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.


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