RG Grainger
Written Work Guides
Guide to Drafting a Manuscript
Guide to being Lead Author of a Paper
Check-list for draft Reports, Papers and Theses
A Brief Guide to Style
Grainger Falls

Guide to being Lead Author of a Paper


The principal metric of scientific work is a paper in a respected international journal. On average I expect a thesis to produce at least one paper and a post-doc to be the lead author of one paper per year.

The Idea

Before committing fingers to the keyboard it is worth reflecting on why you are writing this paper. If the only answer is "To get published and improve my C.V." then stop now and do some research. Questions that may help to order your ideas include

  • What is the purpose of this paper?
  • Are you describing original and significant research?
  • How is your work different from other papers on the same subject?

There are two types of ideas for papers

Type A: The brilliant inspiration that means you have solved some intractable problem that anyone could present if they had your insight.

Type B: Embodied by a slight variant of Edison's maxim, "research is 1 % inspiration and 99 % perspiration". In this type of paper you have a good idea but you need to spend lots of energy in the data analysis, model runs or whatever.

Here it is assumed that you have a Type B paper.

Step one is to discuss your idea with another scientist you respect and trust to see if there is an obvious error in your approach. The person you talk to may be your supervisor, colleague or potential co-author. Listen for the phrase, "that's a good idea - it is worth publishing before someone else does". If there are no obvious flaws then even if the person is luke warm on your idea then it is still OK to continue. If the paper really is a lemon then this will become apparent later on.


Step two is to recognize the contribution of others to your idea. Your laboratory may have strict rules on who should be included (check). If not then these are the principles to follow

  • The lead author has the final say on who is included in a paper
  • Co-authorship should be offered to
    • people who will have a substantial scientific input into the paper (written text, analyzed data, generated figures)
    • people who should be included through some protocol e.g. you have been given data from instrument X under condition that you include the instrument operators as authors.
  • For students and post-docs it is normal practice to include your supervisor(s) if they have followed and guided your work closely.
  • Check with your initial co-authors that no one has been left out.
  • Be inclusive - if you could not have produced your idea without the small contribution by Minuscule then talk to them. If they think their part is not a significant contribution then they can say no. If they think their part is significant and you don't offer them co-authorship then they will probably speak darkly of you forever.
  • If people assist in non-scientific ways then recognise this at the end of the paper. For instance if Blue lent you a bike light so you could see inside your apparatus and find the loose wire then don't make Blue a co-author, include them in the acknowledgments.

Once you have identified any coauthors then step three is to discuss and decide with them

  • The main components of the paper.
  • A planned timetable to submission.
  • The journal you want to submit too.
  • What data, figures, text each co-author is providing and in what format and when.

This may be easy if you all share the same office but often co-authors are at different institutes in different time zones. Then the responsibility falls on the lead author to initiate and progress the discussion. The best way to do this is to circulate a draft of what needs to be done (e.g. a draft structure of the paper indicating who does what) and give people a fixed time to respond. It is always good to add a phrase like 'if I do not hear from you by this date then I will assume you have no issues with the structure'. This gets round the fact that often co-authors do not respond as they think what you have written is fine.

Drafting the Paper

Step four is to draft and collate the paper. Being lead author is a bit like driving a car with your co-authors as passengers. They will all have advice on where to go, when to stop and may even squabble a bit in the back seat. However you are in control and will be the person who is appreciated if you get them to the end of the journey safely and in good time. The paper will generally follows the usual scientific structure, i.e.

  • Introduction that specifies the scientific background and importance of work
  • Instrumentation and/or theory
  • Method and/or data analysis
  • Conclusions
  • References

Once you have a full draft you should (step five) circulate it to your co-authors for comment. Again, provide a clear date for them to respond by stating something like 'unless I hear from you by this date I will assume you have no substantive comments on the manuscript'. Give people at least two weeks to comment. If the co-authors comments led to substantial changes then you should circulate the manuscript again. This should be repeated until the changes are no longer substantive. Often manuscripts only need one circulation. If they are experiencing substantial changes after three circulations then there is either disagreement between the co-authors or the manuscript is incoherent.

As lead author it is your responsibility the paper has a consistency of style and presentation. Follow the journal's advice on style.

