Co-First Author Doesn’t Have to be Last Resort

Co-first authorIn our publication-dominated world decisions about graduating, funding and hiring depend heavily upon the number and quality of our manuscripts.  As a result, setting an author byline can be contentious to say the least. While three positions are widely regarded as the most important – first, second and the corresponding author – there is another option that is frequently treated like the red-headed stepchild of the byline: the co-first author.

There are a few common situations in which authors and PIs may consider the co-first authorship discussion. Two independent projects in the lab may unexpectedly unfold in a way that they compliment each other and make a more complete story. Alternatively, a lab member may leave in the middle of a project, requiring another group member to complete the work. Finally, in today’s cross-disciplinary research environment, it’s common and in some cases required that biological consequences of a discovery are demonstrated for consideration by a top-tier journal. In this case, one individual may only have the expertise and/or desire to perform half of the project (eg, chemical synthesis) while another would perform the biological experiments. This type of arrangement may be agreed upon at the outset of a project, with both parties understanding their contribution and responsibilities.

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What the critics say

Although co-first authorship is a viable solution for many (full disclosure: I have published as a co-first author), it is not without it’s detractors. Opponents of co-first authorship argue that no two individuals ever contribute exactly the same amount of work to a publication and therefore co-first authorship is a cop-out intended to appease the ego of what should rightly be the second author.  In fact, some critics will discount co-first author papers listed on a CV, which may negatively impact job applicants.

Therefore, going the co-first author route is not without it’s risks, but here are a few ways to help skew the risk-reward balance in your favor.

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Making co-first author work

In all co-first author situations there must be synergy. Whether pre-planned or decided upon late in the process, the bulk of a co-first author publication is characterized by the combination of related work from two individuals. If the value and impact of the combined work isn’t significantly better than the two smaller papers that could be published independently, then it’s not worth it. In other words, one plus one must equal three.

Welcome to the grey area. Everyone would agree that a lone first author paper in Journal X is more valuable to the first author than a co-first author paper in the same journal. In one case, you get all of the credit and in the other you share it. However, is a co-first author paper in a high-impact journal worth more than a lone first author paper in an average journal? This may be personal preference.

For PIs, there may be a benefit to go for the combined, higher impact paper since regardless of the byline, they’re still listed as the corresponding author.

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Are there other benefits of co-first authorship?

While critics suggest a co-first author paper may be discounted on a CV, supporters say it demonstrates an ability to collaborate in a more significant manner than a second or third authorship might. A scientist capable of working with colleagues is always valued and in case of students or postdocs planning to pursue a career away from the bench, this collaborative aspect may also be highly valued by future employers.

Furthermore, the synergy that must be present when working with a co-first author extends beyond the impact factor of the story you’re working on. You have someone working on the project who’s as invested in the project’s success as much you are. The divide-and-conquer approach will help in writing the manuscript and even in presenting group meeting, where you’ll find a cheerleader who can help with the tough questions.

Of course, we all agree that an independent scientist should be able to write manuscripts on their own and answer tough questions when asked, but that doesn’t mean it’s not nice to have some help once in a while.

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Pitfalls to avoid

Like any successful relationship, communication is key. It’s not uncommon for an individual to feel like they’re doing more work than their co-author, which can lead to tension in the relationship. To ensure you never scream the words “*#&$^ FREELOADER!!” in the middle of lab, it’s a good idea to explicitly write out the responsibilities of both parties soon after making the agreement. This way, work is divvied up fairly in a manner all parties agree to before proceeding.

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If I’m a co-first author, but listed second in the byline, can I switch the order on my CV?

In Exactly How Flexible is the co-First Author Asterisk? we polled scientists to see whether this was an acceptable practice. Although the poll results seem to indicate a significant percentage of scientists condoning the CV switcheroo, it may be more important to read the comments and follow the passionate conversation that followed on Twitter. In both cases, the resounding answer was “no”, it’s not acceptable to switch the names of authors once a paper has been published, regardless of the circumstances. For additional comments, see this post and the associated comments on the Drug Monkey blog.

As long as publications list authors in the order of perceived importance and impact factors are used to influence hiring and funding decisions, we will deal with these types of issues. However, our recent poll suggests it might not be as long as we thought before the impending death of scientific journals is upon us.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Manisha Ray and Professor Charles Craik, Ph.D. at UCSF for sharing their personal experiences and advice regarding co-first author publication.

