardy enough to contemplate life in the academic community require to relentless pump the cult of personal celebrity, and learn this from an early age - hence first authorship pissing competitions. I find this especially amusing when two authors have joint first authorship, and the work they describe is a pile of shite, as if they were fighting over ownership of the shite.

  7. aa Says:

    For graduate scholarships given out by the Government of Ontario, you of course have to list all of your publications. In addition to that, there is a separate “Summary” page where it asks how many scholarships, papers, posters, talks, etc that you have, just the number of these that is. The problem with that is that there are two column for papers: one for papers where you are the first author, and one for all other papers. So clearly, the government is treating first author papers as more important than others.

    My boss puts his name first on most papers, so that means when I apply for scholarships I’m potentially getting shafted. This ranking of papers by author order seems arbitrary to me, since its really the corresponding author “star” which is the most important part, when you actually look at the paper.

    Federal scholarship applications don’t have this same bias, in Canada at least… What is the story for grad $$$ applications in the States/elsewhere??

  8. Paul Says:

    Ugh, that stinks.

    I’ve never seen a US scholarship/fellowship application question like that. They usually ask for a CV or pubs list.

  9. lab chemist Says:

    I worked for a PI who was neither young nor in organic synthesis, but who typically was the first author. Typically the grad student would write the first draft, but the PI would revise it so thoroughly that he justifiably could call himself the first author. Perhaps young faculty do this more often because their groups are smaller and they have more time to do this (?).

  10. Klug Says:

    I’ve heard that what Paul describes as typical in the chemistry community is also the standard in the biology world. True?

  11. European Chemist Says:

    Although I can understand the older PI’s getting their names first, there is no reason - and no excuse - for a PI placing himself first on a paper. Let’s face it, the PI gets the star after his name, which is more than enough for the community; we KNOW that he provided the funding, we KNOW that he provided the idea for the project and maybe even most of the solutions for problems encountered during the project itself, and we KNOW that he either wrote the whole paper or corrected the student’s first draft. So why insist on putting your name first?? For heaven’s sake, allow a little credit to the students who actually DID the experimental work….

  12. Handles Says:

    My PhD supervisor always insisted on alphabetical order, but his surname began with ‘C’ so he was always first as far as I can remember.

  13. axicon Says:

    we KNOW that he provided the idea for the project and maybe even most of the solutions for problems encountered during the project itself, and we KNOW that he either wrote the whole paper or corrected the student’s first draft.

    This statement doesn’t leave much for the graduate student other than to act as a pair of hands for his/her advisor. Personally, if this were the case for me I would choose another line of work.

  14. Paul Says:

    Regarding the idea that submitting a paper implies that the authors have agreed to the ethical guidelines of the journal: I agree, but my point is that making all of the authors sign a statement will serve as reinforcement. I doubt that 5% of authors have read those guidelines anyway. It will also prevent someone from submitting a paper without the knowledge and approval of all the co-authors. I’ve seen this happen before, and it certainly happened in the case of the March 2006 S-S addition/corrections.

  15. ZAL Says:


    I understand the point, but I still find your last proposals somehow redundant, it looks like you are always looking for the guilty, and think that everybody is a possible suspect; moreover, if someone wants to publish faked results, signing a statement will not prevent him/her from doing that (if he/she was a poker player, one could say that he/she is already “committed”, and has to go all the way till the end).
    In my former group the supervisor tended to put his name first, so in my first couple of publications my name is just in the middle or in last position, but later, when I found out that position is so important, I began to put my name first in the draft, and he never complained nor changed the order when correcting it.

  16. Paul Says:

    ZAL: Last proposals? Are you talking about the JACS post? That was nine posts and almost a month ago. In the meantime, I’ve written posts on the acidity of phenol, the importance of chemical weapons, and the genius of Andy Streitweiser and a young woman from Oklahoma. What is it you want me to write about?

    I understand that most people (and probably you?) first learned about my old blog when the S-S stuff was going on, but no posts have been devoted to that story since the end of January, when it was *news* because the lab issued another retraction. Yes, minimizing scientific misconduct is an issue about which I am passionate, but while the S-S affair is occasionally mentioned by commenters and me, that story has been the main subject of only three posts in the entire history of ChemBark. Three of 53!

