A few weeks ago, in a half-serious entry, I expressed my amusement with the practice of stating explicitly, some place in a scientific manuscript, that a subset of its authors “contributed equally” to the work described therein. I received a flood of comments, as well as e-mails (as many as 5 altogether… no, I am not making that up… OK, maybe it was more like 3, but who’s counting), patiently explaining to me that the goal of the above operation is to grant “first author” status to more than one person.
Apparently, in some fields of science (e.g., molecular biology), it is customary for a researcher to receive significant credit for a co-authored, published piece of work, only if the name of the person is featured either at the beginning  or at the end  of the author list. Conversely, the contribution of an individual listed as second, third,…, (n-1)th author, will be normally deemed “essentially worthless“, as eloquently put by Mad Hatter. This assessment has been confirmed to me by a number of colleagues in bioscience. Given such a draconian state of affairs, in order to ensure that more than one person receive “first author credit” (i.e., some credit), the PI has ostensibly no choice but to make an explicit statement of equal contributions in the manuscript, and prominently so.
The obvious question is, why list all of those additional authors, then, if they will receive no credit anyway ?
In physics this does not seem to be happening much (yet). I have always thought it understood that the relative contributions to a research work vary with the level of seniority of the authors. A graduate student, a postdoctoral associate and an assistant professor can not be, and are usually not expected to have played comparable roles in carrying to fruition a research project described in a co-authored article. And, while greater recognition will surely go to the first (and maybe last) author, some recognition will also go to the other authors.
I have always been fairly dismissive of the importance of this author order thing; to put it bluntly, I think it is just a pile of malarkey, an exercise in futility. For one thing, very seldom will authors be in competition with one another for the same job, or grant, or promotion, or salary increment, or prize. If several people at the same stage of their careers (e.g., two graduate students) are part of the same group, and therefore could conceivably compete for the same job, different projects are usually assigned to each one, and first author status will go to the person “in charge” of that project, when the paper is written. There is usually no problem in doing that, even though the group functions as such, i.e. everyone contributes in part to all the projects, all the time .
And even in the case of work co-authored by collaborators at different institutions and/or with similar seniority, insisting with a particular order in the author list is probably a waste of time. My experience has consistently been that the community has a way of deciding which one or two authors in the collaboration are the main driving force behind the project; to them will go most of the credit, eventually, pretty much regardless of the order in the author list (my experience is also that the community gets it right most of the time).
In general, I think that the credit tends to go to the person who does the most convincing job at giving talks on the subject.
Be that as it may, my question is: if essentially no credit will be received unless one’s name appears at the beginning or at the end of the author list, what is then the point of including all other names at all ? Who benefits from a proliferation of names ? Would it not be easier and less confusing to list only first and last author ? Or, would it not make more sense to revert to a system in which each and every author in the list can be safely assumed to have played an important role in the project, i.e., the work would not have been brought to completion timely and accurately as it was, without the different contributions of each and every one of them ? After all, if stating that “authors contributed equally” does the trick, it seems a baby step to forget about order altogether (just use alphabetic order and, for [favorite swear word] sake, leave out those who did nothing).
I mean, seriously, is this just a case of “administrators gone wild” ?
Awaiting responses (no more than three, eh ? I don’t want to be overwhelmed…). Oh, but now it’s time for a nice home made meal .
 First author, supposedly main contributor. This is typically the person who did most of the actual research work, and possibly may have been in charge of writing the article as well.
 Senior investigator, intellectual leader of the group, holder of the grant off of which other investigators are paid, presumed originator of the idea for the project.
 Of course, in the case of two graduate students or postdoctoral associates, the assessment of their relative abilities given by the senior investigator will typically carry far more weight than their respective numbers of first-authored papers, in determining their success later on. This is another reason why making a big issue of author order is pointless.
 Contributors: Mrs. Okham, Okham, Okham’s neighbor, Okham’s buddy, spouse of Okham’s buddy and Okham’s mother-in-law (on leave from her regular institution… short leave… very short).