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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