Postdocs often struggle with their publication list. They only become co-authors, although they do a lot of work. However, if you strive for a successful academic career, you may have to negotiate better with your supervisor to get first and last authorships to build your career.
The postdoc authorship dilemma
Postdocs have different roles in different countries.
In some countries (e.g., the US), postdocs are often “lab rats” who do the major part of the work in the lab.
In other countries (e.g., Europe), they may have a middle-management position. They are in a “sandwich” between the professor on the one hand and the technicians, bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD students on the other.
Depending on your position in the lab, you support several students, and as a result, you earn a valuable co-authorship – often the second place in the author list.
However, this creates the classic postdoc dilemma – you support everybody, do not work on your first author projects, and end up with a long list of co-authorship papers. You might become the famous “second author” on several publications.
Why is this a problem? Co-authorship papers show some scientific productivity; however, having *mostly* or *only* co-authorship papers will be interpreted as limited scientific independence. This is not as bad as being a postdoc without publications; however, you may have substantial problems to find a job in academia.
In the remainder of the article, I will give some ideas to help you navigate this dilemma. All the following statements are probably true, provided you want to pursue a career in academia.
In the industry sector, your publication list is less relevant than in academia, and technical and people skills might be more useful for your career advancement. Read more here: What is the best publishing strategy in science?
What is the significance of author order in a research paper?
Author order is crucial in a research paper as it reflects the level of contribution and collaboration of each individual involved in the study.
Authors are listed in descending order of their contribution, with the first author usually having done the most work, such as data analysis and writing the first draft.
The last author position is often reserved for the PI or the senior team member supervising the research process.
In my experience, author order is always influenced by disciplinary conventions, negotiations among researchers, and strategic decisions about career advancement – particularly of the younger scientists. Some fields use alphabetical listing, and others have started to include detailed author contribution statements to clarify roles.
Can a postdoc be the first author on a research paper?
Yes, a postdoc can certainly be listed as the first author on a research paper.
The first author usually has made the most significant contribution to the research, including experimental design, data collection, and writing the paper.
If a postdoc has played a leading role in these aspects of a project, it is appropriate for their name to be listed first, demonstrating their pivotal role in the collaboration.
Can a postdoc be the last author on a research paper?
Yes, a postdoc can hold the last author position on a research paper, indicating their significant role in guiding the study. Achieving last authorship signifies a postdoc’s growing independence and leadership in their academic career, showcasing their capability to manage and drive research forward.
However, it is more common in the later stages of a postdoc’s career or in disciplines where the lab structure allows such independence.
Is it better to be second author or last author?
The value of being second or last author in scientific papers varies by field. Is being second author on a paper good or less valuable than first or last author? From my personal perspective, particularly in the life sciences, the second author counts typically only as a co-authorship in the middle, as a middle authorship. Thus, it does not have more value than the 3rd, 4th or 23rd co-authorship.
However, if the second authorship is highlighted with an asterisk (*) and explicitly labeled as “equally contributing authorship” alongside the first author, its importance dramatically increases, aligning it with the lead author’s contribution. If not, it counts just as a co-authorship.
Still, a last authorship (= senior authorship) is substantially more valuable than an equally contributing second authorship to show scientific independence as a researcher.
There are no perfect rules for determining authorship
How to determine the authorship order
Determining authorship can be complex, involving author contribution and authorship order. It is essential to understand the criteria for authorship set by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (CMJE). These criteria ensure that all authors in scientific papers have made a substantial intellectual contribution to the work.
Unfortunately, the CMJE rules are very strict and one might argue that they are not fully aligned with the reality of lab researchers. In addition, there is a lot of space for interpretation of what a substantial contribution is. I wrote an entire article about the criteria for a substantial contribution: What is a substantial contribution to a paper?
How to avoid authorship disputes?
In any research project, authorship disputes can arise. The principal investigator (typically the senior author) and the PhD student or postdoc (typically the first author or a co-author) must establish clear guidelines on authorship credit from the outset.
