Last Author Position
Posted on September 25, 2014
Drawing on responses from a forum post to researcher peers, Karen Weiss (bio) explains implications of the listed order of authors in publication references, and summarizes prevailing views about the "last author" position.
Q: I am at an early stage in my career at an academic medical institution and have been advised by a few of my physician colleagues to start putting myself as last author on publications rather than second (for those papers in which I mentor medical students or have a significant contribution but am not first author). I'm wondering how my CV will look to other psychologists? Would most who work in medical settings see last author as important?
A: The order in which lead, contributing, and supervisory authors are listed on publications varies depending on the professional context. In the medical world, the last position indicates seniority and a supervisory role; in academia, it does not. For articles in psychology journals, for example, second position is better than last. Typically, the second author listed has contributed significantly, so for early career psychologists who are not yet in supervisory roles, second position is considered the second most valuable. Nevertheless, the prevailing opinion in an informal poll of pediatric psychologists was that the last author position is valuable, since many academics are familiar with conventions of the medical world and other settings.
Q: How important are decisions about author position?
A: They are very important. One researcher in our poll said that in the medical world, a last author position is "an important sign of respect and shows that you lead a lab." The same respondent also noted that women researchers often hesitate to accept senior roles, but that last author position is very important for getting promotions and raises. Another respondent reported that last author positions on publications are required for gaining associate professor status at his institution, since they clearly indicate a mentor role.
One respondent described how authorship position should change over the course of a career. He said, "Basically, at the beginning of your career you want to move from being in the middle of the author listings, typically when you are working with mentors and supervisors in graduate school and early career, to first author publications, and then last author (senior author). The first author publications establish your reputation as an independent thinker who is able to take the literature forward, and the last author publications establish that you are successfully mentoring the next generation of researchers."
Q: Are there other ways to indicate seniority and experience?
A: Certainly. Researchers can note seniority on their CVs, by starring or otherwise noting publications for which they mentored others. Supervisory roles on publications can also be noted in cover letters. To address the different conventions of authorship listing, methods like these can cover all the bases.
Q: Are these conventions changing? Are there disagreements about them?
A: Sure. One psychiatrist noted that the senior author convention is falling into disrepute due to the problematic inclusion of non-contributing lab or foundation directors. The same psychiatrist pointed out the increasing recognition of "team science," in which second authors are increasingly seen as equivalent to first authors. Also, overuse of the last author convention can look suspicious on a CV. And at some institutions there is a practical reason to consider authorship position: continuing education credit is received only for papers in which an author is one of the first three.
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