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Last night, I submitted a paper on which I’m the second author, after computer vision ninja Kenji. The way it works in academic paper writing is that the first author is usually the instigator and main researcher, and the co-authors either help out with the idea (if they’re senior to the first author), or work on one section of the paper, usually relating to their previous research. Sometimes, the co-author doesn’t do anything more that provide some equations and code. For instance, my academic sibling (same supervisor) and sometimes boss, Mike, has this publication:

Yin Jian-jun, Zhang Jian-qiu, Mike Klaas. 混合线性/非线性状态空间模型的边缘Rao-Blackwellized粒子滤波法. 航空学报 (Chinese Journal of Aeronautics). 2007.

And he doesn’t even know Chinese. I don’t think he knows much about aeronautics, either. Pretty sweet.

The interesting thing about co-authorship is that if you’re the second- or third-listed author, nobody really knows how much you did. You did enough to get credited, but not enough to be the first author. That’s it. You might have spent weeks working on the paper, or taken a few minutes to email some equations. In the absolute worst case, a co-author might not do any research at all, and just be head of the lab or department, though that’s pretty rare in my field. Perhaps not the biggest concern for some folks in the real world, but in academia, publications equals prestige. And prestige equals precious, precious ego-fuel.