Open discussions within the research team about author positions and the hierarchical order of authorship are vital for maintaining research integrity. These discussions should consider the contributions of colleagues, including undergraduate students, to ensure fair and inclusive authorship practices. This can prevent misunderstandings, debates, and anger and ensures that authorship decisions reflect each individual’s relative contributions.
Written authorship agreements can be beneficial, especially in large project settings or when dealing with large multi-author group publications. These agreements help clarify the level of contribution of each author and the order of authors, which is often a reflection of their relative contributions.
Fake authorships and gift authorships
Under certain circumstances, there may be political reasons to include authors who may not have contributed sufficiently to a paper according to the CMJE rules, such as a faculty head who provided infrastructure or a clinical colleague who proved tissue samples. Similarly, financial implications and funding agencies’ requirements can also influence authorship decisions. This can strain the authors’ relationship if these authorships appear undeserved.
Read more here: I have a fake author on my paper – what should I do?
Ghost authors and medical writers
Ethical considerations in authorship also include addressing ghost authorship and guest authorship, which may undermine publication ethics and the public responsibility of scientific publications.
Medical journals, in particular, emphasize the importance of transparency in authorship decisions and the final approval of the manuscript. For example, many journals request that medical writers who help write a professional scientific manuscript must be mentioned in a publication’s acknowledgments section.
What is a senior author of a publication?
In the life sciences, senior authorship often denotes the principal investigator or senior mentor who has provided general supervision of a research group.
In contrast, the first authorship is typically reserved for the primary contributor, who has made the most substantial contributions to the experimental design, data collection, and interpretation of data.
The role of a senior author extends beyond mere oversight; it encompasses the responsibility for ensuring the integrity and accuracy of the research presented.
Who is the senior author of a paper?
This position is often held by a senior researcher or department chairperson, who not only guides the research project from conception to completion but may also play a pivotal role in the manuscript submission process. This includes the formulation of the research questions, analysis and interpretation of data, and the final approval of the manuscript.
Their name at the end of the list of authors symbolizes their endorsement of the manuscript’s contents and their commitment to addressing any queries in a timely manner, underscoring their primary responsibility for the work.
What is the difference between the senior author and the corresponding author?
The difference between the senior author and the corresponding author is nuanced yet significant in academic research.
The senior author typically is a senior mentor or department chairperson who has provided general supervision of a research group, often contributing to the strategic direction of the research program and ensuring the research adheres to the highest standards of scientific progress.
This role is crucial for maintaining the hierarchical author order, reflecting a culmination of substantive intellectual contributions. However, as mentioned before, this can always lead to a political debate because it always contains a certain degree of interpretation of what constitutes a substantial contribution and how to rank the different contributions of the different authors.
On the other hand, the corresponding author is responsible for the communication with the journal during the manuscript submission process, addressing editorial queries, and ensuring that all details of authorship are correctly represented. This role may also involve coordinating the analysis and interpretation of data.
While the senior author symbolizes the academic and ethical oversight of the project, especially in original articles, the corresponding author plays a pivotal operational role, ensuring the final approval of the manuscript and its readiness for publication.
The corresponding author communicates with the journal and the other authors
The corresponding author has several obligations during the publication process. After peer review, corresponding authors are responsible for addressing the comments raised by the reviewers of the manuscript.
Other authors may have to contribute additional text fragments or do additional experiments. They are also responsible for ethical considerations and duties, such as obtaining ethics committee approval and declaring any conflict of interest.
Manuscript submission typically requires a cover letter that highlights the manuscript’s significance and the authors’ contributions. The journal’s administrative requirements and editorial queries must be addressed promptly to facilitate a smooth review process.
Collaborative research often results in shared first authorship or equal contribution statements, reflecting the significant role of more than one author. This practice acknowledges the substantive intellectual contributions of student authors or junior researchers alongside more established colleagues.
Should you have more first authorships as a postdoc?
The answer is a resounding “YES!”.
To develop scientific independence, you need first authorships. If your publication list is full of co-authorships but no first authorships, you will be considered a diligent co-worker but not an independent scientist who completes his/her projects.
In the later stages of your scientific career (late phase postdoc, tenure track, professor), the last or senior authorships become more and more critical.
