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What does co-authorship mean and who gets to be one?

In the Laskowski Lab, we believe that co-authorship should be an outgoing discussion throughout the life of a research project. To us, co-authorship represents both credit for work done on the project and also, just as importantly, responsibility for the contents of the resulting paper. This does not mean that every co-author should necessarily have a detailed understanding of each method or technique, but it does mean that they should have a broad understanding of the contents of the paper and the major decisions that were made to produce the results. On highly collaborative projects, each co-author may have a deeper or shallower understanding of certain parts of a paper, based on their contributions. For example, one co-author was responsible for writing the code that extracts behavioral variables from videos; this co-author will have a deep understanding of that method. And while this co-author might not be expected to understand the details of how a particular brain imaging protocol was performed, they should understand what protocol was used and what data were collected from the protocol. 

Co-authorship decisions.

Because of the dual role of co-authorship in that it confers both credit and responsibility, there is no single rule that can fully cover all scenarios where co-authorship decisions need to be made. But we find that the general guideline that a person should to contribute to at least two key aspects of any project/paper to be a good starting point for discussions about inclusion as a co-author: 

  • Research question development
  • Experimental design or methodology development
  • Data collection
  • Data processing and analysis
  • Manuscript writing
  • Providing funding for the specific project
  • Significant and constructive feedback on written drafts

That said, if any project component would not have been possible without the contributions of a particular person, or if they have made a very significant investment in any one project component, then that may be reason alone to include them as a co-author, assuming they are willing to hold responsibility for the contents of the paper. Regardless of contribution, all co-authors are always expected to read and approve the submitted version of the manuscript. 

Discussions about co-authorship should happen early on and with regularity throughout a project. It is the responsibility of the project lead to discuss co-authorship options with people that are contributing to the project. For example, if two undergraduate students are assisting in data collection with a graduate student, this contribution alone (i.e. data collection) would not necessarily warrant co-authorship. However, the graduate student can explain to the undergraduate students about the roles and responsibilities of co-authorship and the undergraduate students may then become more actively involved in other aspects of the project such as analysis or writing and editing. As another example, simply providing general funding for a project participant (e.g. a PI that provides funding for a postdoc’s position) does not automatically assume co-authorship for the funder as these funds were not specific to the project. 


Author order.

Once co-authorship is agreed upon, the next step is determining author order. In our field (ecology and evolution) the positions that generally carry the most weight are the first and last authors. In addition to author order, corresponding authorship is a role that any co-author can take.

Typically, but not always, the first author is the project lead and is generally the person that writes the initial draft of the manuscript. Co-first authors could be possible in some cases, for example, when two people have equal significant contributions to the study. Typically, but not always, the last author is an advisor that helps guide the first author and rest of the team of higher-level decisions. Finally, the corresponding author is the person who will handle communication about the manuscript during the submission process and will ultimately be the person contacted by anyone with questions about the paper. They hold perhaps the most responsibility for the paper in the long term and usually the corresponding author will be either the first or last author on the paper. Determining co-author positions and roles can be difficult as many projects often have more than two people that significantly contributed to that project and so discussions of author order should occur early in the process. However, author order is never set in stone and further discussions should happen any time there is any change in co-author contributions, such as when a particular co-author may contribute more or less than what was initially discussed.