Alphabetical fate

A good few years ago I wrote an academic paper with a colleague. We thought it was pretty good. While we did more or less equal amounts of writing, I had done most of the research and so we agreed easily that my name would come first. This was not however the view of the journal in which we wanted the piece to appear. They agreed to publish it, but insisted that my fellow author’s name had to come first.

Why was this? Was he the better academic? Was he better known in our field? Hell, was he better looking than me? None of that. His surname began with the letter ‘B’, mine with a ‘V’. That was it.

I was reminded of this recently when I read a report on research that showed that people with a name beginning with letters from A to M were more likely to earn more money than those nearer the bottom of the alphabet, more likely to be elected if they were politicians, more likely to be university leaders, more likely to win the Nobel Prize.

In my own case, I could of course argue that my surname officially (under German practice) begins with a ‘P’ rather than a ‘V’, but why bother, I end up in the lower part of the alphabet either way.

Nevertheless it is disturbing that in this most intellectual of environments – in the academy of higher education – the odds are also stacked in favour of those higher up in the alphabet. When we tell ourselves that we are always objective and uninfluenced by irrelevant factors, someone might perhaps suggest to us to think again; though ideally that someone’s name should begin with an ‘A’.

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12 Comments on “Alphabetical fate”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    Academics as ‘always objective and uninfluenced by irrelevant factors’ aha thanks for this most humorous start of the day
    About time we forget the tales we like to tell ourselves and come to terms with our cognitive biases and logical fallacies –

    not to speak of the need to recognize the role that emotions rightly play in this most intellectual of environments (and not just), but what do I know, my name only begins with ‘N’!

  2. Rachel Says:

    In my discipline (mathematics) the default is that authors are listed in alphabetical order by surname. Deviations from this convention are rare. Practitioners do not attach any significance to the order of the author list. The system works well. Issues only arise in multidisciplinary assessment exercises that ask for things like “numbers of papers as first author”.

  3. cormac Says:

    It’s funny you should mention this. It hasn’t been an issue for us yet, but i expect it to arise sometime. The insistence on alphabetical order for authors is something that seems to vary from journal to journal and from field to field. On problem is that in historical work, teamwork is rarely democratic.

    In our case, my name goes first on papers because I write the papers and do 80-90% of the background analysis. The job would be much harder without the invaluable contribution of other members of the team in areas of translation and technical mathematics, but such contributions are not of the same order of magnitude as the core analysis. I write some papers alone; this is not true of the other members of the team.

    I have sometimes wondered if the contributions of others on our team should acknowledged in an acknowledgements section rather than as co-authors, but I feel that would overlook the many discussions we have and the fact that our conclusions are the product of a few minds with different areas of expertise, not just one. But the bottom line is that no other member of the team would be happy to present our papers at conferences, or write the reviews. So I continue to go first until some journal objects!

  4. I’m surprised to read this. I’ve co-authored frequently, and no journal or book publisher has ever challenged the order in which we have decided to place our surnames. Why didn’t you challenge them?

  5. cormac Says:

    Yes, it seems to vary from field to field. Alphabetical order is certainly used for ‘big science’ papers with hundreds of authors, not so much in history of science.
    My favourite example of fun with authorship comes from the maverick Russian physicist George Gamow. With his graduate student Ralph Alpher, Gamow wrote a very nice paper in the 1940s suggesting that many of the basic chemical elements of our universe may have been formed, not in the hot furnaces of the stars, but during the super-hot phase of the infant universe postulated by the ‘big bang’ theory. Anticipating (correctly) that his paper might be of fundamental importance, Gamow added the name of his great friend Bethe to the paper, so that the title and authorship read ‘ On the Origin of the Elements ‘ by Alpher, Bethe and Gamow….as in alpha, beta gamma heh heh

  6. James Fryar Says:

    Sometimes the order of authors should probably be swapped irrespective of who the lead is:

    This is the unfortunately named ‘Cox-Zucker’ paper … sorry to lower the tone.

  7. Anna Notaro Says:

    Spare a thought for the 972 authors of a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1993, it reported on a clinical trial conducted in 1,081 hospitals in 15 different countries, involving a total of 41,021 patients. In that case authorship was assigned to a group. Also, in 2008, an article in high-energy physics was published describing the Large Hadron Collider, a 27 mile long particle accelerator that crosses the Swiss–French border; the article boasted 2,926 authors from 169 research institutions.

    What underpins this discussion is the status of academic authorship as a concept, one that is increasingly contested within contemporary (digital) cultures, but that is another story…

  8. cormac Says:

    Hi Anna, that wiki entry isn’t quite correct. The 2008 article from CERN does not describe the LHC, it describes the operation of one particle detector the LHC, the ATLAS experiment.
    ATLAS is just one of 4 detectors at the LHC; a paper describing all the experiments at the LHC would have well in excess of 10,000 authors!

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      Thanks Cormac, it might be incorrect, however the general point is about group authorship as a practice, in some scientific disciplines…that will increasingly be the case as the idea of ‘collective authorship becomes more mainstream even in the Humanities’.
      one last thing on this fascinating topic, our names might determine our fate and yet it is so much fun to try and defy the odds!

  9. cormac Says:

    Absolutely, and the group authorship issue is really quite a serious problem in ‘big science’. As a student, I was advised against going into the field of experimental particle physics because of the ‘large-team’ aspect of such science. I’m glad I took that advice, it’s hard to make a mark when every experiment has hundreds of participants and every paper has hundreds of authors

  10. Vincent Says:

    Is the reason you have everyone involved given/getting credit due to past situations where Prof A claiming sole rights when 2-300 people were involved. And I suppose it does little harm in the job stakes to have ones name on as many as you can. Must be better than not.

    Ever thought of translating the ‘von’ to ‘from’. That’d push you above the mid point.

  11. Jeremy Says:

    Sounds like something you would find between the pages of the book, “ Freakonomics”. It’s interesting to find out that bias isn’t limited to those that we would consider to be uneducated…

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