Should you have more senior authorships as a postdoc?
Again, the answer is a resounding “YES!” – provided you want to pursue a career in academia (= become a professor).
For postdocs, occasional last (= senior) authorships are even more critical to show scientific independence. A senior author publication demonstrates that you develop and handle your own projects – independent of your supervisor – even if he/she is part of the author’s list or equally contributing last-before-last author.
The essential advice for both first and senior authorships is to focus on quality (= higher impact factors) and not quantity (= high numbers of papers).
However, in high-performance labs, the rules may be different. When you leave the lab with one or two Nature or Science papers (or equivalent), people will forgive you for not having senior authorships.
Please note: In some cases, focusing on first authorships might be more practical and beneficial for a postdoc’s career, particularly when the supervisor is not open for any negotiation.
Should you have more equally contributing last-before-last authorships
This is a tricky question.
Is second to last author good when denoted as equally contributing? When you are second to last (= second last author), and your supervisor is last, it will be easily considered your supervisor’s work. If it is the other way round (supervisor second-to-last and you are last, both equally contributing), it will be interpreted in your favor. When the other equally contributing last author is from another lab, it will also be interpreted in your favor.
Don’t co-authorships count at all?
Co-authorships are essential to “fill your publication list” and to avoid gaps. If you have one or two years without publication, it may be used against you as a sign of limited scientific productivity.
Thus, co-authorships fill these gaps, but first and senior authorships should be your priority. Read more here: Should I aim for multiple co-authorships to extend my publication? and Should I aim for co-authorships on high-impact papers?
How about reviews?
The same is true for reviews. A well-published review fills your publication list and helps you to avoid gaps. You look more prolific. A well-published review also helps to position yourself as an expert and to make your work visible to a broader audience. Read more here: Should I aim for multiple co-authorships to extend my publication?
Should you become the “corresponding author”?
Again, a tricky question. I have heard many different opinions on this subject and seen many different practices.
Briefly, if you must choose between a prominent authorship position (first or last) and the corresponding author position, the former is more important than the latter.
However, I have been in situations where I lost my first authorship and became one of several equally contributing authors, and as a “consolation gift,” I got offered the corresponding author.
Similarly, you might ask, “who is more important first author or corresponding author?”
The value of the corresponding authorship is heavily debated, and I have no conclusive answer on how much weight it has for your career in science. However, the corresponding authorship never played a role in all the grant selection committees in which I participated. Thus, I would always advise young researchers to go for first and last authorships (equally contributing positions in the authors list). This might be different in other fields.
How do you negotiate better with your supervisor?
When you want to pursue an academic career, your supervisor should be empathic – but there is no guarantee.
You may negotiate to become the senior author and your supervisor equally contributing last-before-last author. A strong argument may be your massive engagement in a specific project.
Many supervisors are open to the ambitions of their postdocs and want to help. In my lab, I have established the rule to share the senior authorship with a postdoc who intensively supervises a PhD student and contributes a lot to the study (own ideas, driving the project, a lot of lab work, etc.).
As a full professor, I am still obliged to publish first or last-author papers as an essential metric of my productivity. Luckily, grant committees often accept that senior scientists give the last authorship to their staff members and become equally contributing last-before-last.
Thus, in the later stages of your academic career, being in the last position may be less critical. However, this point is also heavily debated among my colleagues.
What should you do when your supervisor does not negotiate about senior authorships?
When your supervisor is unwilling to negotiate on senior authorships, it’s crucial to approach the situation with a strategy. First, document your contributions to the research meticulously to build a strong case for your authorship claim.
Seek advice and support from other senior colleagues or mentors within your institution who can offer perspective or mediate the discussion. Consider also the broader context of your career goals and the potential for future collaborations.
If direct negotiation remains unfruitful, focusing on first authorships might be the only option if you stay in the research group.
You might realize that your supervisor is using your dependency. In such a situation, you might consider quitting your postdoc. You also might become aware that you are subject to abuse by a narcissistic supervisor and need support.
