Exactly How Flexible is the Co-First Author Asterisk?

Co-first author asteriskTalk to any set of identical twins for the first time and at some point in the conversation you’ll undoubtedly ask whether they ever switched places in order to play a joke on their parents, teachers, girlfriends or boyfriends. While each set of twins may answer differently, they’ve usually drawn an ethical line somewhere in the sand as to how far they think it’s appropriate to take the undercover mission. In science, ask co-first authors whether they switch the author biline on their CV and the line in the sand might not be as clear.

This week we’ll be continuing our recent publication-themed discussion by focusing on the one of the more polarizing topics in publishing: co-first authorship. In preparation of a larger discussion on the merits and faults of the co-first author strategy, we wanted to gather some data regarding your opinion about the flexibility of an author biline that contains the asterisk.

Traditionally, co-first authors are indicated by an asterisk and the order of the individuals is the decision of the PI. Once the paper is published, it appears in print as follows:

co-Author 1*, co-Author 2*, Author 3, and Author 4.

However, in this case co-Author 2 may feel slighted and some argue that co-Author 2 has the right to swap the order of the first two authors when listing the paper on their CV, resulting in the following biline:

co-Author 2*, co-Author 1*, Author 3, and Author 4.

On the other hand, some believe that the biline must remain exactly as it is in the original paper and that co-first author papers should therefore be listed in a CV as follows:

co-Author 1*, co-Author 2*, Author 3, and Author 4.

*these authors contributed equally to this work

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What do you think?

If you’re the co-first author listed second on the paper, is it acceptable to rewrite the biline with your name first on your CV?

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21 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Steve Koch

    wrote on October 31, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    Several years ago I encountered this on a job applicant’s CV. The applicant had switched the name to first, and I noticed it when I looked up the article. My level of trust dropped immensely. Whether the applicant felt it justified or not, it was a huge negative from my perspective. So, in my opinion, regardless of the results of this poll, the good advice is to use the original citation order, and explain with an asterisk. There’s a huge risk that an evaluator will question your integrity and you won’t have a chance to explain or earn it back.

  2. henri

    wrote on October 31, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    Ahhh! I hope this result moves to one side or the other. My PI in grad school said it was fine and when I mentioned it to my postdoc advisor, he went on a 10-minute tirade of why it should never be done. What to do?

  3. henri

    wrote on October 31, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    Ahhh! I hope this result moves to one side or the other. My PI in grad school said it was fine and when I mentioned it to my postdoc advisor, he went on a 10-minute tirade of why it should never be done. What to do?

  4. John

    wrote on November 1, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    It only matters what the person reading the CV thinks. If you are automatically making a large fraction of potential hiring managers feel you are dishonest, that is a bad thing. I would much rather see an asterisked second listing than a reordering and I do check references versus pubmed and google scholar.

  5. Steven Salzberg

    wrote on November 1, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    As a center director, I've recruited many faculty over the years (and postdocs). If I ever noticed someone doing this – putting his/her name first when it was originally second, even on a "co-first-author" paper, then I would immediately drop them from consideration. This is simply dishonest.

    If you want to be first author, then be first author. If you can't decide, then co-first author is a compromise, but you still have to pick one name to go first, and you have to live with that decision.

  6. gerty-z

    wrote on November 1, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    I have hired postdocs to my lab and sat on a faculty search committee. If I ever see an applicant has changed the order of authors on their CV, they are immediately dropped from consideration with extreme prejudice. If you feel the urge to do this, realize that I am not the only one that feels this way. Just don't do it.

  7. David

    wrote on November 1, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    Completely agree with the comments above – dishonest might be a bit strong – disingenuous yes.
    Given these thoughts from those doing the hiring then one wonders how on Earth so many could think it is OK.
    Shocking.

  8. annon

    wrote on November 1, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    also, the author listed as "co-Author 1" should not drop the * when listing it on their CV.

  9. rob

    wrote on November 2, 2011 at 12:59 am

    "My level of trust dropped immensely."
    "feel you are dishonest"
    "This is simply dishonest."
    "immediately dropped from consideration with extreme prejudice."
    "Shocking."

    Well, might I ask: what exactly is dishonest about it? If the order of names somehow indicates the relative contributions of the authors, and the authors clearly indicate that "A and B made an equal contribution", then should the order of A and B really play any role? What is dishonest in switching the names of 2 people that clearly state: "we contributed equally".

    The only reason not to switch the order I can think of is that some people might start to switch the order even when there was no equal contribution.

  10. @BetaScience

    wrote on November 2, 2011 at 10:46 am

    I am surprised so many people have a problem with this. I have done this before on my CV and didn't think it was a big deal or being dishonest. I thought it was more concise (not having an * and a line saying co-first authors) and clear since you can quickly scan to see how many first author papers I have.

    However, it seems that people who don't like seeing it really are strong opinionated so I won't be doing it anymore, not really worth pissing someone off over something I thought was a very minor and better improvement.

  11. annon1

    wrote on November 3, 2011 at 9:02 am

    This really goes to show that the author system in academia really sucks. I have been in this situation and it is unfair, particularly if the "second listed" co-first author legitimately did more of the work , but because of politics, was put second.

