What’s in a name …

while a rose by any other name may smell as sweet, a mathematician might just be discriminated by his/her name. The perceived ability of a mathematician (as well as most academics) is by publications. There are two norms in listing authorship of joint work. One adopted by mathematics and economics is to list the authors alphabetically, regardless of amount of contribution. On the other hand, for disciplines like psychology and biology, the norm is to list the author in terms of contributions. It’s an interesting phenomenon, because I’ve seen biology papers with many authors. It seems that if you are in a lab which publishes 10 papers, chances are high that you get your name in every one of them, maybe as the 7th author. Perhaps, I can get my name as the 8th author by just walking past the lab! In a sense, as long as the main author’s name is first, he probably wouldn’t mind sharing credit with people, maybe in the hope that the favour is reciprocated.

I must say both practices have their pros and cons. Suppose you are a young person writing with an established guy, people would tend to think the established person did the work, unless you put your name first. On the other hand, a co-authorship might result in A providing an idea and B doing all the work. Now, who should deserve more credit? The one who did the work? Not really. A good idea is usually hard to come by. Plus it can be touchy to always have to establish who should get main credit. I suspect the relationship wouldn’t last or at least be as cordial. Compare that to the Hardy-Littlewood rules for collaboration.

I’m not one to want to upset the established order, so I stick to the alphabetical routine. As my surname is in the last quartile of the alphabet, I’m always the second or third author. I do have this nagging suspicion that this might have impact on how people perceive your contribution. This was confirmed when I read superfreakonomics. That book mentioned the following paper in Economics that concluded that there is some bias towards academics with names arriving later in the alphabet. Here’s the reference if you are interested.

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

One main point is that tenured faculty in the top 5 economics departments in the US have surnames arriving earlier in the alphabet than junior faculty. But the bias disappear as the data is expanded to the top 20 or 35 departments. So perhaps the impact of that bias is not as great as things like race, gender and other forms of discrimination.

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One Response to What’s in a name …

  1. John says:

    To make things more complicated, the last author position is sometimes distinguished in a paper with many authors. Often the last author is the director of the lab that produced the paper. So prestige decreases as you go down the author list until it spikes back up at the end.

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