What is the Responsibility of a “Lead Author” and “Co-Author” in a Research Paper


If you’ve done more than a handful of citations during your research career, you’ve seen examples of lead and co-authorship in action. This behavior of labeling writers of a paper is becoming more and more common as teamwork in the field of academics takes on steam.

Although it’s not uncommon to have multiple authors on one paper, differentiating between a co-author and the lead author isn’t as cut and dried as one might assume. The first name in the citation would make you believe that this placement means the author did the majority share of the work in the research and writing process. But determining who did more than someone else isn’t something everyone agrees upon, and if this isn’t delineated clearly before the work begins, it can lead to misunderstandings and possible misconduct.

Defining Each Role

Before you start working with a partner, one of the very first things you should do is communicate regarding each other’s definition of authorship. Coming to an agreement early can minimize any arguments or dissent before publishing the works.

To help you get started, here are the working definitions of lead and co-authors according to the accepted principles of academic publishing:

●      A lead author is an individual that has likely initiated the research topic and carried out the research. They take the load of the writing and editing tasks on their shoulders, beginning the document, adding the majority of the content, running final drafts through editing tools, or hiring an editor to review the manuscript. Their name is typically listed first on the manuscript’s authorship sections.

●      Co-authors, on the other hand, will collaborate with the lead author. They are listed as an author because they make a significant contribution to the research and the paper, but it is not a majority contribution. They may come into the project after the lead author has begun the process of creating the experiment and finding funding, but they share the responsibility and accountability for the final outcome.

Use these two definitions to determine who in the team is going to do what tasks, then decide in writing who the lead and co-authors will be. This can be adjusted later with everyone’s approval should one person fail to fill their roles, or another step up and replace a lead author.

Factors Used When Splitting Up Attribution

Still not sure how to split the hairs when it comes to attribution? There are some factors that eliminate assumptions and capitalize on factual data—you know, the stuff that every researcher can agree upon.

Because the label of author vs. co-author can make a major difference in one’s career, both academically and financially, this is a designation to take very seriously. In a new team, or with a new member of the team, these rules tend to get rid of gray areas:

●      Lead authors make substantial contributions throughout almost every stage of the work, including acquisition, interpretation of data, analysis, and outcome

●      Lead authors draft the work and play a major role in the critical revisions prior to publishing

●      Lead authors have final approval of the work before it is sent in for approval or rejection from a publishing agency

●      The team agrees that everyone is accountable for their part of the work, but a lead author takes accountability for the entire project, whether the active part of the job was theirs or not

●      The lead author is the one who is questioned if there are any inaccuracies or questions of integrity; this person follows these investigations through their resolution.

When you clearly display the role of a lead author, many people who thought they wanted the job description don’t mind taking a step back. It’s a lot of pressure, and a hefty load of responsibility in the event that the work has any accountability or integrity issues called into question.

Monitoring Your Authorship With Impactio

However, whether you’re a lead author or your name falls behind someone else’s on the publication, it’s important to follow your authorship impact. You can do this with Impactio’s research tools. Impactio is America’s leading platform in academic analytics tools, and the free report features let you clearly see where your work is leading the way or falling short in certain areas.

With Impactio, you can build a team of professionals from all over the world, work together to come up with authorship decisions, and complete almost all the research you need by connecting online. When you’re ready to boost your professional reputation, start with Impactio.


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