Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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More on Aauthors and Aalphabetical placement

Posted: Jul 26, 2014 16:07;
Last Modified: Jul 26, 2014 16:07

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In an earlier post today, I discussed some of the economic implications of having a last name beginning early in the alphabet in disciplines that traditionally order the authors on multi-author papers alphabetically.

I’ve since looked up the original paper (Einav, Liran, and Leeat Yariv. 2006. “What’s in a Surname? The Effects of Surname Initials on Academic Success.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 20 (1): 175–88). This is more startling than I thought.

First of all, from the authors’ own description:

In this paper, we focus on the effects of surname initials on professional outcomes in the academic labor market for economists.

We begin our analysis with data on faculty in all top 35 U.S. economics departments. Faculty with earlier surname initials are significantly more likely to receive tenure at top ten economics departments, are significantly more likely to become fellows of the Econometric Society, and, to a lesser extent, are more likely to receive the Clark Medal and the Nobel Prize. These statistically significant differences remain the same even after we control for country of origin, ethnicity, religion or departmental fixed effects. All these effects gradually fade as we increase the sample to include our entire set of top 35 departments.

We suspect the “alphabetical discrimination” reported in this paper is linked to the norm in the economics profession prescribing alphabetical ordering of credits on coauthored publications. As a test, we replicate our analysis for faculty in the top 35 U.S. psychology departments, for which coauthorships are not normatively ordered alphabetically. We find no relationship between alphabetical placement and tenure status in psychology.

We then discuss the extent to which the effects of alphabetical placement are internalized by potential authors in their choices of the number of coauthors as well as in their willingness to follow the alphabetical ordering norm. We find that the distribution of authors’ surnames in single-authored, double-authored and triple-authored papers does not differ significantly. Nonetheless, authors with surname initials that are placed later in the alphabet are significantly less likely to participate in four- and five-author projects. Furthermore, such authors are also more likely to deviate from the accepted norm, and to write papers in which credits do not follow the alphabetical ordering.

Here are the core figures from the paper, comparing top Economics departments (alphabetical ordering) and top Psychology departments (non-alphabetical ordering):

Figure showing distribution of last initials in Top Economic departments.

Figure showing distribution of last initials in Top Psychology departments.

As Figure 1, shows, Economic departments have a definite tendency towards having tenured members with early last names: about 50% of the tenured faculty in top 5 departments have names beginning with the letters from A-G, and by the time you get to O you’ve accounted for about 70% of the Faculty (Tip for economists planning on having affairs at economics conferences: use “John/Jane Doe” rather than “John/Jane Smith”—I’m guessing you’re likely to pull partners from better schools).

In Psychology, on the other hand, you’re probably at “K,” before you get to 50% of the tenured faculty. (The 50% mark in both sets of departments for untenured faculty comes in at about L, suggesting there isn’t such a bias in the case of pre-tenure hires—perhaps because they publish less before they are hired?)

So all in all, I guess this just means that Paul S. Krugman’s career is even more impressive than it looks: a job at Princeton and a Nobel prize and a last name beginning with “K”? What are the odds. Makes you wonder what’s wrong with Ben S. Bernanke: a last name beginning with “B” and he only makes chairman of the Fed?

Maybe somebody needs to do a study of the influence on academic careers of S. as a middle initial.

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