The ordering of authors’ names in academic publications

Alphabetical ordering of authorship of articles in economics journals apparently is the source of two biases.  Einav and Yariv (2006) show that alpha order is biased against authors with later surname initials; the problem is the name that is salient and that readers remember in connection with an article is the first in the sequence, especially when subsequent names disappear in “et al.”  Eninav et al. (1999) show that alpha order biases downward the total quality of research; here the problem is that the alpha order convention blocks a race among authors to attain first place by contributing more.   Although it should be possible to overcome the first bias via random ordering, the second appears much more intractable. 

When I published my first co-authored journal article, my co-author and I took the advice of a senior colleague and adopted the convention of listing our names in alphabetic order by surname.  Because my surname begins with a “T” and I usually end up as the second, third, or even fourth author, I always wondered if that was optimal (for me).  I was therefore pleased to read, many years later, the article by Engers et al. (1999), in one of the top journals in economics, showing that this ordering was an equilibrium, and possibly a unique one.  They further showed that listing the authors in order of relative contribution was never an equilibrium.  Of course, this equilibrium was from the authors’ point of view; they also showed that compelling authors to use priority to signal relative contributions would increase the total quality of research.

Recently, Einav and Yariv (2006) produced evidence consistent with the caveat that Engers et al. (1999) had mentioned, and which they attributed to Merton (1973), that alpha ordering can lead to a reduction in attribution to second and subsequent authors who get lost in the “et al.”  Einav and Yariv (2006) produced evidence that strongly suggested that the alpha order convention in economics might be a cause of the alphabetical discrimination that they discovered.  What they showed was that faculty with earlier surname initials were disproportionately positively represented among tenured faculty at top ten economics departments, fellows of the Econometric Society, and, to a lesser extent recipients of the Clark Medal and the Nobel Prize.    These statistically significant differences remained even after they controlled for country of origin, ethnicity, religion or departmental fixed effects.  However, the effects gradually faded as they increased the sample to include the entire set of top 35 departments.   

Still, in addition to the arguments that Engers et al. (1999) advanced for alpha ordering, there is another, which has a certain social utility.  I am aware of at least one paper that after multiple drafts never progressed even to a working paper because the authors (I was not among them) could not agree on relative contribution, and they were writing in a field in which the convention was that the order of names should represent the order of relative contribution.  This is surely not an isolated case.   Research contribution consists of two inputs, the originality and value of the idea, and the effort expended in bringing the idea to a finished paper.   Originality and value are arguable, and incommensurable with effort, and effort is frequently unobservable among authors.  These factors would suggest that there may well be many potential papers that never get to publication over the issue of relative contribution. 

Alpha order, like “first come, first served” (Cornell and Roll 1981), would be an Evolutionary Stable Strategy that reduces conflict, though at the cost of the biases already mentioned.    The problem is to keep the conflict reduction and other positive aspects of alpha order while overcoming the biases that accompany it. 

One possible solution to the alphabetic bias is random ordering of authors’ names.    This would work for prolific partnerships and for prolific authors who enter into multiple team projects.  Two colleagues of mine have written numerous papers since they were graduate students together; for each paper, just before circulating it, they toss a coin.  The coin toss determines the order, and they announce in the acknowledgements footnote that they have used a randomizing device.  More generally, journals could declare that they will randomize the author order, absent the authors’ attestation that the order they submit reflects relative contributions.

This still leaves the second bias, that of the under-production of quality research.    I have noticed that journals sometimes require the authors of an article to designate a corresponding author.  This may produce a weak and noisy signal of the lead author, and so may be better than nothing.  Still, I suspect that the bias may not be one that we can overcome, though I hope readers of the blog post can suggest a solution.

Cornell, Bradford and Richard Roll. 1981.  Strategies for pairwise competitions in markets and organizations. Bell Journal of Economics 12 (1), 201-213.

Einav, Liran and Leeat Yariv. 2006. What’s in a Surname? The Effects of Surname Initials on Academic Success.   Journal of Economic Perspectives 20 (1), 175–188.

Engers, Maxim, Joshua S. Gans, Simon Grant and Stephen P. King. 1999.   First-Author Conditions. Journal of Political Economy. 107 (4), 859–83. 

Merton, Robert K. 1973.  The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press. 


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  • anonymous

    Unfortunately, this may be an intractable problem. Economically, the distance between “a race among authors to attain first place by contributing more” and rent-dissipating conflict over relative merit is very slight. Even if you were to allow authors to choose on a case-by-case basis, the strategic implications of declaring a relative order vs. not doing so are non-trivial.

  • This looks like a similar problem as merit-based rewarding of employees. One solution might be to always have a central person (company owner / lead author) and affiliated persons (company employees / research co-authors), and make the reward of the affiliated people (bonus / order of credit) up to the discretion of the central person. The central person can take other people’s opinions on it, but he or she always has the final say, and this cannot be argued with because they are the central person.

    This leaves the door open to abuse by the person in the central position, but this is countered by the affiliated people’s freedom to gather themselves around any other central person they prefer, as well as their freedom to themselves try being central people if they feel up to it.

    So, perhaps this more capitalistic rather than “peer” attitude might solve the impasse.

    If everyone insists on having equal say or veto rights, this makes any disputes much more difficult to resolve. In my experience, the easiest way to resolve this is for there always to be an unambiguous pecking order, or else disaster looms from the consequent in-fighting.

