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Tilting at Windmills

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April 13, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

ALPHABETICAL TYRANNY....Matt Yglesias has complained about this before for obvious reasons, but today Alex Tabarrok reports that alphabetical privilege is real in the world of economics, anyway:

A new paper (free, working version, Winter 06, JEP) demonstrates that...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.

The "alphabetical norm" is the rule that coauthors on a paper are listed alphabetically, which results in only alphabetically privileged authors getting citation credits (everyone else is "et al"). The paper demonstrating the effects of this rule was written by Liran Einav and some other guy.

Is the same true in the blogosphere, where blogrolls are often arranged alphabetically? There's a research project just waiting to happen here!

Kevin Drum 1:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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Comments

Well of course Yglesias would whine about it....

Posted by: Ethan on April 13, 2006 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

Planning on changing your name to 1Drum?

Posted by: moderleft on April 13, 2006 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK

Huh.

If this effect is proven, expect to see an entire generation of economics papers written by names like "Aaasmith, Aaaajohnson, etc." And then, a generation of papers evaluating the cost and benefit of keeping one's own name vs. changing one's name, changing one's name multiple times, modeling name selection processes, etc.

This isn't a research project waiting to happen, it's an entire research area of specialty!

Posted by: theorajones on April 13, 2006 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

What this really means is that some guy whose name begins with Z has already written the paper that solves all our problems forever. But nobody will ever read it.

Posted by: craigie on April 13, 2006 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

Shouldn't we get Horowitz to investigate the correlation between the alphabetically advantaged and Liberalism? Perhaps that's the underlying cause of the threat he sees in academia.

Posted by: JimBob on April 13, 2006 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

If you are a nerdy academic man, and you change your name to Aardvark, then women looking for tenure are going to find you much more attractive. Something to think about...

Posted by: craigie on April 13, 2006 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

DUH.

Academics are just now figuring this out?????

Blue collar Americans have known this for years. Just check the phone book.

Look at all the entries for APlumbing, AAPlumbing, AAARooter, A+ Tree Trimming, etc.

Are the "academic elites" all that bright?

Posted by: Frequency Kenneth on April 13, 2006 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

Why on earth would paper authors be arranged alphabetically, rather than in order of how much they contributed to the paper? I've never heard of such a thing in the sciences. Why would economists whose names occur later in alphabetical order agree to such an inane system?

Posted by: KCinDC on April 13, 2006 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

Leeat, that other guy, is actually a woman.

Not that anyone cares... :-)

Posted by: Commenterlein on April 13, 2006 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

So, when is this blog going to become "Animal, Political"?

Posted by: S Ra on April 13, 2006 at 2:02 PM | PERMALINK

KCinDC:

As an economist who (like everyone else) is using that system I can tell you that the answer is really simple: It gets you around having to figure out who has done how much work on a paper, and it prevents ugly power games from occurring.

Keep in mind that econ papers have many fewer authors than papers in the lab sciences (who seem to list anyone in the lab), and that only people who have made very substantial contributions are supposed to be listed as authors.

Posted by: Commenterlein on April 13, 2006 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

Lieran Einav and some other guy.

Hilarious.

Posted by: abjectfunk on April 13, 2006 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

My surname's in the middle of the alphabet, so I don't care either way.

But can we bring an end to first-name, middle-initial tyranny? Hardly anyone who knows me even knows my first name!

In this computer era, you'd think it ought to be a snap to customize online forms so they could just as easily do first-initial, middle-name. But apparently not.

Posted by: RT on April 13, 2006 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

Authors in my field (paleontology/geology) are arranged in order of contribution, and et al. comes after the first author's name in the text of the paper if there are three or more authors. So the person getting the most credit is generally the person who did the most work. Unless they're a graduate student but that's a whole other topic *S*

Posted by: Paul on April 13, 2006 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

Frequency Kenneth.

Do the yellow pages list AA Plumbing, et. al, or AA Plumbing, Carver Plumbing, Johnson Plumbing, Simpson Plumbing, and Walter Plumbing?

Do blue collar Americans always call the first name in the book? Or are they smarter than you think?

Posted by: Matt on April 13, 2006 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

Hey RT,

Got the exact same problem, last name in the middle of the alphabet. And I go by middle name instead of first name.

Posted by: Dr. Morpheus on April 13, 2006 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

I totally agree . . .

aa

Posted by: aaron aardvark on April 13, 2006 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

Convinced me!

Posted by: aCal aGal on April 13, 2006 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

I just don't collaborate with old fashioned folks at the beginning of the alphabet.

Posted by: toast on April 13, 2006 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

Does this rule cause any ethnic discrimination??

Why don't they go by age? The ignored young would eventually become the recognized old.

Posted by: Andrea on April 13, 2006 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

I think the blogrolls should be ordered by most recently rolled ... the link you've added most recently should be first, next-most-recent second, etc.

That way new discoveries get the attention they deserve, and old standbys are still linked, but they move down. Maybe some links could be flagged as "favorites" or "important" and get reserved spots at the top, but the best place for these would be a separate blogroll altogether.

