First Author vs. Corresponding Author? How to Decide Which to Choose

This article discusses the importance of authorship in academic publishing. The first author executes a large portion of the work throughout the research process and signifies the researcher has provided the greatest intellectual contribution. The corresponding author is explicitly identified on the first page of the manuscript, is selected to further manage the pre and post-publication responsibilities, and serves as the point of contact for communication with a journal during the submission, peer review, and publication process.

Updated on April 26, 2023

2 researchers deciding authorship roles on an academic manuscript

Every process is conducted through a series of steps. The Scientific Method, for example, provides guidelines for navigating the research process and generally includes:

  1. Making observations
  2. Identifying a problem
  3. Formulating a hypothesis
  4. Designing an experiment
  5. Analyzing the data
  6. Reporting a conclusion

While the actual procedures may vary between fields, the underlying process remains intact. The same holds true for the publication process:

  1. Complete your research
  2. Choose a journal
  3. Prepare the manuscript
  4. Submit the manuscript
  5. Make any revisions
  6. Publication

Each of these processes contains many more specific steps and processes, including assigning authorship to the research manuscript. This article outlines the importance of authorship, delineates the meanings of first author and corresponding author, and addresses some of the challenges associated with the process.

Why is authorship important?

On the surface, the positioning of a researcher’s name and title on a manuscript seems straightforward, a simple task. Most lay people use the list of names solely for searching and citation purposes.

In reality, though, the order of those names tells a complex story of authorship. It is, in fact, the primary way for a researcher to convey the extent of their contribution to the reader.

To attain authorship on a manuscript, a researcher must not only contribute substantially to the work but also take responsibility and accountability for the information it contains. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) recommends authorship be based on 4 specific criteria related to these broad principles.

With authorship comes both recognition and obligation that have important academic, social, and financial implications. The two most prominent authorship positions are first author and corresponding author.

What is the first author?

The first author position is a coveted spot. No matter how many other authors’ names appear on the manuscript or which referencing style is used, the first author’s last name will be mentioned in every future citation of the work.

For this reason alone, the name of the first author is remembered, indexed, and promoted more than any other. It is not just a status symbol, though. The first author executes a large portion or majority of the work throughout the research process.

First author credit signifies the researcher has provided the greatest intellectual contribution, and, therefore, comes with substantial benefits. The manuscripts of first authors hold substantial value for grant and position applications, staff appraisals and reviews, and many other forms of career development.

First author duties

The designation as first author is not based on academic or professional hierarchy, the prestige, or expertise of the author. It’s based on the inputs and outputs of work. First authors must:

  • Make significant, original, and insightful intellectual contributions
  • Participate in the conception and planning of the study
  • Generate data through performing experiments, conducting literature reviews, and organizing surveys and interviews
  • Analyze the results through statistical analysis and by generating graphs, tables, and illustrations
  • Write and edit the manuscript
  • Help with queries and revisions after submission

The researcher fulfilling all these duties is rightfully the first author.

What is the corresponding author?

Like the first author designation, the title of corresponding author also comes with considerable prestige. The corresponding author is explicitly identified on the first page of the manuscript. In addition to meeting all the preexisting authorship requirements, this person is selected to further manage the pre and post-publication responsibilities.

The corresponding author is customarily a senior researcher or academic with extensive publishing knowledge and experience. As the primary source of communication for both the publisher and the readers, the corresponding author’s contact information is included within the article.

The corresponding author must have exceptional communication skills. The role assumes primary responsibility for connecting with target journals. They must be organized and meticulous with the substantial volume of tasks associated with the position.

Corresponding author duties

Neither electing a corresponding author nor accepting the position should be taken lightly as it is an essential and long lasting obligation. The duties span from prior to publication to well afterwards and include:

corresponding author duties

While all corresponding authors serve as the point of contact for communication with a journal during the submission, peer review, and publication process, some journals outline additional conditions for the role. The National Academy of Sciences offers a table that compiles the corresponding author requirements for various journals.

What if there are authorship disputes or changes?

While openly discussing and defining a research team’s roles during the initial planning phase is vital for curbing authorship disputes, combining this practice with other forward-thinking acts is key. Responsibilities and work status must be addressed during regularly scheduled meetings and special meetings need to be called when a team member is added or ends involvement in the project.

How to avoid authorship disputes

To avoid disputes, teams start by mapping out the most obvious roles, author and non-author contributor, and by rejecting any proposed “non-role.” The input of non-author contributors is narrow in scope, providing technical, administrative or writing assistance, and does not fulfill the previously outlined authorship criteria.

A non-role is any inappropriate or irrelevant participant who will harm the research process, such as unethical types of authors. This category encompasses guest authors, forged authors, ghost authors, and orphan authors and must be avoided at all costs.

Many journals require a document be included with the submission package to delineate author contributions to explain and justify author order. By creating this list as a living document from the outset, a research team fulfills the prerequisite for the publisher and guarantees transparency and fairness throughout.

Because changing authorship after publication is messy, necessitating specific documentation, signatures, and approval, it is frowned upon by journal editors. While taking proactive steps to avoid disputes that may result in this situation saves the research team time and hassle, it does not always alleviate future changes.

The addition, removal, or reordering of authors on a manuscript while actively going through the publication process requires a letter signed by all original and additional authors stating the reason for the change and their mutual agreement. For changes made after publication, an authorship corrigendum must be submitted by all authors per COPE guidelines.

Final thoughts

Getting to the manuscript writing and publication stages of a research project are exciting milestones for everyone involved. Ideally, authorship roles are clearly defined and assigned at this point.

Though the first author and corresponding author positions are sometimes performed by the same person, the obligations of each are unique. The first author undertakes the bulk of work duties and makes a significant intellectual contribution to the research project. The corresponding author carries out the communication and administrative tasks necessary for publishing the manuscript.

Both roles are vital to the research and publication processes. They require intense labor and responsibility. With this comes great recognition and prestige for first authors and corresponding authors.

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