The Tyranny of the Alphabet

In economics there is a norm that authors are listed alphabetically.  The norm is surprisingly strong and deviations are punished.  On my first paper with Eric Helland we tossed for first authorship, I won, and we noted the names were listed in random order.  Believe it or not, Helland’s tenure committee grilled him on this point and as a result we switched to alphabetical ordering on all our subsequent papers.  Citation counts, however, are historically assigned only to the first listed author and later listed authors are often buried under the et al. monster. 

Do you think these effects are too tiny to matter?  Take a look at the Yellow Pages and see how many firms choose A-names, AA-names, and AAA-names.  Even more surprisingly, a new paper (free, working version, Winter 06, JEP) demonstrates that these effects have important consequences for careers in economics.  Faculty members in top departments with surnames beginning with letters earlier in the alphabet are substantially more likely to be tenured, be fellows of the Econometrics Society, and even win Nobel prizes (let’s see, Arrow, Buchanan Coase…hmmm).  No such effects are found in psychology where the alphabetical norm is not followed.

I’m delighted that my young co-author, Amanda Agan, has a great career ahead of her but if Helland wins the Nobel I am going to be very annoyed.

It’s time to end the tyranny of the alphabet!  The AER should announce a name randomization policy unless authors otherwise instruct.  Barring that, I wish henceforth be known as Alex Abarrok.


Three cheers for prof. Luigi Zingales!

In the Cleveland meto area there are 693052 residences in the phone book. 432839 (62.5%) are in the first half of the alphabet. Are the results weighted like that because more people are in the first half, or have more people picked these names (ellis island name changes ect) because of this effect?

In my field (computational linguistics) the first author is generally the one who is most principally responsible for the work. This has the advantage of giving credit where it is due; but one can conceivably run into issues when there is disagreement over who has earned the honor.

In computer science we order the authors according to contribution. In the case of large works with many papers, the first author credit will get traded among those most involved. Either way, it's entirely up to the authors to decide.

We also are different in that our conference proceedings are the more important publications. Journals are too slow for a field like computer science, and they are mostly a means to combine related conference papers into a single, easy reference.

I've often wondered how it could be that I've co-authored with:
-John T. Addison
-Sam Bucovetsky

Speaking of initial tyranny, I have learned it is better to use the name John B. Chilton on publications rather than simply John Chilton. The SSCI likes middle initials, but that's not something they taught me at Brown.

In medicine, there is the convention that the person with the greatest contribution is first, and that among the rest the principal investigator / lab director / Mikado goes last. The others are listed in the order that the cat dragged them in. Listing in order of contribution would be better.

Wouldn't randomization remove the potential for gains from trade? Under the status quo, Aaron Aardvark can offer Zenon Zygmont first billing, in return for more work on the piece. Why not allow authors to designate who is primary and who is secondary, so that Zygmont could offer the same trade in reverse?

Tyler Cowen

I like Tyler's idea. But henceforth I'll be using Aaron Aardvark
on journal submissions.

I recall a few years ago Paul McCartney made an issue about Beatles' songs
credited to "Lennon & McCartney." Was that merely an issue about ego or were
there monetary considerations? What is the standard in music composition?

To modify what Macneil said, in *parts* of computer science we order authors by contribution. In theoretical computer science, it's almost always alphabetical. I did a quick calculation for ACM fellows and Turing Award winners, and the results are interesting: a 60-40 skew for first half vs second half of the alphabet.

That's fascinating. In my field (science) authors are listed in order of contribution. If your name is first, it's assumed that it's principally your work. In fact, when it comes to evaluation of your publication record, papers on which you are the first author count for the most. The system of putting the person who was the biggest contributor first is used as a way of assessing how much you've really done in the field. A name-randomization or alphabetical system would seem to make that difficult.

"...Democrats randomized the roll call of the states at their national convention circa 1972 to address alphabeticalism..."

It's difficult to parody political correctness, but I'm guessing this is not true.

I am too cheap to pay $3.95 for the article, but if you search the New York Times archive for the terms "national convention" and "alphabetical order," you should find this abstract from 1/12/1971: "WASHINGTON, June 11 -- The Democratic National Convention of 1972 will ban all floor demonstrations and lengthy speeches, shake up the traditional alphabetical roll-call and make the nomination of favorite-son candidates all but impossible." I haven't been able to find the George Will article, but I'm fairly sure he wrote that anti-alphabetism had something to do with it.

Some associations use random order of names on ballots. The reason, I think, is that in associations (like alumni organizations or associations like the AEA board) you are often voting blind if you bother to vote at all. Random order at least means that the high qualified Dr. Zeuss has
a chance of winning.

I presume you'd find there has been a bias in victory towards those who are listed first in such circumstances.

Scrambling of names is also used in some voting districts in the US. Same reasoning.

I'm not so convinced that it is laughable to use random order in public roll call votes (of states or otherwise) - doesn't it matter in some cases where you are in the order?

It is ironic that a discipline where the word "rational" gets over used is subjecting itself to this kind of seemingly arbitrary convention. Is the existing situation rational? It is clearly an equilibrium, and it is clearly Pareto efficient (Aaron Aardvark would be harmed by a change) but Zenon Zygmont could improve things for him/herself by agitating for change. Or is it the case that economists' prejudice in favour of "exit" over "voice" is determining the outcome.

Alex Abarrok ? If these effects are real, I would change my name in an instant. You can count what the premium on a good name is.

A single man cannot change the society (unless his name is Jesus), so your cry for alphabetical justice won't achieve anything.

I have also noticed that my Bloglines subscriptions are heavily biased towards the beginning of the alphabet: A Constrained Vision, A Fistful of Euros, Angry Bear, Aplia Blog, Asymmetrical Information and so on.

I guess I should have titled (or should retitle) mine A Voluntaryxchange.

The Canadian Counter Tenor living in the UAE sent me this link,,

Extract: "A glance at the spring issue of The Journal of Economic Perspectives: "Alphabetical discrimination" in economics ... The authors call their findings an example of "alphabetical discrimination," and suggest that the phenomenon stems from the discipline's norm of crediting co-authors of publications alphabetically. They say the practice may be affecting tenure at top programs because 'lower-ranked departments put more weight on vitae and publication counts, while top departments care more about visibility and impact. Surname initials may be more important for the latter.'

"They note that in disciplines like psychology, in which co-authors are listed according to their contribution, rather than alphabetically, there is no relationship between last names and tenure." forensic nurse career

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