Michael Mitzenmacher, in his excellent blog, My Biased Coin, has recent entries (here, here and here) on the order of authors on joint papers. When you have a last name that begins “Tri…”, it becomes pretty clear early on that alphabetical order is not going to result in a lot of “first author” papers. And it does tick me off when my work in voting theory becomes “Bartholdi et al.” or my work on the Traveling Tournament Problem is “Easton et al.”. I have even seen “Easton, Nemhauser, et al.” which is really hitting below the belt (since it is Easton, Nemhauser, and Trick).
Despite that, all of my papers have gone with alphabetical order, and I am glad I (and my coauthors) went that route. If even once I had gone with “order of contribution”, all of my papers would have been tainted with the thought “Trick is listed third: I guess he didn’t do as much as the others”.
The issue of determining “order of contribution” is a thorny one. There tend to be many skills that go into a paper, and we know from social choice how difficult it is to aggregate multiple orders into a single ordering. Different weighting of the skills leads to different orderings, and there is no clear way to choose the weighting of the skills. Even with the weighting, determining the ordering of any particular aspect of the paper is often not obvious. When doing a computational test, does “running the code” and “tabulating the results” mean more than “designing the experiment” or “determining the instances”? I don’t think hours spent is a particularly good measure (“Hey, I can be more inefficient than you!”) but there is practically nothing else that can be objectively measured.
Further, most papers rely on the mix of skills in order to be publishable. This reminds me of an activity I undertook when I was eight or so. I had a sheet of paper and I went around surveying anyone around on what was more important: “the brain, the heart, or the lungs” (anyone with a five-year-old kid will recognize a real-life version of “Sid the Science Kid” and, yes, I was a very annoying kid, thanks for asking). My father spent time explaining to me the importance of systems, and how there is no “most important” in any system that relies on the others. I would like to say that this early lesson in “systems” inspired me to make operations research my field of study, but I believe I actually browbeat him until he gave up and said “gall bladder” in order to get rid of me. But the lesson did stay with me (thanks, Dad!), and perhaps I was more careful about thinking about systems after that.
Some of the arguments over order strike me as “heart versus lungs” issues: neither can survive without the other. So, if a person has done enough work that the paper would not have survived without them, that both makes them a coauthor, and entitles them to their place in alphabetical order.