Let’s just get one thing straight about authorship. It is a political statement. Like all political statements, it is highly subject to dispute, but also has some underlying truth. Authorship is a convention and the conventions are different in different fields. Authorship rules also change with time. If you want my overall philosophy, it is to fit in with your field and to be generous both with authorship and issues like author order and who is senior or corresponding author.
When I was trying to decide what laboratory to join as an undergraduate, I first visited a neurobiology lab on the med campus at Michigan (almost no one knows this, but it is true). The kindly professor showed me around a bit and gave me a few reprints. I also met his technician. I don’t remember how it came up, but I will never forget what the professor told me about authorship. It was that the technician did a great deal of the work and got her credit in the acknowledgements, which was just what she wanted, he explained. Right then and there I decided that being acknowledged was not what I wanted and did not join that lab.
But 40 years ago it is probably true that technicians were more likely to be acknowledged than to be in the author list. That has changed. Many other things have changed, like the size of collaborating groups and what constitutes a publishable unit. I could write about who gets to be first author, senior author, or last author. But instead for now I’ll focus on something else, corresponding author.
The corresponding author is the one who gets a little indication by their name for correspondence and then their contact information is given, at least an email address. I opened the latest issue of Evolution and see that for one paper Erik Svensson is both first author and is the one with an email address, though no formal designation of corresponding author is given. The next paper I opened from the same issue of Evolution has the last author, Nick Royle, as the one with an email. How about PLoS Biology? Planarians has a little envelope sign by the last author, as does a CNS myelination paper. It seems like the corresponding author is being used here to indicate whose lab the work was done in. How about ecology? Also in PLoS Biology, from January, a paper on forest biodiversity has the little envelope by the first two authors. Another paper has it by both the first and last author. In the journal, Ecology, it was the first author with the little envelope on all of the papers I checked.
What does corresponding author really mean when we can usually easily find the email of any author we choose? Are they really the only one we should communicate with? Does the corresponding author tell the official party line about the study, leaving out all the difficulties?
I think corresponding author is being used to claim leadership for the work. This is probably really annoying for postdocs and graduate students who would like to be the one to talk about their own work. But the PIs of the lab might feel ownership also, even if they didn’t do the hands-on work, particularly if the project was part of a grant they wrote. If you are looking for a rule on how to balance these two legitimate kinds of claims, probably between first and last authors, it is a good idea to think about who will automatically get credit and who might benefit from more recognition. Under this criterion, corresponding author should go to the earlier-career person.
Oh, of course corresponding author has nothing to do at all with who paid for anything, publications or otherwise. And, no, it is not just about who handles the paperwork of the submission. It is a political statement. From among the qualified authors, use it to benefit the newest person where it can do the most good.