    So, am I dwelling on it? Do you not recognize misconduct—from inflated yields to overstated claims to outright fabrication—as a problem in chemistry? Do you not read the literature? Do you not talk to other scientists? Misconduct is an issue we deal with on a daily basis as scientists, and it will continue to be a subject of posts on this blog and will continue to warrant the occasional passing remark as well. I’m sorry if that upsets you.

    Finally, to address your skepticism, I *do* think that asking people to take responsibility for their experiments will make them pay more attention to detail and think twice about faking stuff. It is a purely psychological effect. I never said instituting these changes would eliminate the problem altogether, but I think they’d help and they’d cost virtually nothing.

  17. Lou Says:

    #10 Klug:
    I’ve heard that what Paul describes as typical in the chemistry community is also the standard in the biology world. True?

    Yes. Generally, in most Biology related journals (e.g. Molecular and Cellular Biology, Journal of Cellular Science, J. Biol. Chem., Cell etc.) it is generally understood that the last author is the PI. Or in the case of a collaboration, a PI where the work was mostly done.

    Also, where a knockout mouse is made, and when the first publication to come out using that KO mouse has the name of the person who made the mouse as first author - even if he/she didn’t do the majority of the work in the paper. This obviously is so that the person gets credit first for making the system work! I don’t know if this is taken for granted, but I’ve seen it in several papers.

    As a Nature reader from a biological standpoint, I admit I was a bit surprised that Baran was first author - then I remembered it was Chemistry.

  18. ZAL Says:

    Hey! I am not upset, sorry if I did not make myself clear, as you have already understood English is not my mother tongue!
    With “last proposals” I meant the last paragraph in the present post, about SI containing “a short summary of each author’s contributions” and “a signed statement from each author asserting that, to the best of his or her knowledge, the results are authentic, are accurate, and were obtained in an academically honest manner”. With “redundant” I meant “not necessary, superfluous”, I apologize if, as it seems, I used the wrong words.
    I do understand from what you write that you really care about the credibility of our science, and your passion for chemistry, as well as your committment in minimizing scientific misconduct have all my appreciation. I just expressed my perplexity on the effectivity of the measures that you propose, as others have already done (#1 for example). Anyway, you are right when you write that this was the subject of only 3 of the last 53 posts here on ChemBark, maybe those posts were just the most interesting to me, or those that generated the most lively discussions.
    Your blog is great and I’ll keep reading it as long as you’ll keep posting. Can we consider the incident closed?

  19. Captain Catalysis Says:

    “Authors are expected to adhere to the following ethical guidelines; infractions may result in the application of sanctions by the editor(s), including but not limited to the suspension or revocation of publishing privileges.”

    That seems clear enough for me. Perhaps it and the guidelines could be presented as a EULA-style click-though before submitting a paper?

  20. Paul Says:

    Yeah, we’re cool, ZAL. Sorry about that. I must have read your post in the wrong tone of voice.

    To pull back the curtain a little bit, I am irked by the distinct probability that a number of chemists think this blog is 100% about gossip or scientific misconduct because they only paid attention when the S-S stuff was in the news and assume that I haven’t moved on. At present, I’d say there is a reasonable amount of discussion on scientific misconduct (10-20%?) and next to zero gossip.

    Basically, ChemBark and some other blogs have a problem in that they have been misbranded by a (large?) number of chemists. The big question is: how do you get the people who have formed their opinions on minimal amounts of old data to re-sample the chemical blogosphere?

  21. Jordan Says:

    Proc Nat’l Acad Sci USA also lists the contributions of each author to the paper.

    In any case, it’s usually the corresponding author designation(s) that make it clear who the PI is.

  22. bad cop Says:

    The Sezen-Sames coverage is what initially directed me to this blog but everything else posted and discussed since then keeps me here.

