Pitfalls in author ordering

Apparently the number of co-authored papers in political science is on the rise, and there are questions on how to order the author names. I had never heard the phrase “the tyranny of the alphabet” before to refer to alphabetical author ordering, but I know that since conventions are different in math/statistics, computer science, and electrical engineering, there ends up being a lot of confusion (esp. on the part of graduate students) as to who actually did “most of the work” on a paper. Fan Chung Graham gives a succinct description of an ideal:

In math, we use the Hardy-Littlewood rule. That is, authors are alphabetically ordered and everyone gets an equal share of credit. The one who has worked the most has learned the most and is therefore in the best position to write more papers on the topic.

This ideal doesn’t really hold in electrical engineering (or computer science, for that matter), and can lead to some dangerous assumptions when people’s conventions vary or when you are doing interdisciplinary work.

Firstly, the default in EE is that when you see a paper, you assume that the first author (say a grad student) did “most of the work” and that the advisor/professor did “significantly less.” However, some professors always (or almost always) use alphabetical order for the author list. Unless you know that already, you would tend to assume that the first author is still the “primary” contributor. Two authors in alphabetical order isn’t necessarily a tip-off that the contributions are equal or that the advisor always uses alphabetical ordering. I have mistakenly thought (and had other people tell me) that “oh that student must not be very good since they are always last author on their papers.” It seems fine if you know the convention of the advisor/group, but this misunderstanding could have a pernicious effect when less knowledgeable people evaluate a CV. In this case the alphabet is tyrannical if those reading/evaluating the paper don’t have “inside knowledge.”

A second trap I’ve noticed is in giving talks. I’m at a conference primarily of CS and statistics people, where alphabetical author ordering is more common and so people don’t assume that the first author is always the primary contributor. Citation conventions in talks are often [ABCD09] to give all author’s last initials and the year. This alphabet soup is a bit confusing and also hard for the listener who may not know that paper and would like to know who “A” is so they can find the paper. However, it cites all authors, which is good in case “B” had equal or more contribution to the paper than “A.” These things matter, because talks are how name recognition can get built outside your own research community. Contrast this with an EE conference, where I would probably default to “Anderson et al. ’09” for [ABCD 09]. This is great if Anderson is the main contributor, since they get all the verbal credit in the talk, but bad for Barak, Chen, and Deshpande. I’ve had people come up to me after talks to tell me that “you know, it’s not just A who did that work,” which makes me believe it’s a real issue. Even worse is if Chen is Anderson’s student and did most of the work, but their name is never mentioned in talks, so nobody ends up knowing who they are. “Who is Chen? I’ve never heard of her. Oh, she works with Anderson…”

So what to do? One thing is to be more sensitive to the conventions of other “communities” and individuals. Another may be to put footnotes on papers saying “the authors are listed in alphabetical order” (I have done this before). I’m sure my mathematician friends will find this whole discussion bizarre. However, when doing interdisciplinary work, it helps to give credit where credit is due and avoid ruffling academic feathers. I wonder how political science will deal with it…

Update: it may also happen that people from other communities reorder authors when mentioning work in a talk, or just say “Barak and collaborators,” where Barak is the most famous co-author or the one they know the best…


2 thoughts on “Pitfalls in author ordering

  1. If you are working in a field where conventions may vary and this matters, I would say that it is reasonable to always add a footnote explaining the convention you use. But that may be the mathematician in me talking.

    • Agreed, but it’s still confusing when you look at someone’s publication list and they publish in different fields where different conventions hold.

      I think there’s no (elegant) solution…

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