Co-first author and CVs

Posted: February 27, 2012 in Academia, Publishing

A couple of months ago I had a brief chat with a grad school colleague. He recently published a paper in which his name was second but had the ole’ asterisk next to it indicating he and the listed first author had made an equal contribution. He then made the comment that it didn’t really matter that his name was second because on his CV he’s going to put his name first.

Jigga’ what?!

Is this legit?

I have a pub like this where I’m listed as second author but “made an equal contribution”. On my CV my name is listed second, but with an asterisk…but hell, if I can put it as another first author pub, I’ll take any edge I can get!

As long as it’s legit of course…

  1. Nope, don’t do it. Include the asterisk and a note of equal contribution, but never switch author list. What happens when someone looks the paper up? You’ll look dishonest and people don’t want to work with dishonest.

  2. no not legit at all. quite often a lot of thought goes into whether someone is listed first or second even on equal contribution

  3. DrugMonkey says:

    Anyone who says it is not okay to reorder the list is admitting that the “equal contribution” is a lie and is only done to buy off the poor fool(s) who is(are) listed other than first.

    You will also fInd that nobody is as morally outraged by the failure of the listed-first to disclose the asterix on *her* CV as they are by the suggestion the listed-second might re-order the list. I find such people (the judgy types like Prof-like) to be highly unethical, personally.

  4. Boehninglab says:

    I am getting deja vu. Haven’t we been through this before? Of course equal contribution is a lie or it would always be alphabetical or some other bullshit like that. I side with the switching of authors is unethical.

    • DrugMonkey says:

      Why is it “unethical” and do you have the same degree of outrage when listed-first authors omit the symbol on their CV?

      • Boehninglab says:

        It is unethical precisely because of what i stated: equal contribution is a lie. It also requires a person to consciously decide to move themselves around in the author order. I agree that strictly speaking, the first author should also have an asterisk on their CV.

        • DrugMonkey says:

          if it is a “lie” then why should anyone in first position have to list the asterix Boehninglab?

        • Anonymous says:

          It is totally ethical. A CV is for stress the achievements of the person. If it you are noted as joint first author, you can totally switch the places, adding always an asterisk noting co-first authorships.

        • Anonymous says:

          Noticed your post. Are you an active writer, unable to tell.
          I need someone to be a co author. I have a manuscript I have been writing off and on for ten years. Several comments by some say they like the story line but the manuscsript needs a servious edit , complete edit.

          My story takes place in Key West and is Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll and Treasures.
          Double spaces its 520 pages. Good edit would recude that, story is decent.

          If you have any interest please advise. Jim Stivers, Frankfort, KY.

  5. I think two people can contribute equally – one does the analysis and writes the methods/results sections, the other does the rest ie intro, discussion and formatting. Both people contribute to the paper idea and editing process. I’ve done this and it’s worked well.

    That being said, I agree with Prof-Like Substance. People *will* Google/PubMed you, and you want the author list to show up in the same order to avoid any potential issues. Best to leave it as is, and if you want, add a disclaimer to that effect (*X and Y were joint first authors) on your CV/resume.

  6. It’s not even a matter of the “truth” of equal contribution. The citation has but only one format. That’s how it is, that’s how it is registered and that’s what the people will find when they search for it. You will still be credited with a first-author paper. I think that if committee people see that you changed it, it will make you look bad. It will be a very silly way of “loosing points”, if you ask me.

  7. Dr Becca says:

    If contributions were genuinely equal, what should it matter? Think about what message you’re trying to convey by putting yourself first–are you trying to make readers think that they are not in fact equal–i.e., that it is YOUR first author paper, not the other first author’s (even if you keep the asterisk in?

  8. It’s not a matter of logic, IMO. Sure, “logically”, you can make the argument that a=b and b=a, and that the order could be switched in a CV. However, the citation has one format, and that’s that. You can’t go around changing it in your CV.

    You can argue that that’s simply a problem of “linear writing” or whatever, where one person *has* to be listed first. Because we can’t list two authors “on top of each other”, when they have contributed equally, the system came up with the asterisk, whose role is to allow that due credit is given to the second-listed person.

    The citation has *one* format, and even though “logically”, you could switch author order, the system has a different solution for that (whether we think it’s appropriate or not), which is the asterisk, so that the second-listed person gets the credit he/she deserves, as you can’t list them on top of each other (but you would if you could).

    • DrugMonkey says:

      that’s bullshit learned-helplessness A M-M. just like a “paper” changed to a pdf and a html page, and we started using reference managers, there is no reason citation has to have “one” format.

      PMCID? putting a style in place that says “Smith or Jones et all 2011”? random assignment of author position when dynamically creating a PDF for download from the journal site? all of these and more are quite possible and if some scientists insist it would be “too confusing” then they are not sufficiently bright to be IN science.

      • I agree. That’s why I ended my post saying, that if there was another way, we would almost certainly use it, but NOW, the way we have of giving due credit to the second-listed author is the asterisk, and we can’t go around changing orders.
        As I said, we can either think it’s the proper way or not, but it is what we have right now. The great thing about it, is that this concern has been going around for a while and solutions to this issue, so that it is not ambiguous anymore, are coming. The ‘author contribution’ list appeared, and although one can argue that it’s also just baloney, it’s a step.

  9. Oooo, I like being called out as unethical and judgey based on this criterion alone. My postion on the larger issue is that equal contribution assignments are bullshit anyway. IME, it is EXTREMELY rare to have true equal contributors. What people think they contributed, relative to other authors, might be equal but an objective review would produce different results.

