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Authorship Diplomacy

Cross-national differences complicate allocation of credit and responsibility

Melissa Anderson, Felly Chiteng Kot, Marta A. Shaw, Christine C. Lepkowski, Raymond G. De Vries

Out of Order

Trouble can also arise as collaborators work out the sequence in which their names will appear on a publication. Disciplinary customs differ, particularly in the significance of the first- and last-named authors. Cross-national teams are often cross-disciplinary as well, and the order of authors can be a point of dispute. One of our focus-group members described collaborating with a high-ranking scientist in another country who insisted on taking the last position to signify, he said, his minimal role on the project. In the journal in question, however, the last position indicated a significant responsibility as the corresponding author for the study. The scientist described it as “a very difficult situation.” Another scientist we interviewed had worked with a team that included a member of a royal family (a princess) who expected to be the first author on every publication in her country, regardless of her contribution.

Some collaborative teams adjust the order of authors to share credit fairly among themselves. They may adopt alphabetical ordering and rotate the alphabetical list in subsequent papers to take turns being first author. Some teams include a note that all authors, or some subset of the authors, contributed equally. Others take advantage of differences in how contributions are measured in different countries. For example, a biological chemist told us,

It worked out nicely.… I was offering them either first or last [author position], thinking that they would of course choose last, but they wanted first, which was perfectly fine with me. That put me last, so in that sense, yeah, it was great.

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