    Paul is entirely correct to state that S-S was news in January, and I hope that when it is news again (and you know it will be) he and other bloggers will not flinch from poking that particular issue with a sharp stick. I have far more respect for content of ChemBark, ChemBlog etc. than the gushing puff-pieces and limp commentary that one encounters in C+EN - truly the Fox News of science journalism.

  23. eugene Says:

    Maybe a lot of famous profs put their name first because they know that their stuff won’t get accepted in a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more!” style in Andjewandte or JCAS unless their name is on the paper and putting it first is kind of a reminder to the reviewer that they are powerful and vindictive. Maybe…

    Although, it does a bit of a disservice to those less famous when they submit stuff and cut off their results, preparing the rest for another publication all the while looking at pubs by famous people and saying, “my article will be at least three times better”. Then it comes back as: “Your results are not enough for publication in our esteemed journal. Good luck in something smaller! P.S. We know you can’t do the same thing to us when you review our papers, small fry”.

    That’s why I’m in favor of double blind reviewing. I don’t agree with those that say that they know what others are working on, so it’s not really blind. You don’t know if it’s someone new. And you will treat them nicer. i.e. “This must be Dr. Funnymammal’s latest new thing. Ah, that Dr. Funnymammal, always tapping the scientific pulse of his field….”. And then it turns out that the paper is really from Assistant Professor Dr. Chordatia, but it’s too late! Her paper has already been accepted to Andjewandte for its excellence (or mediocrity…). Thank you reviewer!

  24. Captain Catalysis Says:

    Only problem with that, Eugene, is that too many people cite their previous work in the first paragraph, often with a personal pronoun nearby.

  25. DZ Squared Says:

    As a PI I think it is fairly standard to place one’s name last. Where it comes up is when you publish a paper that is high profile and gets picked up by the popular media. Then its “First Author and coworkers reported…” or “Harvard researchers led by First Author…” which is in fact incorrect. However many media outlets aren’t savvy enough to make the distinction.

  26. Clausius Says:

    European chemist said-

    “Although I can understand the older PI’s getting their names first, there is no reason - and no excuse - for a PI placing himself first on a paper.”

    You have no business being in America and questioning our system. The tenured professor is akin to a priest in our society and he is owed all the knowledge that flows through him into his worker’s minds. A student or postdoc has no objective reality in that sense. They are merely vessles through which the intent of the Professor is channled and manifested. It is basic academia 101 that the professor is all knowing, ethical and the seat
    or much goodness. Why do you think we give them tenure for life? Because they slack off or don’t contribute to all the labors that come out of their labs? Of course not! They are holy caretakers of the secret spark, a hairs breath from Jesus the almighty.

    Give them their due, they deserve everything!

  27. eugene Says:

    Captain Catalysis, that would not be a problem. Instead of saying “we reported earlier that…”, the Andjewandte staff would change it to: “Dr. Funnymammal’s group reported earlier that…”. The use of personal pronouns could also be discouraged.

  28. European Chemist Says:

    I must say Eugene’s idea could be a really nice thing for the peer-review process. Provided that most of the traits that tend to “identify” papers as coming from a particular lab, this could be an interesting alternative.

    Nevertheless, there is a small problem. When a well-reputed group publishes something “good and new” on a new project, it usually sends its first comm to JACS or ACIE. The second and third comms on the project (should they exist) are then supposed to get to lower-impact journals. However, if ANOTHER group that has been working in a similar area and wants to disclose its (perhaps similar) results, it might still get to JACS or ACIE. If you create a double-blind, it could become difficult knowing wether it’s the same group that already capitalised on the results once or if it is another lab.
    For example, my project got a comm in ACIE and a second comm in Org Lett (with one reviewer commenting “fragmentation of data in this way is not warranted… this should be combined with the first article into a full paper… oh boy”). If there was a double blind for our Org Lett article, it would probably have been accepted without a hitch. Does anyone get my point?

  29. Karl Says:

    European chemist:
    Seriously, why two comms? Isn’t the first comm supposed to be a prelude to a full paper, not another comm? Without knowing anything about the project, I’m inclined to agree with the referee. Generally speaking, it’s a real annoyance when people fragment all their data into multiple comms rather than one good full paper, simply to get more lines on their publications list. I understand that’s part of the academic world now, but it’s an annoying one.

