One of the parlor tricks I occasionally do in an information literacy class is to the guess the name of a researcher’s PhD adviser, and sometimes their Post Doc adviser, simply by looking at a list of their publications. This is most impressive when the researcher in question is the faculty member I’m working with and can confirm or deny my guess.
Students are usually impressed, but it isn’t difficult: you just need to know a little something about the meaning behind the order of author names.
Scientific publications are rarely authored by just one person. More often, they have 3-6 authors, and sometimes many more, depending on the field. Publications in high energy physics and genetics can sometimes have hundreds of authors: the record (as far as I can tell) is an article related to the installation of the particle accelerator at CERN that lists the group as a lead author and almost 3,000 co-authors.
My colleagues in the humanities sometime have trouble understanding how so many people could be the author of a paper – they equate authorship with actual typing and writing of words. But in the sciences, the words aren’t the primary result – it’s the data, discoveries and conclusions that are important. As a result, scientific publications encourage contributors to list as authors anyone who made a significant contribution to the work.
The definition of “significant contribution” can vary by field, however, and it isn’t unheard of to see authors who only made a nominal contribution. In some places it was customary to add the department chair or lab PI as an author, even if he or she knew nothing about the work (see this 2006 article in Nature.) Some journals are attempting to get a better handle on this by asking contributors for a list of credits, who did what (see this example). And the medical community has outlined specific criteria for inclusion as an author.
Because of the quantity of authors, some thought has to go into how they will be ordered on the publication. The first author is typically the person who contributed the most to the publication, including carrying out the research and writing up the report. After that, it can get a bit tricky.
In order to combat the trickiness, various disciplines have evolved strategies to keep the peace. In some disciplines, additional authors are listed alphabetically. In others, authorship goes in order of who made the biggest contribution. Sometimes, the person who contributed the most (after the lead author) will go in second place, sometimes in last place.
In cases where author order is determined by the relative amount of an individuals contribution, disagreements, and even arguments can sometimes result. You can actually download software that aims to help establish the correct author order.
I sometimes discuss author order in upper level classes. If a researcher understands how this works, their ability to search for additional relevant publications by author goes up.