I understand vaguely that the first author is supposed to be the one who "did the most work", but what counts as "work" in this comparison? Does "most" mean "more than all the other coauthors together" or just "more than any other coauthor"? What happens when the comparison is unclear? How often is "did the most work" the actual truth, versus a cover story for a more complex political decision?

I realize that the precise answer is different for every paper. I'm looking for general guidelines for how an outsider (like me) should interpret first authorship in your field. Pointers to guidelines from journals or professional societies would be especially helpful.

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