Authorship Order

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.

As for the unfairness of having a last name beginning “Tri…”, perhaps we should talk to my recent coauthors: Yildiz, Yunes, and Zin.

9 thoughts on “Authorship Order”

  1. Although I know many mathematicians who like the “alphabetical order” scheme, I’ve always gone with the “who made the larger contribution” approach, even though I have a last name that starts with “B.” Many (actually the vast majority) of my coauthored papers have been published in the literature of fields other than mathematics though- for example, the alphabetical order scheme is unheard of in the earth sciences.

  2. Why cant you just randomly order authors’ names? It just takes the bias out of the system and everyone is happy that they had equal chance at the first place.

  3. I’m with Brian on this. The alpha-order approach complicates matters for promotion-and-tenure committees in some cases. We don’t necessarily need anything approaching a percentage breakdown by author, but we sometimes need to know whether a candidate is an idea generator or more of a mechanic, and there’s usually a presumption that the lead author (when not alpha-ordered) instigated the research, came up with a central idea, etc.

    That said, when working with the same person on multiple projects (or spin-offs of an original project), I’m inclined to rotate the order of the names irrespective of who started the ball rolling, unless the permutation would grossly misrepresent intellectual contributions.

  4. I always liked the paper: R. Urbaniak, R. Weismantel, G. Ziegler: A variant of the Buchberger algorithm for integer programming, SIAM Journal on Discrete Mathematics, Vol 1, No 10, 1997, 96 — 108. Not many chances for a “U” to be first among three authors.

  5. I don’t know if it’s a universal convention, but people I’ve discussed this with over the years seem to coalesce around “alphabetical, unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise.” That makes it hard to interpret an alphabetical listing as indicating differing levels of contribution, but non-alpha listings tell you something.

    Of course, if it’s not universally recognized, it’s hard to say much anyway.

  6. Publish separately. It’s usually not that hard to break a work onto different pieces. Sometimes it means giving up a couple of ideas to let a PhD student publish alone, but that’s not the end of the world and you can always be in the thanks section at the end.

  7. I just went back and checked the reference list of a recent paper I co-authored. Of 18 cites with more than one author, 15 had the authors in alphabetic order. The alpha-ordered count contains seven with two authors and eight with three authors (none with more than three authors — obviously this was not an organizational behavior paper). Under the null hypothesis of random ordering of authors, the expected number in alphabetic order would be a bit under five out of 18, so one might take this as evidence of a proclivity toward alpha-ordering.

    On the other hand, I can identify at least four alpha-ordered cites of the form student-advisor or student-major professor-other committee member, where the alpha ordering is likely coincidental. Which illustrates the point I actually want to make: irrespective of how the authors actually decided the order of their names, we’ll read into it what we choose.

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