I find it amusing that in some fields it’s the most important to be first author and in others, it’s the most important to be the last author, and sometimes we publish papers together in the same journals, and the people who read the article – gasp – probably never know!
Drug Monkey says we should let the reviewers decide on the authorship order.
I disagree, though. To paraphrase one of DM’s commenters, the reviewers can’t know who did what.
And, sometimes researchers don’t understand or place the same value on different kinds of work. If they haven’t done that kind of work themselves, they don’t always understand whether it really is work or not. For example, the materials and methods sections of many biology papers will list every company that sells restriction enzymes or PCR kits, but completely ignore the core lab who made the oligos or did the sequencing, the software for graphing or analyzing the data or drawing the figures, or the kind of software that was used to write the paper. If it’s not done at a lab bench, it doesn’t have the same value.
[This might be a way to get around some of the journal requirements. Some journals that require that all software programs that are used must be open source - so it's possible that authors avoid mentioning programs like Microsoft Excel or SigmaPlot as a way to get around that requirement.]
If anything, I think the authorship wars do science a disservice and cause many people to be left off of publications when they should be included. Usually these people are undergraduates and technicians, sometimes they are programmers. After all, all that person did was to run a computer program, right? And that person only purified the proteins and made and tested the antibodies, right? That kind of work is mindless too, right? (Note: I’m being sarcastic, here – I don’t really mean this)
I liked the suggestion best that was made by the economist commenter, that authorship should be alphabetical.
Maybe it would make the whole thing less contentious and silly.
And we could concentrate more on whether the science is good, and less on who gets the proper amount of credit.