In conclusion, you should avoid the postdoc publication dilemma (= a long list of mainly co-authorships) at all costs – provided you want to pursue a career in academia.
First authorships have the highest priority in early career stages, co-authorships are helpful to “fill your publication list,” and senior authorships become increasingly relevant in later career stages to show scientific independence.
Just a caveat: These are my very personal opinions developed during many hours spent on selection committees for grants and positions. Please take all statements with a grain of salt and discuss them with experienced colleagues in your field. The rules may be different in other specialties.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Q: Should a postdoc aim for a last author position to indicate seniority?
A: While the last author position is often associated with seniority, supervisory roles, or significant contributions to the conceptual framework of a study, aiming for this position as a postdoc is an essential strategic career move to show scientific independence.
Q: How are authorship disputes resolved?
A: Authorship disputes are unfortunately common, but they can be resolved through clear communication and adherence to authorship guidelines set by your research center or – for example – by the committee on publication ethics (COPE).
It is crucial for all authors involved in the study to discuss authorship order and contributions at the start of a project and to update these discussions as the work progresses. If a dispute arises, involving a mediator or senior colleague who was not involved in the study can help find a resolution that acknowledges each author’s contributions fairly.
Q: Is it common for postdocs to also be the corresponding author on a paper?
A: Yes, postdocs can also be the corresponding author on a paper. The corresponding author is responsible for communicating with the journal during the submission process, responding to reviewers’ comments, and handling revisions.
This role does not necessarily correlate with the author’s order but is about taking responsibility for the paper’s publication process. If a postdoc has taken the lead in these aspects, they can also be the corresponding author, highlighting their leadership in the research project and collaboration efforts.
As mentioned above, supervisors sometimes agree to become second to last author (but equally contributing) when a senior postdoc had major input or even lead the study. In such a case, it makes a lot of sense to let the postdoc also be corresponding author.
Q: How should authors be listed in a multi-disciplinary research paper?
A: In a multi-disciplinary research paper, authors should still be listed according to their contribution to the project. This could mean that authors from different disciplines are interspersed throughout the author list to accurately reflect their input.
No surprise, clear communication and mutual understanding of each researcher’s role are essential for fair and accurate author listing. Sometimes, alphabetical listing or a contributors’ section can also be used to denote equal contributions among the researchers involved in the study.
Q: What are the ethics surrounding authorship in a research publication?
A: The ethics surrounding authorship in a research publication revolve around honesty, transparency, and acknowledgment of contributions. Every person listed as an author should have made a significant contribution to at least one aspect of the research, such as conceptualization, design, data collection, analysis, or writing.
It is unethical to include individuals who did not contribute significantly (gift authorship) or to exclude those who did contribute – however, the definition of a substantial distribution is sometimes a matter of debate. Following the authorship guidelines recommended by publishers helps maintain the integrity of the research publication process.
Q: What can you do to ensure they receive appropriate authorship credit?
A: To receive appropriate authorship credit, you must discuss authorship order and expectations early on with your principal investigator (PI) and the team. Keeping a record of contributions to the project, including conceptualization, data collection, analysis, and writing, can help in these discussions.
Furthermore, being proactive in writing the manuscript or sections of it and communicating regularly with the author team about the progress can solidify a postdoc’s claim to a specific authorship position, be it as the first, middle, or last author in scientific papers.
I have used AI systems, including Grammarly, Google Gemini, and ChatGPT, to enhance the English and comprehensiveness of this article. This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a small commission if you decide to purchase through my link. Thus, you support smartsciencecareer at no cost to you!
The following articles may also interest you:
- What is a substantial contribution to a paper?
- 28 Tips to Get More Citations for Your Publications
- How To Write Faster: 19 Efficient Ways To Finish My Publication
- I have a fake author on my paper – what should I do?
- Should I aim for co-authorships on high-impact papers?
- Should I aim for multiple co-authorships to extend my publication list?
- Should I publish negative results, or does this ruin my career in science?
- I have a fake author on my paper – what should I do?
- 10 simple strategies to increase the impact factor of your publication
- What is the best publication strategy in science?
- Should I quit my postdoc?
- Is being a professor worth it?