What's in a name?

Who goes first on shared authorship papers, men or women...
29 March 2019

Interview with 

Nichole Broderick, University of Connecticut


A man and a woman in discussion.


What’s in a name? Well if it’s the person whose name is first on a paper, it’s pretty important, because that tells the scientific community who, ostensibly, did most of the work. So what happens when two people share the first authorship? Who goes first? And does it make a difference if they’re male, or female? Speaking with Chris Smith, Nichole Broderick…

Nichole - Traditionally in biomedical literature, the first author is the person who really led the study who did the work and then the last author's name is usually the person who got the money for the study or runs the lab or institute. But we end up calling papers by that first name and that kind of sticks is something that part becomes part of our conversation and how we talk about the work.

Chris - I suppose that matters, because when a person goes for a job, if they have got a string of papers with their name at the front of them and they've been at a conference presenting that work and their name is the one that everyone's aware of, their prospects can only be improved by that can't they?

Nichole - It gives them that ownership and that place of being the person at the helm of that work. And so it really does indicate they've been the one driving it which can be misguided if there's another person who also was working with them, but is the second person in the name of that co-authored list.

Chris - So how did you actually approach this and what did you do? Where did you get the data from to do the study?

Nichole - So we honestly used Google Scholar primarily, and went and just searched for co-author or equal contribution and searched through different journals and we were able to find those papers that way. 

Chris - Are all of the papers where that has happened., do they state clearly that there has been a co-authorship and that authorship was shared equally - all the work was shared equally between the first second and maybe even sometimes first second and third names on that list?

Nichole - We found as much as eleven!

Chris - Really. Eleven first authors!

Nichole - Yes! It's usually two, sometimes three, but there were some extremes. You will find somewhere, but what's interesting is that in some journals as they've moved from more of their paper versions now onto an online format, you won't necessarily see it unless you actually download the paper. So that was somewhat tricky but we were able to find them.

Chris - And how many papers did you extract data for?

Nichole - So we looked at around 3000 papers over a dozen different journals all in the biomedical area.

Chris - And over what time span? 

Nichole - So we did, starting in about 1995, 97 going through 2017.

Chris - Okay. And so you crunched all these numbers; you know which authors have contributed. Do you know who's a male who's a female author?

Nichole - Some of the Anglo names were a bit easier for us to sort of decipher: a Bridget versus a Jonathan. But obviously science is very international. So we ended up resorting to searching for images of people, finding them on LinkedIn pages, or research gate so that we could definitively indicate whether or not they were male or female. So we had to exclude some papers where we couldn't determine that.

Chris - Indeed, because there were some "Ashleys" and some "Leslies" that may well be indeterminate!

Nichole - Well those we checked. We always checked.

Chris - And what you're asking is: "So we've got multiple author paper and we've got either a man and a man, a man and a woman, or a woman and a woman, as these authors upfront". What sort of numbers did you see in terms of how did those break down. And when you actually then compared who was first and who was second, did you see numbers that were equivalent to chance, or was there bias?

Nichole - What we found first of all was the male-male combination was by far the most common. And then if we looked at mixed genders, there did appear to be a bias against women in the first position. So it was more common, if it was a mixed gender paper, for there to be a male in the first position and a female in the second position.

Chris - Any idea why you might be seeing that? Because when people decide the author list and they've contributed equally, sometimes they'll reach some kind of decision about alphabetical order, or they'll toss a coin. Was there any explanation offered as to why this might be the case?

Nichole - The one thing that we found was interesting was we only found about one or two papers that actually said "this order was decided by alphabetical order". In most cases that's never indicated. If you talk to scientists, anecdotally, I think they would tell you that sometimes that flipping of a coin and stuff happens less frequently than you might expect. But we do note that over time that has gone down. We did look for what was occurring by time and it is becoming more equal.

Chris - Did you phone up any of these people, where you saw this going on, to ask them or how did you reach that decision?

Nichole - We hesitated to actually do a study so that we could survey for those sorts of questions; it might be an interesting follow-up that we've talked about. At the time we really wanted to get the story out so that people could talk about it and think about it.

Chris - And if nothing else maybe lobby journals to say look this needs to be made clearer in the papers. If you found such a paucity of examples where this is actually explained, it kind of argues that we really ought to be putting that on the paper shouldn't we?

Nichole - Exactly and that's one of the points that we make and actually we've been getting feedback from that aspect where people have told us that their journals are you know their editor in chiefs of journals that it's something that they're journals moving towards is having a very clear statement about how these decisions are made. 

Chris - You must be quite pleased though by the fact that as you look at the scientific timeline of publication that this effect appears to weaken?

Nichole - Absolutely. It was very reassuring to see that there was a correction. Who knows exactly why but it's wonderful to see and it's great to think that we're approaching equilibrium with.

Chris - With that sort of ordering it's reassuring to me, as a as a biomedical scientist, that we're in that situation. But what about these physicists? Are you going to go and probe them next to make sure that they're not being naughty?

Nichole - One of the dilemmas there is just the number of women physicists that are in training it's still an area and still one of the sciences where we really need to increase the numbers. So I think that'll be one of the tricky aspects of it but obviously would be great to look at.


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