Not that anyone ever uses blogrolls for anything anyway. The more relevant thing is what blogs produce posts that get linked to by the bigger bloggers. Firedoglake rose from obscurity by posting a lot of great stuff and getting linked to a lot by Atrios et al.

Heh, "Atrios et al" :)

Posted by: Adam Piontek on April 13, 2006 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

Body and Soul is the only blog I know that actually has them listed in reverse alphabetical order; would guess to give more attention to zyzzyvas - a blog name that someone should jump on quickly!

Posted by: tarylcabot on April 13, 2006 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

Actually we usually defer to people that are within a year or two of being considered for tenure. They're working their asses off anyway and the 65 year old co-authors are usually more worried about getting their life's work in print before they kick the bucket than about whether they get their name referenced a billion times.

Some old guys do insist on being first so that their work on a subject can be easily looked up in a linear progression.

Posted by: toast on April 13, 2006 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, alphabetical tyranny is bad, bad, bad!

--Z

Posted by: Zeno on April 13, 2006 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

Hey, Washington Monthly seems to be doing alright for itself.

Posted by: scarshapedstar on April 13, 2006 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

RT,

My surname's in the middle of the alphabet, so I don't care either way.

Heh heh. Tripp Davenport sez "You just keep on thinking that way!"

Posted by: Tripp on April 13, 2006 at 2:40 PM | PERMALINK

Another economist here - Commenterlein has this exactly right, the protocol is to avoid ugly professional squables over how much work each author contributed. And it does do that. It wouldn't matter except despite this known practice, first authorship still means something in the profession.

As an economist with a surname initial in the middle of the alphabet, I am typically last author on a paper regardless of my contribution. I have repeatedly joked that I am going to start only working with researchers who have names further down the alphabet. Or adopt a hyphenated last name with my partner, using her name first, which begins with 'B'.

Posted by: DC economist on April 13, 2006 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

The paper demonstrating the effect was written by Liran Einav and some other guy.

*snicker*

Posted by: Ringo on April 13, 2006 at 3:02 PM | PERMALINK

Damn.

5 generations prior in my Scandinavian heritage, when it was decided to change from the traditional family name of Anderson to Olson (patrilineal naming wasn't the tradition until then), I apparently got SCREWED.

Posted by: Erik on April 13, 2006 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

Mystery and SciFi authors have been on to it for some time. Since most bookstores shelve alphabetically by author, you pick a nom de plume that the browsers will see first.

Posted by: snoey on April 13, 2006 at 3:14 PM | PERMALINK

I've never understood why most blogs have alphabetical blogrolls. Most blogging software will display a blogroll in random order - seems fair to me.

Mine are random and in some cases grab a random # from the overall list so its not so damn long. Not that they're all that useful anyway to my 3 readers (hi Mom!)

Posted by: MB on April 13, 2006 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

i hear the C's are planning to produce WMD. if we act now, we can prevent them from killing untold millions of A's and B's in their deranged quest to impose their own sadistic brand of alphabetic tyranny on us all.

Posted by: cleek on April 13, 2006 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK

Erik,

No lie. You went from great windows to a shrew on "Little House on the Prarie."

Posted by: Tripp on April 13, 2006 at 3:20 PM | PERMALINK

I smell some cat blogging, and it's only Thursday!

Yglesias, what a putz. He should stick to making crappy pop music.

Posted by: Jeff II on April 13, 2006 at 3:24 PM | PERMALINK

Heh. Friggin dumbass economists. Only those dolts, far from being a part of any scientific endeavor, would base authorship listing alphabetically.

Here's a suggestion for those screwball economists. Since you call economics the "dismal science" (hint: it is NOT a science by any stretch of the imagination...it is masturbation and guessing) I suggest you borrow from the sciences. Base your authorship listing on who did most of the work for the current paper. If that is not clear, then you alternate. On this paper your name is first (or anchor) while on the next paper, your collaborator is first (or anchor).

See how simple that is? Leave it to an economist to make something simple into something stupid.

Posted by: Praedor Atrebates on April 13, 2006 at 3:32 PM | PERMALINK

RT, I'm with you - I go by my middle name (my dad was John F. for 38 years before I was even born), so in everyday life I'm Wes F., and in more formal situations I'm J. Wesley F... of course, to most places that use forms, I end up as John W. F., which has been known to confuse letter carriers and switchboard operators.

As far as blogrolls, my last name is pretty high alphabetically, but my blog's name ("Walk-in Brain") falls toward the bottom. So that's an issue unto itself.

WF

Posted by: Wes F. in North Adams on April 13, 2006 at 3:50 PM | PERMALINK

Seems easy enough. Convert to Islam, take an Arabic name, make sure that your new surname has al- in front of it, and proceed to reap the benefits!

Posted by: MJ Memphis on April 13, 2006 at 3:51 PM | PERMALINK

Another phenomenon that may contribute to blog popularity is the mechanism by which frequently-visited sites are remembered. In the case of this site, "washingtonmonthly.com" and "washingtonpost.com" start with the same string; very few other sites begin this way. I wonder if the fact that visiting washingtonpost.com pulls up washingtonmonthly.com increases traffic to the latter. (And the converse, sure, I guess - for a few!)

