All of the authors of a publication have made a significant contribution to the research project and or the draft manuscript. However, two positions among the list of co-authors are particularly relevant.
- The first author is the researcher who had the idea for the underlying work, did the main body of work and contributed substantially to the draft manuscript. Being the first author is a coveted position which conveys increased visibility because it is the first name a reader sees. Also in certain contexts, e.g. in-text or bibliography references, only the first author is listed and all others are collapsed into “et al”.
- Last author: this position is traditionally reserved for the supervisor, department head or principal investigator. Last authors are accountable for the quality of the data and analysis reported in the publication. In many cases the last author is also the corresponding author and the primary contact for journal editors.
All other authors contributed to varying degrees to the publication and are typically listed by their relative contribution.
In addition to this standard way of listing authors there are two special cases:
- Multiple first authors are used when two authors contributed equally to a publication. The joint first authors are typically indicated with an asterisk and an explanatory note. Joint first co-authorship is common in interdisciplinary studies.
- Multiple last authors are used less frequently than multiple first authors. One of the reasons some journals started to introduce joint last authorship is to increase accountability by making sure that more than one senior member of the research group has reviewed all the data and analysis presented in the publication.
Determining authorship position can be difficult. Journals advise to start the process while writing and editing the manuscript to make sure that submission is not delayed because of disagreements.