Does Order Matter?

As I have interacted more with researchers not just in my own field but elsewhere, I have been surprised at the diversity of opinions concerning authorship of journal papers. Often, in engineering and statistics (and elsewhere I imagine), the order in which the authors appear on a paper is indicative of who contributed what to the paper. Sometimes, though, statisticians will essentially flip a coin to determine order of authorship, but this seems to occur with senior researchers and others who are in a position to not worry about such evaluations.

This thinking is in contrast to the seemingly common practice among mathematicians to list authors in alphabetical order. I was quite surprised when I first learned about this from my mathematician colleagues (“How do you know who contributed what?”). I’m not a mathematician, of course, but my impression is that it generally requires a substantial contribution to be included as an author on a math paper, more so than what it takes to be a coauthor on engineering papers, say (based on what I glean from talking to engineering colleagues), and even some statistics papers.

So does the order of authorship matter? My answer is “yes, and no, and maybe.” I could be wrong about this, or I could be oversimplifying things. It’s almost impossible to get researchers even in the same field to come to a consensus about anything, much less researchers across disciplines. Some academicians, though, seem to be unaware that such differences in conventions even exist. That’s yet another reason I think the trend toward more interdisciplinary work is a good thing.

Oh well.

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