  • Steve Shervais

    The Sage pamphlet on dynamic modelling, by Huckfeldt, Kohfeld, and Likens, includes in the acknowledgements: “We considered several different randomization procedures for ordering the authors’ names, but Huckfeldt thought that alphabetical order might be best.”

  • How about random ordering, but weighted by each person’s contribution? The probability of being chosen first author would be proportional to a person’s contribution.

  • If the relative weight of each person’s contribution is not under dispute, you don’t have an ordering problem to begin with.

  • rjs

    It seems like you’re only looking at one half of the problem? Why does the position matter? If it’s purely because of names being lost in the “et al”, then scrap the use of “et al”. If there’s more to it than that, you need to explore what it is and work from there!

  • Adrian Tschoegl

    Denis: That’s the dilemma. Any unambiguous pecking order results in bias, and so loss. Removing the bias introduces conflict, and so loss.
    Steve: cute. Still, I would have thought that a “paper, scissors, rock” procedure would have worked reasonably well for Kohfeld and Likens.
    rjs: Journals’ style manuals impose the “et al.” to reduce tedious repetition and waste of space. Even then, though, the problem seems to be that salience rests with being the first mentioned. If the citations in the text are represented by a number that links to a sequence in the bibliography, that reduces the effect of the repetition of the name of the first author, but it doesn’t remove the salience of the first name in the sequence. In the case of some papers that I co-authored with Cliff Ball (now at Duke) and Walt Torous (now at UCLA), the conversational reference will generally be, “That paper about X that Cliff and those other guys wrote.”

  • As a journal editor and someone who has published papers in multiple disciplines,
    let me note two problems, not fully articulated so far. One is that this is partly
    a matter of discipline conventions, while the second is that it is partly a matter
    of journal conventions. I also note that sometimes authors do explicitly say that
    their order is randomized, or whatever, although this does not necessarily overcome
    the problems associated with “et al.” unless the same set of coauthors publish
    multiple papers with each other that receive roughly equal rates of citation.

    Regarding disciplines, it appears to me that there is a tendency for there to be a
    natural versus social science split in conventions. Papers in natural sciences,
    especially for research coming out of labs, tend to have more coauthors, and the
    convention seems to be more that the first coauthor is somehow the lead, either in
    terms of being the real leader of the research in question, and main author, or
    sometimes simply the leader of the lab/most prestigious, although often these will
    coincide. Social sciences tend to have fewer coauthors, and tend more to go with
    the alphabetical norm as the standard for author order.

    Regarding journals there is very much the issue of “et al.,” which I personally
    dislike. Of course in Reference sections, most will have all authors listed, so
    the issue becomes how the authors are referred to in the text. Some journals eschew
    “et al.” and allow all to be listed. However, a widespread norm is to list all if
    there are just two, but to impose “et al.” for more than two. I see no justification
    for this, and personally oppose it (it is imposed on my journal from above by our
    publisher), but clearly it does create a problem. It is not clear that announced
    randomization necessarily helps much in this case.

    While I am at it, I shall also note a bugaboo of mine for Referencing, which involves
    something that is standard in the natural sciences and seems to have spread from them
    to many of the social science journals as well. It is the use of initials with a last
    name. I can name several pairs of economists who have different first names but identical
    initials who do, or have, published within the same sub-areas of economics: There are two
    (were) two J.K. Galbraiths, John and James, two R.E. Baldwins, Robert and Richard, two
    R. Gordons, Robert and Roger, and two A. Rapaports, Ariel and Amnon, and there is another
    one that I am forgetting at the moment…

    • Zaslav

      In mathematics the usual custom is alphabetical order. Everyone knows this, or should (!). I insist on it, myself, pace Huckfeldt. We rarely have many coauthors. I can’t see any effect on the relative contributions of different authors; I’m skeptical of the claimed effect, but it may be limited to economics. Mathematicians are not usually so competitive.

  • anon


    Anatol Rapoport

  • Anonymous

    Barkely: Thanks for the long comment. I must admit I never gave the first name initial any thought; there are so few Tschoegls out there the issue has never come up for me. You have a valid gripe and I will amend my lazy habits in the future.

  • Barkley: and apologies for misspelling your first name. I am so inured to misspellings of my names (first and last, though especially the last), that I am not as careful as I should be to double check the spellings of rare names.

  • Stephen Simmons

    I encountered another form of alphabetical discrimination while studying my MBA. The careers department produced a book of CVs, arranged alphabetically by surname, to help prospective employers invite students to on-campus interviews. Each employer (mainly the top strategy consulting firms, investments banks, etc) has a limited number of interview slots to fill by invitation.

    When the lists for on-campus interview times were posted, those with CVs near the start of the book received 30% more invitations than those unlucky to be near the end.

    Did the recruiters have rational reasons for preferring the earlier surnames? Perhaps S-Z contained more non-native-English speakers. Or maybe the recruiters simply got tired before finishing the hundreds of similar CVs. If so, a smart recruiter would get better results working back from Z.

    As far as I know, noone checked which strategy performed better at picking the students who went on to graduate with distinction…

  • Anon,

    Yes, Anatol (now deceased). Thank you.
    BTW, do you know what relation they had, if any?
    I know the Galbraiths and Baldwins were and are
    father and son.

  • eddie

    Surely we’re missing an obvious solution, at least for economics papers? Why don’t the authors simply bid for placement?

  • Eddie: problem is specifying property rights first. If the default is alpha, then I think there is no problem. However, if one author was clearly the lead author, then what happens?

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  • Francie York

    Interesting. Thanks for sharing this article.