Certified random co-authors

Debraj Ray, Arthur Robson

30 October 2016

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Alphabetical order is, in many ways, a good arrangement. Our colleagues from other disciplines express wonderment that such a self-centred subspecies – the academic economist – actually uses this civilised convention. Around 85% of two-author papers are written in alphabetical order. Compare this to the cut-throat nature of many of the sciences, in which there is often a tussle for first authorship. Other not-so-subtle signals, such as concern lab leadership, are sent through ancillary ordering conventions. Perhaps the civility of alphabetical order, which avoids rancorous argument over name order at publication, lends itself to more joint work.

But, if your name begins with a letter that is early in the alphabet, alphabetical order gives you significant and unwarranted advantages:

  1. Given that society appears to be attuned to merit-based rankings, names that appear first are more likely to be given extra credit. Marketing research suggests that products presented earlier exhibit higher probabilities of selection, as an aptly ordered article by Carney and Banaji (2012) observes. Even stocks with earlier names in the alphabet are more likely to be traded (see another aptly ordered paper by Jacobs and Hillert 2016).
  2. Earlier names appear bunched together on a bibliographical or reference list, lending additional perceptual weight to how often they are cited. They also appear earlier on the reference list. Haque and Ginsparg (2009) – yet another aptly ordered paper! – note that an article's position in the ArXiv repository is correlated with citations of that article. Feenberg, Ganguli, Gaule, and Gruber (2015) show that the same bias exists in the downloading and citation of NBER “New This Week" working papers. This led to a change in NBER policy.

Does this matter, or is this just the resentful fantasy of two disgruntled economists with surnames far down the alphabet? There is, actually, quite a bit of evidence that it does. Einav and Yariv (2006) write:

“We present evidence that a variety of proxies for success in the US economics labour market (tenure at highly ranked schools, fellowship in the Econometric Society, and to a lesser extent, Nobel Prize and Clark Medal winnings) are correlated with surname initials, favouring economists with surname initials earlier in the alphabet. These patterns persist even when controlling for country of origin, ethnicity, and religion.”

Others agree. See, for instance, the appropriately hedged Chambers, Boath and Chambers (2001). The impeccably ordered van Praag and van Praag (2008) find: “significant effects of the alphabetic rank of an economist’s last name on scientific production, given that an author has already a certain visibility in academia ... Being an A author and thereby often the first author is beneficial for someone’s reputation and academic performance."

A colleague once enthusiastically recommended that Ray should read a 'wonderful paper' by 'Banerjee et al.' Ray didn’t need to read it, because he was one of the now-nameless et als.

First among equals

Alphabetical order may still be an efficient arrangement, even if earlier names are better off. So why should we care? Economists who eschew interpersonal comparisons of utility (especially those with earlier surnames), are likely to oppose any change in alphabetical order. They might argue that existing alternatives would lead to nasty fights, grumpy co-authors, and ultimately a disintegration of the happy system of joint research that we all admire.

There are at least four responses to this point of view:

  1. This isn't a zero-sum game. People put in effort into doing research. Finding a way to give equal division of the credit from that research might increase research output beyond unequal division, as efforts adjust to the more equitable distribution of credits. 
  2. The fear of being relegated to second author, or even to the dreaded et al., might currently discourage authors from writing papers with those more fortunately placed in the alphabet. This is an efficiency loss.
  3. When ordering is alphabetical but relative contributions are not consistent with that ordering, there will be feelings of unfairness, guilt, or outrage. The fact that alphabetical order is occasionally reversed is circumstantial evidence that such feelings exist. 
  4. The recognition accorded to earlier authors appears to cumulate over time, which generates snowballing unfairness. Van Praag and van Praag (2008) focus on this aspect of mistreatment, and conclude that:
    “Professor A, who has been a first author more often than Professor Z, will have published more articles and experienced a faster productivity rate over the course of her career as a result of reputation and experienced a faster productivity rate over the course of her career as a result of reputation and visibility.”

As Lenin sagaciously enquired, what is to be done?

One possibility: randomisation of name order. But note that – with the exception of a few fair-minded people who have used it – private randomisation will have difficulty breaking the grip of alphabetical order.

Imagine that Archimedes and Boethius were writing a paper (never mind that they were born 750 years apart). They gallantly agree to break with convention by randomising their joint authorship. Will they agree to the randomisation?

There are clear difficulties. Given an 'alphabetical society', a change in name order is a clear signal that the newly christened first author has done most of the work. 'Boethius and Archimedes' would be a statement that Boethius has done most of the research for that paper, whereas 'Archimedes and Boethius' would indicate very little, because any signal would be swallowed by the existing naming convention. Archimedes gains nothing over alphabetical order when his name comes first, while Boethius gains a lot when his does. Boethius will agree to the ex-ante randomisation, Archimedes will not.

Our new working paper addresses this question. We want to introduce a simple variant of the randomisation scheme – a mutant – which will set it apart from pure randomisation. Our new scheme involves flipping a coin to determine first authorship. A name order that has been randomised this way has the symbol ® between the names. Any citation of such a paper should also respect the use of this symbol.

So the appropriate reference for our paper will be: 'Ray ® Robson (2016)'.

We propose, in addition, that an august body such as the American Economic Association makes an announcement to the effect that such a scheme (and associated symbol) is available. We ask only that it acknowledges that the alternative exists. Our paper shows that there is no need to impose it.

Our main result is that random order (with the symbol ®) will successfully 'invade' alphabetical order. If this option is available, both authors will have an incentive to use it. This holds initially in a relatively small set of circumstances, but subsequently these circumstances will expand. Not only does random order, as signalled by ®, invade alphabetical order, but there is no possibility of reverting to the status quo ante once we are in the new equilibrium.

The beauty of the mechanism ® is that it does not demand any more of the agents than the present economics convention while being fairer and more efficient. In summary, random order:

  • distributes the psychological and perceptual weight given to first authorship evenly over the alphabet
  • allows credit to be given whenever either author’s contribution substantially exceeds the other’s
  • will be willingly adopted even in an environment where alphabetical order is dominant
  • is robust to deviations
  • dominates alphabetical order on the grounds of ex-ante efficiency
  • and is no more complex than the old system.

References

Carney D R and M R Banaji (2012) "First Is Best". PLoS ONE 7(6): e35088.

Chambers, Boath and Chambers (2001) "The A to Z of Authorship: Analysis of Influence of Initial Letter of Surname on Order of Authorship," British Medical Journal, 323, 1460--1461.

Einav, L and L Yariv (2006), "What's in a Surname? The Effects of Surname Initials on Academic Success," Journal of Economic Perspectives 20, 175--188.

Feenberg, D R, I Ganguli, P Gaule and J Gruber (2015) "It's Good to be First: Order Bias in Reading and Citing NBER Working Papers,'' NBER Working Paper No. 21141.

Haque, A and P Ginsparg (2009), "Positional Effects on Citation and Readership in arXiv," Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 60, 2203--2218.

Jacobs, H and A Hillert (2016), "Alphabetic Bias, Investor Recognition, and Trading Behavior," Review of Finance 20, 693--723.

Ray, D ®  A Robson (2016) “Certified Random: A New Order for Co-Authorship", Working paper, New York University and Simon Fraser University. 

van Praag, C M and B M S van Praag (2008), "The Benefits of Being Economics professor A (Rather than Z)," Economica 75, 782--796.

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Topics:  Frontiers of economic research

Tags:  citations, academic research, alphabetical order

Silver Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Science and Professor of Economics, New York University

Professor of Economics and Canada Research Chair in Economic Theory and Evolution, Simon Fraser University

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