Senior academics ‘take too much credit’ in co-authorship

Junior researchers being ‘held back’ by the ordering of names on joint papers, study finds

十月 27, 2017
Source: Getty

Junior academics are being “held back” in their careers as a consequence of more senior research partners being over-credited on co-authored papers, the results of a global study suggest.

While co-authorship between two or more researchers is most frequent in the sciences and medicine, the survey of 894 researchers working in the humanities and social sciences in 62 countries found that co-authorship is becoming increasingly common in these fields as well.

Some 74 per cent of respondents reported that papers in their area of expertise typically had two or more authors, and more than half of respondents thought that co-authorship was now much more prevalent than it was at the beginning of their careers.

The most common challenge associated with co-authorship relates to determining the order in which authors’ names are listed and deciding who deserves an authorship credit, said Bruce MacFarlane, professor of higher education at the University of Bristol and the author of the report.

“The order of names on an academic paper can matter a great deal,” Professor MacFarlane told Times Higher Education. “If someone does not have any first authorship credits, this might hold someone back in their careers when search committees review academic CVs. Invitations to speak and review might follow from first authorship, too.”

He added: “When a publication with three or more authors is quoted by other researchers, it is subject to the ‘et al’ effect – ‘Smith et al’, for example, gives more prominent attention to the first author.” 


Professor MacFarlane’s paper, Co-authorship in the Humanities and Social Sciences, published by Taylor & Francis, presents evidence of a “reality gap” in terms of academics’ expectations. In practice, he states, too much weight is placed on being a senior ranked researcher, the supervisor of a doctoral student or a research grant holder. As a result, junior researchers sometimes lose out.

“Sometimes junior academics think that sharing authorship credit with more senior academics will benefit their careers,” he told THE. “But the reverse can happen – a more senior academic might be assumed to have contributed more to a publication than a less well-known name, even if the reality is that the junior academic contributed more.”

There can also be financial disadvantages, he noted. In China, for example, the first author will receive a much larger bonus from their university for a paper published in a prestigious journal.

While the survey’s results demonstrate that researchers do not believe that the relative seniority of authors should influence the order of an author list, the experience of several respondents indicates that it happens nonetheless.

“Deans and departments chairs often ask to preview your manuscript, and it comes back to you with their names attached as co-authors,” responded one US researcher.

Another finding of the study is that few researchers have ever received guidance or training on the issues raised by co-authorship – only some 18 per cent.

Authorship attribution should be decided early on in a project to avoid disputes or dissatisfaction, Professor MacFarlane said. He concluded: “There are a lot of effects from authorship order. This should never follow an academic hierarchy, but should be judged on intellectual contribution.”



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