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Do you think a co-first author paper should be the last resort?

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Other authorship-related articles and issues:

There’s No I in ‘Research’ (But There is in ‘Science’)

Publishing Without the Boss’ Blessing?

Isn’t Reviewing Papers My Bosses Job?

Reviewing Papers from Your Past: Is it Legal?

Authorship, Feuding and Career Doubts

How to Leave, Balance and Publish

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5 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. deedee

    wrote on November 3, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    i totally second the need for communication. i watched two grad students go through this who were best friends at the time and by the end they weren't speaking to one another at all.

  2. biochembelle

    wrote on November 27, 2011 at 10:08 am

    During a recent roundtable discussion I attended, another issue concerning co-first authorship was raised. In a specific example discussed, order and co-first authorship was decided, but it wasn't until the paper was accepted and going through proofs that anyone knew the journal did not permit shared authorship. The limitation was not listed in the authors' instructions. Thus if co-first authorship is deemed important, it might be a good idea to contact the journal editor prior to submission and decide on authorship revisions or alternative journals for submission.

  3. thehungryotter

    wrote on May 30, 2013 at 10:06 pm

    Good article, Alan!

    I just have one question.. say you've done enough research to be a second author, but the first author is from a collaborating lab. After the write up, you find you've been put back to the 5th author due to what appears to be politics as author 2, 3 and 4 have not been working that long on the project and their contribution is justified vaguely as intellectual contribution from sitting in on meetings in that collaborator's lab. The corresponding and final author is the group leader of the collaborating lab, and upon having authorship addressed, insists on keeping it the way it is and goes so far as to say you can withdraw the data if you're not happy (which would weaken the paper's story possibly making it not eligible for the current journal its aimed for).

    I find myself in this situation and frustratingly unable to do anything without making a big fuss and ruining my supervisor's relationship with me and this collaborating lab.

    What's a possible solution for this?

  4. alan@benchfly

    wrote on June 4, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    This is a tough situation. It's pretty clear you can't go to the collaborating PI since he's not going to change. This means the other option is to speak to your PI. He/she should have your interests in mind and should be willing to go to bat for you if it seems like you're getting a raw deal. However, the best way to get your PI on board is usually to have a very calm, rational discussion with them explaining why you think you should be second author. Be prepared to present your case and live with your PI's final judgement. If they think it's as unfair as you do, they will take action to right the situation. If they don't see the problem, then you should be prepared to drop it in my opinion.

    In your PI's mind, he/she will be weighing the pros of getting you second authorship with the cons of causing tension with his colleague. So part of this decision is out of your control–you can just explain yourself clearly and move on.

    Another option is to speak with your university's ombudsman. These are independent university employees who will meet you confidentially. You could present your case to them and see what they think since they should be impartial.

    If the battle was over first authorship, I'd say it might be worth fighting hard since first authorship is usually required for graduation/post-grad funding so the unfair byline would be directly affecting your career. In this case, the situation revolves around second authorship, which is still useful, but it's not as important as first authorship and therefore may not be valuable enough to risk damaging your reputation/relationships with a prolonged fight.

    No question, this seems like you're getting a raw deal, but after an initial pushback with your PI, your time is probably better spent working on your primary project and getting a first author paper. Just my two cents…

    Good luck and let me know what happens!

  5. thehungryotter

    wrote on June 5, 2013 at 7:40 am

    I was thinking along those lines, and have already approached my PI twice about it. After my second meeting with him, he corresponded with the collaborator, which is when I was told that I could withdraw my data if I wanted to. In summary, nothing will be done for me, probably because as you said, my PI does not want to get into a disagreement with our collaborator. He says that all the middle authors are the same, and I should concentrate on getting my own first author paper.

    I guess it's not a big deal if I were on a steady track to getting my own first author papers. As it stands, I spent a lot of time on that project to the partial neglect of my other 2 ( i was given 3 different projects to juggle). Now my scholarship will be running out in a year, and I am seriously considering the pros and cons of downgrading to an mphil rather than pushing for the phd. This is due to time running out while I still need a large amount of data to complete my 3 projects for publication. And also the fact that my interest in academia has really tanked from this and other experiences so far.

    But, thanks very much for your advice, Alan!

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