Introduction: While authorship plays a powerful role in the academy, research indicates many authors engage in questionable practices like honorary authorship. This suggests that authorship may be a contested space where individuals must exercise agency—a dynamic and emergent process, embedded in context—to negotiate potentially conflicting norms among published criteria, disciplines and informal practices. This study explores how authors narrate their own and others' agency in making authorship decisions. Method: We conducted a mixed-methods analysis of 24 first authors' accounts of authorship decisions on a recent multi-author paper. Authors included 14 females and 10 males in health professions education (HPE) from U.S. and Canadian institutions (10 assistant, 6 associate and 8 full professors). Analysis took place in three phases: (1) linguistic analysis of grammatical structures shown to be associated with agency (coding for main clause subjects and verb types); (2) narrative analysis to create a ‘moral’ and ‘title’ for each account; and (3) dialectic integration of (1) and (2). Results: Descriptive statistics suggested that female participants used we subjects and material verbs (of doing) more than men and that full professors used relational verbs (of being and having) more than assistant and associate. Three broad types of agency were narrated: distributed (n = 15 participants), focusing on how resources and work were spread across team members; individual (n = 6), focusing on the first author's action; and collaborative (n = 3), focusing on group actions. These three types of agency contained four subtypes, e.g. supported, contested, task-based and negotiated. Discussion: This study highlights the complex and emergent nature of agency narrated by authors when making authorship decisions. Published criteria offer us starting point—the stated rules of the authorship game; this paper offers us a next step—the enacted and narrated approach to the game.