    The simplest solution to this for a CV is to have two subsections to your list of published articles: one for first-author papers and one for other papers. That way, the person looking at the CV understands the distinction and does not over look the fact that you do indeed have a co-first author paper.

  12. @Thescienceofant

    wrote on November 17, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    There needs to be some sort of standard, like co-authors must be listed alphabetically. If it were standard, then there would be no bickering, the PI wouldn't need to make a tough decision, and people reading theCV would understand that's just the way it is.

  13. reny

    wrote on December 12, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    I am in process of submitting a paper in PRL. But unfortunately second author is claiming to be first author. While I checked, both of my students have equal contributions in paper. Can I put equal right for both authors in PRL ? I am sure it happens in Nature. If anyone has done same in PRL, please let me know. I will getrid of tension getting claims of both students.
    ..

  14. satara

    wrote on May 17, 2012 at 12:53 am

    It shows that you did not undertake the whole scenario into picture and may have missed a far better candidate than the one you hired. I am sure if you had thoroughly read the paper and asked the candidate some questions, you would have immediately guessed if his contribution was major or not. When you start doing research, no matter how smart you are, unless you are very lucky, most of the times, PI will not give your name as first author in first few publications. This is part of human life and thats how the things are at most places in US and Europe.

  15. satara

    wrote on May 17, 2012 at 1:03 am

    Agree 100% with you. Guys who are so strongly opinionated about honesty issue probably never dealt with the politics in research. If both co-authors contributed equally, then why the 2nd author should not be able to list it as his own as first? its like asking a wife or husband not to put his or her name with the " common child" that they had together. What a pity with these faculty hiring gurus are.

  16. David

    wrote on August 23, 2012 at 4:13 am

    being dishonest? are you serious? I saw several times that PhDs had no chance of even becoming first author just because some institute director likes to see his name last and a seniour scientist first on a paper (instead of second to last and last). to my experience it is also quite common that there are many persons on a paper who maybe touched one knob just because they joined a beamtime. Obviously this is not comparable to the months of doing preparations and analysis.

    The contribution of each author should be clearly noted on a paper – I belive this would change a lot in our community and, to use your word, it would be honest.

  17. Francis

    wrote on August 8, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    Just because the statement: Whoever et al. 2013 is like a signature of a paper, as much as its title and the journal data. Change the name of the first author and you will find it very difficult to find the paper in databases and will mislead everybody, whom might even think that the paper does not exist.

  18. Outraged

    wrote on September 10, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    To Steve Koch, Francis, Steven Salzberg, gerty-z, et al.:
    People like you make practicing science worse for everybody. Your comments reflect profound ignorance about the often sensitive political realities of collaboration and assignment of authorship. In other words, author ordering is not always up to the author, injustices do exist, and making blanket statements about one's integrity because they swapped names with another author that CONTRIBUTED EQUALLY is absolutely absurd! BTW, Francis, finding a paper is as simple as doing a Google search, regardless of the author ordering. I mean, how incompetent do you have to be to not find a paper on Google in msecs?! Wow.

  19. If the shoe was on the other foot

    wrote on December 31, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    Question to Steve Koch, Steven Salzberg and gerty-z:
    You mention that if you found an applicant has switched the name order on a co-first author paper that you would not trust the applicant. However would you also drop an applicant who did not include the * explaining that they were a co-first author? In my opinion, if the first author does not include this * note, it is as dishonest as the second author switching the order, and if you only punish the second case, you are simply showing that authorship order is the only thing that matters in hiring decisions, and ruining the system for everyone. In the mean time I will follow annon1′s suggestion and list all my first author papers (co-first and sole first) in a separate section.

    Hopefully this will alleviate negative views of my CV from people who think. “My level of trust dropped immensely. ” “I would immediately drop them from consideration” and “They are immediately dropped from consideration”

  20. If the shoe was on the other foot

    wrote on December 31, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    Question to Steve Koch, Steven Salzberg and gerty-z:
    You mention that if you found an applicant has switched the name order on a co-first author paper that you would not trust the applicant. However would you also drop an applicant who did not include the * explaining that they were a co-first author? In my opinion, if the first author does not include this * note, it is as dishonest as the second author switching the order, and if you only punish the second case, you are simply showing that authorship order is the only thing that matters in hiring decisions, and ruining the system for everyone. In the mean time I will follow annon1′s suggestion and list all my first author papers (co-first and sole first) in a separate section.

    Hopefully this will alleviate negative views of my CV from people who think. “My level of trust dropped immensely. ” “I would immediately drop them from consideration” and “They are immediately dropped from consideration”

  21. Roger

    wrote on July 6, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    That is too bad Steve and it shows two things to me: 1) You don't understand co-first authorship and 2) you jump to conclusions. I guess you're the exact kind of person that we need to worry about when applying for jobs. The fact that your trust dropped immediately is extremely disappointing and strongly suggest that you remediate your review tactics.

    It's even more shameful that a whole lot of you agree with this sentiment and shows how lazy you are instead of putting thought into the review. So many needlessly judgmental attitudes…

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