  30. eugene Says:

    JCAS is mostly just communication now since it’s more prestigious to have a communication than an article. The original thinking was that a communication is a novel idea that needs to get out there fast to improve science and/or to avoid being scooped and I’m not sure that it’s that much of a reason now. Plus the journal realized it could save money on space. But the chemical community decided that communication were a greater status of excellence than an article, so I wouldn’t blame JCAS for that one.

    A lot of the JCAS and Andjewandte comms I read are actually articles. They are condensed into a 2-3 page format. There is enough research there for an article or for further fragmentation into a few comms in another journal. It’s actually nice because it’s a short summary of an exhaustive research undertaking. The supporting info of some of these “Communications” also contains stuff like DFT/mechanistic studies, further experiments and detailed arguments that were not included in the body of the paper.

    This is all a little strange of course, but I’m not complaining since it’s good for me to get a two page summary and if I’m interested I can read the SI for the full article, and it’s good for the authors since a Communication is more prestigious. Pretty soon, the distinction between Article/Communication is going to lose all meaning though.

  31. krp Says:


    Keep up the good work, and I must tell you that it is very timely topic. I wish more PIs pitch in voice their logic and philosophy on listing the authors in a given publication. I would also appreciate if some body can comment about acknowledging the postdoc for the similar work that graduate is given first authorship. Is it logical just to acknowledge the postdoc? One can understand this if it is lab technician.

    Another thing is who should be given first authorship…..the one who carries experimental or the one who provides the intellectual input for the entire publication or project? Especially if the former being a grad and the later being postdoc.

    It is time to acknowledge that postdocs are also ambitious, and you just cannot wash off your hands saying that they were compensated monetarily. What do you learned people say?

    Paul, again I am sorry if it is bit off shooting from your concern. I salute your contribution.


  32. Pietro Says:

    Hi there,
    sorry to intervene, but I was surfing looking for info on the “authors order” subject, and I bumped into your interesting conversation.
    Just to give you an idea on how perverse the situation can get: in my country during the process of evaluation of the candidates for professorships or any other academic position, the judging commission obviously needs to assess the quality of scientific production. Well, the funny thing is that (by rules) they are also supposed to discern the individual contribution of the candidate to his/her publications (assuming that, by default, the contribution is not obvious !!!), and they are formally allowed to do that by looking at the authors’ order. That means that if you are a “boss” in a team that only produces “crap”, you will impose your name as first on each publication so that you will score better than a (younger?) colleague who has been an important contributor to more relevant publications, on which he/she is 2nd, 3rd,etc. on the authors order.

    It is unfortunately true that the authors order might have some kind of “prestige” relevance, I don’t care that much about that. What really pisses me off is that the authors order might be arbitrarily and abusively used to allocate grants/scholarhips (see Ontario, above) or to hire academics. Together with the impact factor, it is one of the great contradictions of scientific publishing, and I wish the publishers and editors could speak out more about this. I think they should regularly publish reminders on their journals.Authors are authors, there’s no first, second or third class authors.

    Sorry again for the intrusion,and please forgive any mistakes.

    Rome, Italy

  33. andres Says:

    Please, I would like to know if somebody knows any grant in which you need to put the position that you occupy in your articles.


  34. ChemBark » Blog Archive » Wrap Up: The Princeton News and Related Issues Says:

    […] I’d like to think that ChemBark is doing some good things and that it is not simply a “time sink” blog, as one commenter put it. I am pleasantly surprised that the site receives a lot of Google traffic for technical questions, like the general procedure for HATU coupling. There is clearly an audience for technical information in chemical blogspace. I am also encouraged that people refer visitors to ChemBark’s discussions of cultural issues in our field, like the order of authors on papers or how to improve peer review. Where else can you find analyses of these issues that are open and accessible to all who wish to voice their opinion? And as far as humor is concerned, I would hope that people appreciate and enjoy the posts and comments on ChemBark that are made in jest. You guys crack me up, and I thank you for it. […]

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