Guest post by Felix Brandt
We recently had an internal discussion about author ordering within our group and agreed to retain alphabetical ordering (sort of renewing a decision we made some years earlier when the group was composed differently). Author ordering is a surprisingly tricky issue and I think it’s particularly difficult in algorithmic economics where the cultures of many different disciplines clash.
The problem usually starts with the fact that nobody makes a conscious decision at the beginning of one’s career which author ordering policy to use. In most cases, PhD students just publish their first papers using whatever convention is used in their group. Once they have published papers, they are reluctant to change the convention for the sake of consistency and, perhaps more importantly, because changing the convention can have negative effects on previous coauthors (by making their contribution appear less). Whenever authors with different authorship conventions write a joint paper, they need to decide which convention to use (and if it’s not the alphabetical convention, they also need to agree on a particular ordering for the paper).
The two predominant conventions are alphabetical ordering and ordering by contribution. (Another interesting convention I heard about, but that I have rarely seen, is to list authors by age from youngest to oldest.) Alphabetical ordering is the standard in mathematics, economics, and theoretical computer science. In most other disciplines, including AI, it is not. Sometimes, the head of a group is listed as an author even though he did not contribute anything and, in some areas, there is a special meaning to being the first, the last, or even the second-to-last author (like here). Let’s assume for simplicity that in theoretical areas such as algorithmic economics, only people who significantly contributed to a paper are actually listed as authors (even though that might not always be the case).
At first glance, ordering by contribution seems to be the fairest solution. Measuring relative contribution, however, is a source of great dispute that can hamper productivity. Studies have shown that authors almost always disagree with respect to their relative contributions. Another problem arises when using a default ordering in case the contribution of all or some authors is roughly equivalent (which is mostly the case in our group). Even if one uses non-alphabetical ordering only if the contribution of one author was significantly larger than those of the others, the asymmetry remains: If the authors are listed alphabetically, the first author may have contributed more. If the authors are listed non-alphabetically, the first must have contributed more.
About two years ago, I had the privilege to write a joint paper with Paul Seymour and asked him to move my name further back because I had contributed less. His reply was that “it’s quite standard to be alphabetical and no-one reads anything else into it (and that is a treasure worth preserving)”. I think that’s a very good point because once non-alphabetical ordering is used, it indicates that some information can be deduced from the author orderings in general. The fact that authors have to be ordered in some way can be seen as an unwanted by-product of the sequential nature of language. Whenever I read papers myself, I never put any meaning into the ordering of authors. This is, however, not the case in general and sometimes researchers are denied awards, fellowships, or tenure because the committee in charge expects them to be “first authors”. In order to avoid this problem, some authors put a disclaimer on their webpage or on their papers, explaining which ordering convention is used and sometimes even listing the contribution of individual authors. An alternative, perhaps more elegant, solution to neutralize the author ordering in CVs or on personal homepages (places where it may actually matter) is to list publications as “<paper title> (with coauthor x and coauthor y)”. Despite all these efforts, author ordering remains a controversial issue simply because the cultures of fields, the principles of authors, and the expectations of readers differ so much.
Other articles on author ordering:
- A statement by the AMS about author ordering. In mathematics, alphabetical author ordering is also known as the Hardy-Littlewood rule.
- A paper in the Journal of Politicial Economy by Engers, Gans, Grant, and King (First-Author Conditions) finds that “it is an equilibrium for papers to use alphabetical ordering whereas it is never an equilibrium for authors always to be listed in order of relative contribution”.
- A recent arxiv paper by Ackerman and Brânzei (Research Quality, Fairness, and Authorship Order) analyzes the “phenomenon that alphabetical ordering is correlated with higher research quality”. They cite several studies providing empirical evidence for this claim.
- Blog posts by Michael Trick and Michael Mitzenmacher.