Author: Luis-Miguel Romero – Translation: Erika-Lucia Gonzalez-Carrion

La imagen tiene un atributo ALT vacío; su nombre de archivo es 1563639235_196226_1563712194_noticia_normal.jpg

Military ranks, precursors of many interpretations of academic hierarchy systems

There are no generic conventions applicable to all fields and disciplines on the order of signatures. There is not even an international agreement. Researchers in the fields of the Arts and Humanities are usually spared from this problem, since it is most common for the authorship of their manuscripts to be unipersonal -or at most in pairs-; but in the field of the Sciences (social, health, or basic) it is common to find oneself in a dilemma, especially in increasingly international and multidisciplinary teams.

The case of the Social Sciences, although it is the simplest of the three listed above, because its list of authors varies from 1 to 3 and, perhaps in extremely justified cases up to 5, is usually very difficult because the debate always arises as to whether to go first or last, whether the one in the «middle» is the one who has contributed the least, or better yet, what is the opinion that I think the evaluation agency (ANECA, CNEAI, DEVA, AQU, Madri+D, Conacyt, SUNEDU…) applies? Particularly because it is well known that their criteria and scales are not usually very explicit or transparent, leaving the commissions the public vindictiveness that allows them the broad powers of interpretation and their staunch sovereignty, based on regulatory ambiguity.

Logic, justice and ethics dictate that the order of authors should be relative to the amount of effort each one has put into the research and writing of the article. A kind of scoring system that as early as 1985 Roger B. Winston (Article available at: explained with the following table:

Activity CategoryPointsAssignment Method
Conceptualization and refinement of research ideas50Qualitative
Literature review20Time
Methodological design of the research30Qualitative
Selection of instrument10Qualitative
Construction and design of the instrument40Qualitative and Time
Selection of the statistical method10Qualitative
Statistical and computational processing10Time
Interpretation and analysis of data10Qualitative
Manuscript writing        
First draft50Time
Second draft30Time
Rewriting (per page)2Time
Editing the manuscript and making changes10Time

Note: In the event that two or more people participate in the same activity category, the score is divided.

However, what happens when the relative contributions are almost identical? Even what happens in interdisciplinary research where assessing the level of contribution and involvement of the other is difficult? In theory, in this case, all those who appear in the list of authors should be interpreted as first author, but, just as et al. exists, the evaluation agencies, the grants, and even the universities themselves, establish their own interpretation criteria sui generi, although they are not publicly exposed.

In areas such as Health Sciences, and more specifically in the field of medicine, there is a certain convention that the first and last authors are those who have contributed the most, while those in the middle (in a sort of curve) have had less participation. In other fields such as basic sciences, with endless lists of authors in many cases, the order is established by alphabetical criteria of the author’s surname, although some journals in the field of astronomy, for example, prioritize the Principal Investigators (PI) or lab-heads to go in first position, as a matter of visibility, impact and citation.

Other conventions that are usually applied in some branches of the Social Sciences in countries such as Brazil, dictate that the last author is usually the senior researcher, who usually has a lesser contribution in the research and writing of the manuscript, but who assists with the conceptualization and refinement of research ideas and methodological design; that is, who acts as a tutor for researchers who are beginning their careers. Something very similar usually happens in the evaluations of the National System of Researchers (SNI) of CONACYT (Mexico), especially with professors at levels higher than SNI 2. Obviously in the case of Spain this would be unthinkable, understanding that the accreditation agencies (ANECA, AQU, DEVA, AVAP, ACSUG…) and the sexenios (CNEAI and autonomic) are evaluated with the same criteria for all, whether you are a novice, senior, or top of the league: first author (good), last author (bad). There are no grays.

To resolve these controversies, some well-known journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), The Lancet, British Medical Journal, Science, Nature, Radiology, and those belonging to mega-publishers such as IEEE, MDPI or Emerald, require the contribution of each author to be expressly stated in the manuscript, which seeks to eliminate the dictatorship of the absolute position and relativize the weight of each authorship. Likewise, some evaluation and accreditation agencies (such as CONACYT in Mexico or ANECA in Spain) are valuing -although not equally, dixit- the figure of the corresponding author, which in some way could create a virtual «second first author».        

It is unlikely that a definitive solution to the signature order controversies will be found in the near future, even more so when their conventions are so different in each disciplinary ecology and geographic frontier. Determining the relative importance of each person’s contribution to research will continue to be a matter of subjective and negotiated criteria among authors, perhaps for meritocratic reasoning, solidarity, or imposition.

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