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Technical Issues in Publishing

Navigating First vs. Corresponding Authorship

 

Nathan Boutin, Associate Editor

September 2023


In the complicated world of academic research, collaboration and authorship play pivotal roles in showcasing the contributions of individuals to scientific discoveries. Within this landscape, two roles stand out: first authorship and corresponding authorship. Although these designations are highly recognized, they can be a source of confusion and uncertainty. Here, we will navigate the nuances surrounding first vs. corresponding authorship, address misconceptions, and evaluate their implications for effective communication.

What is first authorship?

The first author is typically the individual who has made the most substantial intellectual and practical contributions to the research project. This often involves experimental design, data collection, analysis, and drafting the manuscript. The accolade of first authorship acknowledges the individual’s primary involvement in the project and is considered an indicator of their scholarly contribution. First authorship is considered to be prestigious and is widely sought after among those early in their career.

What is corresponding authorship?

The corresponding author is the main point of contact between the research team and the scientific community. While this role serves as a liaison to the publishing journal, it also involves overseeing manuscript submission, addressing inquiries from editors and reviewers, and ensuring compliance with ethical guidelines and publication standards. Traditionally, the corresponding author is a senior researcher or principal investigator. However, any member of the research team willing to dedicate their time can act as the corresponding author.

Dual roles

In some cases, the same person may assume both first and corresponding authorship. This happens when a researcher actively contributes to the project’s core work and subsequently bears the communication responsibilities. Such a scenario is common among early-career researchers aiming to showcase their capabilities in both research and manuscript management. These scenarios are not at all uncommon. In fact, for single-author papers, taking on both roles is the case by default!

Common misunderstandings

One misconception is that the first author is, in fact, the only important contributor to the research. While the first author’s role is key, it should not diminish the significance of the contributions made by other authors. Research is a collaborative effort, and authorship order does not entirely reflect the hierarchical value of each author’s input. Without all of the authors, the work could not have been published. In fact, there are cases in which multiple authors put in equal amounts of effort to be titled the first author. In such instances, the researchers may share co-first authorship, which is indicated in the fine print. Still, only one name can come first due to formatting requirements, which makes this convention somewhat clumsy.

Another misunderstanding is that the corresponding author is the one who did the most work. However, this role focuses on administrative and communicative responsibilities rather than the depth of research contributions. The corresponding author ensures the manuscript’s quality and adherence to guidelines, enhancing its chances of acceptance for publication. Doing “the most” work is difficult to quantify because the burden of each role is different, but there is a perception that the corresponding author had a larger role in the project than others, which may not be the case.

Finally, researchers may be chosen for first and corresponding authorship for different reasons altogether. For instance, a senior researcher might be designated as the corresponding author to lend credibility and ensure that the manuscript is overseen by an established expert. Conversely, a junior researcher might be granted first authorship to provide them with visibility and recognition early in their career. These practices are not always seen as ethical because the designations may not accurately reflect the work that went into the paper. Still, it is important for researchers to agree on each role to avoid bitterness when the paper finally hits the press.


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