Nothing will irritate co-authors more than

  • Circulating incomplete drafts. The first version you send out should be in a complete state as though it were off to the publisher.
  • Circulating many incremental versions of the manuscript - the mail I hate most in getting is that three days after receiving V1 of the manuscript saying something like, "Hi everyone, hope you haven't spent too much time on V1. I have just run the spell check through our paper and reordered it a bit, please comment on the new draft Cheers Lead Author". Inevitably I have just read through the manuscript noting spelling errors and suggesting a different structure.
  • Ignoring their comments. Your co-authors are like friendly reviewers. If they think a section is unclear then change it.
  • Not giving them time to respond. You may be working full time on this work but they are not. Generally I give people between one and two weeks to respond to a large request (like proof reading a manuscript). Less time is needed if the manuscript has already been circulated.
  • Letting the paper stagnate because you let deadlines drift. If you are waiting for one final figure then it sometimes helps to hassle them in front of all your co-authors by cc'ing them into your correspondence.

Depending on the number of revisions your paper can take several months to compete. During this time it is often worth presenting the paper as a poster or as a seminar (including your co-authors as co-authors). The feedback you get helps anneal your ideas and allows you to rebut criticism before they occur in the initial manuscript.


Once you have the final draft then step 6 is to submit the manuscript and figures. Make sure you have followed the journals instructions. If the submission process allows you may want to include a short cover letter explaining to the editor the new idea in the manuscript.

Responding to Reviewers' Comments

After some time you will get a letter saying the paper needs

  • minor revisions,
  • major revisions,
  • is rejected.

Step 7: Share the reviewers' comments with you coauthors and suggest a way forward. If the paper has not been rejected then this involves modifying the manuscript and drafting a response to the editor explaining the changes you have made. This response needs to be circulated with coauthors to be sure they are happy. If the paper has been rejected you need to discuss the best response with your co-authors. This will either be a substantial rewrite or submission somewhere else or both.

When you respond to reviewers' the number one and inviolable rule is to be polite. Do not call the reviewers simpletons or abuse them in any way. Other rules to follow

  • If the reviewer has misunderstood the text accept that you may be responsible for writing obscurely.
  • Address all the reviewers' concerns. The standard approach is to present the reviewers' comments (distinguished by changing the type style) interleaved with your response to each comment.
  • Thank the reviewers for the effort they have spent thinking and writing about your manuscript.

There are two cases where you may not follow the reviewers' advice

  • When there suggestions involve exploring a different aspect of the science. In this case you need to point out that this extra work is outside the scope of the current paper. Amend the text to say doing this would be possible but is not necessary to support the current results.
  • When the reviewer's are wrong. When this happens be extra polite and use evidence to back yourself up.

From the Editor's Perspective

The worst sought of papers to receive as a journal editor are

  • Papers where the author thinks the review process is part of the manuscript development. It is left up to the reviewers to correct typographic inconsistencies, grammar and spelling errors in the manuscript. I have no faith in the author's coding when, for example, they can't be bothered correcting 'Km' to 'km' in a manuscript submitted for peer review. In these cases the reviewers often put more effort into the manuscript than most of the paper's coauthors.
  • The manuscript on some minor observations of a local geophysical event. For instance a paper titled 'Ultraviolet measurements in Wessex' is a bad sign. Usually these scripts are the lifetimes work of some aging underfunded scientists. Usually they fail to put local observations into context and are very dull.
  • Papers which promise a significant result through some technique or method but only get to the penultimate step. For example imagine a paper titled 'B gas: the missing link in Global Warming'. The reader, not unnaturally, thinks the paper is connected with global warming but on reading finds a good description of new apparatus/technique that gives the best estimate of the concentration of B gas to-date. The paper then ends with 'The insight given by these new measurements suggest B gas exists in potentially significant concentrations globally. Failure to account for B gas may result in errors in radiative transfer calculation's and so have an effect on global warming calculations'.

Often these sorts of paper are picked up and rejected by editors. An obvious question to ask is how so many bad papers get published. I have two theories on this. I think the first accounts for 90 % of bad papers, the second for about 10 %.

Publishing by probability: The average number of reviewers for a paper is less than two. Most reviewers are conscientious however it is an unrewarded job and they face no penalty for getting it wrong. When faced with research and teaching commitments there is a finite time a reviewer can give to a paper. There is a non-zero probability that a paper will be skim read by the reviewers and flaws not identified. When confronted by two nondescript but vaguely positive reviews the editor is most likely to accept the paper.

Publishing by attrition: Often papers are recommended to have substantial changes. A list of these corrections is returned to the author. Two weeks latter the same paper comes back with some of the points addressed, others ignored and a covering letter saying the manuscript has been completely rewritten. It goes out to review and again it is recommended to have substantial changes. After going round this loop 3 or 4 times the reviewers and the editor lack the will to live and accept the paper subject to minor changes. These are made and the paper appears.

RGG 2010

Earth Observation Data Group, Department of Physics, University of Oxford. Page last updated: @12:57 GMT 04-Jul-2022