Order of authors

Gepubliceerd op 9 juni 2023 om 12:00

A paper is never written alone. Input from multiple perspectives generally leads to better papers, because everyone had his or her own expertise. Besides, even the best researchers could miss something every now and then! In such cases, it is nice to have co-authors who are able to catch these types of things and think along with you during the writing process.

Especially as a PhD student, you never write a paper by yourself, but always with your supervising team. Every PhD student has at least a promotor. Most PhD students also have a copromotor, who often acts as their daily supervisor. Some are lucky enough to have a second promotor and/or co-promotor on top of that. These researchers are generally the standard co-authors on all of your papers. Besides them, other people might work on different papers with you as well. But in which order do you place all these people on your paper? Because the order of authors has some significance!

In a sequence of authors, there are three prominent spots, in descending order of importance: the first author, the last author and the second author.


Order of significance

The first author is you, of course, as the PhD student. You are the one who has executed the research and has written the first draft of the paper. Occasionally, it could occur that you have done the research alongside another researcher, for example during a duo-PhD project, and that you have both had equal contributions to the paper. In such cases you could opt for a dual first authorship, where you both have the right to put your name as first author for the publication. However, this is a rare occurrence.

The last author is usually your (first) promotor. The professor who supervises your overall PhD project. He or she is generally the one who designed the study and is ultimately responsible for the research.

The second author is generally your (first) copromotor. The senior researcher who acts as your daily supervisor during your project.

After that it gets a little bit trickier. In some scientific fields, for example the medical sciences, the second-to-last author is the fourth most important position on the paper. This spot is generally reserved for your second (co)promotor, if you have one. If there are other researchers working on the paper with you, they get the middle author positions. With these slightly less prominent spots, the order of authors is somewhat less important.

Nothing is set in stone: Sometimes, authors may come along during your research and/or the order may not be as logical as when you started (someone has done a lot more, for example). In that case, discuss it with each other and briefly note your decision in the minutes. This way it is immediately clear to everyone!


Anecdotal evidence

The fact that the order of authors has significance, is not something everyone automatically knows! In the very early stages of her career, Jojanneke figured she should probably never get married, or at least never take her partner's last name. Having ‘Bruins’ as a last name means you are at the front of the alphabet, so you are automatically placed among the first authors! Fortunately, alphabetical order does not determine the order, but rather someone's commitment and involvement in the research. Another former PhD student (medical sciences) wanted to thank a student, who had done a lot for her research, with a co-authorship. She innocently put the student somewhere at the end, as the student had naturally contributed less to the paper than her PhD team. That is how she gave her student the second-to-last author place, thereby surprising her co-supervisor with one of the middle author positions. She had quite some explaining to do about that!



In some other scientific fields the rule is that each next author had a slightly less important and less prominent role in writing the paper than the previous authors. So you may want to check this with your supervising team, before you finalize the order of the authors!


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