The elusive virtue of author lists in scientific papers

14 12 2014

Aristotle wrote amply about how to find the virtue, which is about the right thing to do in complex settings. In Nicomachean Ethics, virtue is famously defined as the mean between extreme states:

Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.

Therefore the best way to act is to avoid the extremes. But this is not what actually happens in the list of authors of scientific publications. It is widely held that the first and last place, those lying in the extremes, are most honorable sites and get most of the credit. As the number of authors and teams that sign scientific papers tends to be larger with time, finding a virtuous way to establish the authors order is an elusive task. Papers often require a lot of people and many of them may become disappointed if they are not placed exactly on extremes, which sometimes involves not only scientific but “political” considerations.

There are different customs and guidelines to establish the authors order. A 2007 paper 1 established different criteria, that have been further commented in a 2013 report by the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences:

  1. In the first approach, known as“sequence determines credit” (SDC), the sequence of authors reflects the importance of their contributions in descending order. The first author is thus accorded the greatest weight and the last author the least. It is essential that this should be clearly indicated since otherwise, in the light of different customs, the last author could be mistakenly credited with an important role, such as generating the idea and initiating the research project.
  2. The second approach involves listing all authors in alphabetical order. This is particularly appropriate in cases where all authors have made similar contributions to the publication. It is therefore known as the “equal contribution”(EC) approach.
  3. The third approach highlights the importance of the first and the last author; it is known as the “first-last-author-emphasis” (FLAE) norm.
  4. Finally, the “percent-contribution-indicated” (PCI) approach allows each author’s contribution to be expressed in percentage terms, using various scoring systems.


As noted by Tscharntke et al., Evaluation committees and funding bodies often take last authorship as a sign of successful group leadership and make this a criterion in hiring, granting, and promotion. This practice is unofficial, and hence not always followed, meaning that sometimes last authors “mistakenly” benefit when they actually are not principal investigators. Moreover, there is no accepted yardstick in assessing the actual contribution of a group leader to given scientific publications, so interpretation of author sequence can be like a lottery. Hence, one really does not know if being last author means that the overall contribution was the most or least important.

In the last few years, the role of the corresponding author (the one with *) has also become prominent in the attribution of seniority, and this is reflected in high level project attribution rules. Some journals, like the Journal of Physical Chemistry, do not allow pHD candidates to be corresponding authors. Also recently many journals adopt the policy that the contributions of the different authors must be explicitly described at the end of the text. Sometimes, authors of each team that made the work appear together in the whole list of authors.

In the opinion of this writer, many people that is in the central sites of the authors list, often has important contribution to the work. One problem of the current tradition is that contacting interesting senior authors that are not the main group leader may be difficult, as the corresponding author is the only one whose email is listed. Sometimes one wishes to contact such people for cooperation or questions, since their “virtue” becomes evident by looking at several of papers they have published, which establishes expertise, more than the place of authorship in one given paper. Maybe providing link to data bases such as ORCHID, could be a good practice to give visibility to people that is not “extremist”, and facilitate scientific interaction. Overall I also think that clever committees may look at the global career in terms of a trajectory more than the occasional publication and this gives a fair idea of the value of the past career and future possibilities of each scientist.

(1)        Tscharntke, T.; Hochberg, M. E.; Rand, T. A.; Resh, V. H.; Krauss, J. Author Sequence and Credit for Contributions in Multiauthored Publications, PLoS Biol 2007, 5, e18.