Co-first authorship is a term that is likely familiar to most academics and probably notoriously so too. Traditionally, the ordering of authors on a publication is based on the degree of individual contribution. The first author position is typically reserved for the team member who did most of the heavy lifting while the last position is generally occupied by the senior author or principal investigator. However, there is a fast growing trend where two or more authors are credited with equal contribution to the work and considered “co-first authors” or “co-senior authors” as the case may be. Several authors have studied this volatile issue and found a clearly increasing trend. 1-4
Reasons that have been proposed to support the practice of co-first authorship, include increasing collaboration in academics, publications started by one team member but completed by another, and in some situations, team politics (the academic version of office politics). The title of this post is derived from the confusion that would theoretically arise when a paper with two authors (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) who made “equal contributions” is to be cited by another. Ordinarily, an in-text reference to the cited paper would read something like, “Jekyll et al reported blaty… blah…”but in this curious case of co-first authorship, it might read something like “Jekyll and Hyde et al reported blaty… blah…”. Jokes apart, I have personally not seen any case where the “second” first author is credited as such in citations or for that matter in any reference to the publication (including on their own CV) except on the journal page, typically with an asterisk. This calls into question the fairness inherent in the practice of co-first authorship. Allocation of credit towards academic promotions is another context in which the co-first authorship phenomenon breeds confusion. Short of appeasing the first author that was listed second (or the last author that was listed in the penultimate position), one would be truly hard-pressed to identify a real benefit to this practice.
While many are quick to justify co-first authorship, I beg to differ. In my opinion, it is sometimes borderline fraudulent when a team member whose contribution is clearly less than that of the “first” first author is offered co-first authorship for reasons of team politics. Being first author on a paper should require creating at least a complete first draft of the manuscript. Performing the experiments in the laboratory for a basic science study or crunching the data for a database study are critical contributions to the research process; however, the publication represents an interpretation and declaration of the findings or a scientific claim for which the first author and senior author bear the greatest responsibility (this is typically the case in clinical research but may vary across fields). From the initiation or study design phase, the senior author or principal investigator should assign tasks and authorship order based on mutual understanding among team members that failure to carry the task through would warrant a compromise of authorship position.
These opinions are mine. Please let me know what you think about the strange case of co-first authorship.
- Akhabue, E., & Lautenbach, E. (2010). “Equal” contributions and credit: An emerging trend in the characterization of authorship. Ann Epidemiol, 20(11), 868-871. doi:10.1016/j.annepidem.2010.08.004.
- Bhattacharya, S. (2010). Authorship issue explained. Indian Journal of Plastic Surgery, 43(2), 233-234.
- Burrows, S., & Moore, M. (2011). Trends in authorship order in biomedical research publications. Journal of Electronic Resources in Medical Libraries, 8(2), 155- 168. doi: 10.1080/15424065.2011.576613
- Conte, M. L., Maat, S. L., & Omary, M. B. (2013). Increased Cofirst authorships in biomedical and clinical publications ： a Call for Recognition. The FASEB Journal, 27(10), 3902-3904. doi:10.1096/fj.13-235630