    Based on that, I think the equal contribution BS is used to placate various authors who FEEL they deserve to be in a more polar position in a non-confrontational way. Sometimes this probably saves friction in a collaboration, but I think the practice is unethical.

    From that position, I would argue that changing name order is an additional layer of bullshit on a steamy heap of it. However, if you’ve gone down that road, I would also claim that you should preserve the asterisk on your CV as a asterisked first author.

    • Definitely. It is almost exclusively used in an subjective way.

      And again, I agree with that fact that if you take that road (of listing co-first authors), you shouldn’t change author order and all authors should include the asterisk and explanation in their CVs

      I’m not either supporting or criticizing the use of co-first authorship. That’s not the point here (which has been discussed elsewhere). The point is whether you could change author order, and I stand by my opinion. You shouldn’t.

    • 2-cents says:

      I feel that in some scenarios, “equal” contributions do not necessarily have to be based on the amount of work/time put in, but on the overall contribution to the success of the paper/project. Say a paper that began with a bioinformatics analyses by a bioinformatician, followed up with further experimentation by an experimentalist. Without the experimental validation the paper might be trashed as purely speculative, and without the bioinformatics the experimentalists might not even have been aware to work on the subject matter. So even if the bioinformatics may take 6 mths and the experiments a year (or vice versa), both are integral to the success of the paper and I feel co-authorship is justified for such cases.

  10. A. Tasso says:

    Maybe we should adopt the economics/sociology conceptualization of authorship, which requires true intellectual contribution by all named authors. (Collecting data or revising the manuscript does not count — these people get named in Acknowledgments.) That way, anyone who is named on a paper is understood to be a co-equal. Consistent with this, there are generally no more than 2-4 authors on an economics or sociology paper (and more and your department chairperson starts asking questions). As a bonus, authorship in economics and sociology is assigned on the basis of alphabetical order.

  11. funkdoctorx says:

    Ya’ know, a simple “yes or no” would have sufficed…

    Wow, I had no idea the concept of “co-first author” was so contentious. Anyhow thank you all for the insightful comments:

    PLS, DaveBridges, Mr. Epi, AMM: Thanks, I thought it was a bit dodgy to do the author switch as well. I wasn’t sure if I was alone on that one, apparently not! However, I suppose I was thinking along the lines of DM and Dr. Becca when I pondered this. If it’s “truly co-first author” then switching the order of the author list on the CV shouldn’t make much difference since the “meaning” is essentially preserved (as long as I keep the asterisk). My colleagues response to my initial somewhat indignant reaction was that “well, they’ll look up the paper and see the asterisk, so it’ll be alright”…

    At the end of the day, I think I’ll keep it as is on my CV (my name 2nd w/ asterisk)…thanks for the rousing discussion!

    And just for the sake of completeness…I do think there is a time and a place for co-first authorship, but this has been expounded upon in considerable clarity in the comments of Drug Monkey’s blog:


    • DrugMonkey says:

      As PP often notes, the academic crediting system needs to be overhauled to reflect modern collaborative science. This co-author band aid does more harm than good.

      • funkdoctorx says:

        No doubt you are correct about the academic crediting system. Nonetheless, us peons angling to get a TT job one day have to work within the current flawed system to get any advantage we can. Long gone are the days when just being a good, quality scientist publishing in decent journals at a rate consistent with a fulfilling life outside of science was sufficient to take the next step; now everyone has to try and look like a friggin’ superstar just to make a decent wage (at least that’s how it feels down here)…but I’m not bitter…yet…

  12. Alfred says:

    Please do notice that different research areas have different conventions. For mathematics and (theoretical) computer science, authors appear in alphabetical order and it is encouraged to do so, as it is simply impossible to distribute credits in a fair way.

    What bothers me is that scientists tend to adapt to the way research is being evaluated, giving way too much importance to such publication metrics (i.e. number of first-authored papers), instead of having evaluators adapt their methodology to different research areas.

    • funkdoctorx says:

      Yea, I completely agree. I find myself arranging how much effort I put into projects based more on where I’ll land authorship-wise than how important or interesting the science is. I hate it, but I know if I want any chance of ever being a PI, I gotta put first-authorship well ahead of everything else. It’s sad in the biological sciences. Sounds like many other fields have figured out ways to handle this issue in a much more reasonable fashion…

  13. abcde says:

    I think several things are confused here.
    1. There is a standard way of citing a paper (how it appears in the listing of the journal and elsewhere on the web). That is how it should be cited in a CV. No switching of authors. This overwrites all the hypothetical discussions that come next.
    2. If authors contributed equally, I think it would be totally OK (ethically) to randomly switch their places (they are equal after all). Of course when switching places, the asterix * needs to be kept and joint co-authorship needs to be stated. Dropping this information (independent of being the first or second listed author) is unethical.
    3. Perception: as we see here, sadly several PI’s misunderstand switching and see it as unethical. For that reason I would never do it. Wouldn’t want to risk being dropped just because of that. Instead it may be possible to have a special section ‘First authored papers’ , ‘Last authored papers’ , “other papers” to make it easier for the reviewer to count entries.
    4. When counting, should a co-authored paper be counted as 1/2 a paper (or 1/N, if N people share the first authorship)? I think that makes sense, otherwise we end up having only papers where all authors are co-first (or last) author.
    5. There are legit reasons for co-first authorships (e.g. merging of two papers, equal collaboration across groups etc), but authorship positions like this need to be discussed early. Changing this, like adding other co-first authors just before (or even after) submission for political reasons, is unethical.

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