Posted by: Sam Wang on April 13, 2006 at 3:52 PM | PERMALINK

Commentarlein argues that alphabetizing authors "gets you around having to figure out who has done how much work on a paper, and it prevents ugly power games from occurring."

But of all the disciplines in the world, should economists be the ones who could provide a rational metric for assessing who has done how much work? If they can't even figure out who wrote a certain paper, why should anyone else think that they contents are of any interest?

Besides, despite the existence of pretty clear procedural approaches in the sciences (in bioscience, at least, the first author did the core research and wrote the paper, the last author paid for the research, and the ones in between contributed a proprietary reagent or did some experiments), vicious power games over placement still happen ("You can't use my transgenic mouse unless I'm second, not third author!").

Posted by: PQuincy on April 13, 2006 at 3:53 PM | PERMALINK

Q: "Are the "academic elites" all that bright?"
Posted by: Frequency Kenneth on April 13, 2006 at 1:57

A: No.

You are just now figuring this out?

Posted by: smartalek on April 13, 2006 at 3:59 PM | PERMALINK

Find a paper-copy of your local yellow pages, pick a category and look at the crazy-ass names businesses have taken in order to float to the top of the list (i.e. AAAAAA++++ Ardvark Plumbing).

Posted by: Roxanne on April 13, 2006 at 4:11 PM | PERMALINK
Are the "academic elites" all that bright?

Most academics aren't any kind of general-purpose "elites", except in the fevered imagination of anti-intellectuals.

That being said, there is an important distinction between observing that something seems to be true, and reacting to that impression, and demonstrating that it is empirically true, quantifying it, etc., as is done in science.

For every paper you find demonstrating something that seems obvious like this, you can find one demonstrating something just as contrary to common intuition as this is in line with such intuition. If scientists (including social scientists) didn't investigate phenomena because there was a widely accepted popular intuition, well, we'd miss out on a lot of times where we've found popular beliefs to be wrong.

Posted by: cmdicely on April 13, 2006 at 4:15 PM | PERMALINK

Kenneth, one of the functions that academics serve is to subject old-wives tales and other folk wisdom to the discipline of rigorous analysis. It has been "said" that having one's name in the beginning of the alphabet is an advantage, but only academics take the time to evaluate whether this statment is correct and quantify how great the effect is.

Wow, you've really got a bug up your ass about people who think and measure and analyze for a living, don't you?

Posted by: Constantine on April 13, 2006 at 4:15 PM | PERMALINK

Under Communism, we will all have the same last name, and this problem will go away.

Next issue please!

Posted by: craigie on April 13, 2006 at 4:36 PM | PERMALINK

We need technology to list our blogroll in the order that they last linked to our blog. If people want some of that lucrative Balloon Juice traffic they better share the love...

Posted by: Tim F on April 13, 2006 at 4:43 PM | PERMALINK

(Somewhat related) question: When y'all read a WaMo comment section, do you read the first few comments, flyover the middle portion, and read the last few comments?

Just curious.

Posted by: grape_crush on April 13, 2006 at 4:48 PM | PERMALINK

Under Communism, we will all have the same last name, and this problem will go away. Next issue please! Posted by: craigie

And Australian communist academics will all the same first name: Bruce!

Posted by: Jeff II on April 13, 2006 at 4:51 PM | PERMALINK

So what's the problem?

Posted by: Aaron Aaron on April 13, 2006 at 4:53 PM | PERMALINK

So what's the problem?
Posted by: Aaron Aaron on April 13, 2006 at 4:53 PM

Don't know, Aaron.

Posted by: Aadam Aadam on April 13, 2006 at 4:57 PM | PERMALINK

Aaron Aaron on April 13, 2006 at 4:53 PM:

So what's the problem?

Just because something doesn't affect you doesn't mean that it isn't a problem...sniff!

Posted by: Zoey Zylewski on April 13, 2006 at 5:01 PM | PERMALINK

Dr. Henri Delthe never did get the recognition he deserved for his contribution to the Alpher-Bethe-Gamow paper.

Posted by: derek on April 13, 2006 at 5:05 PM | PERMALINK

Here is another.

Lawyers get a special line to enter court and plea, but defendandts who defend themselves get no such privelidge.

Posted by: Matt on April 13, 2006 at 5:08 PM | PERMALINK

Yet another reason for economists to adopt pseudonyms like "Anonymous".

Posted by: alex on April 13, 2006 at 5:43 PM | PERMALINK

I understand avoiding arguments over who contributed more, but why would the alphabetically later folk surrender to the ridiculous alphabetical system? If you can't decide who contributed more, arrange the names in random order. Even an economist should be able to see that the alphabetical method is blatantly unfair.

Posted by: KCinDC on April 13, 2006 at 5:47 PM | PERMALINK

How many guys called Zweiback ever made it big? On the other hand you have Hank Aaron, Bud Abbott, etc.

Posted by: Hedley Lamarr on April 13, 2006 at 5:48 PM | PERMALINK

alex on April 13, 2006 at 5:43 PM:

Yet another reason for economists to adopt pseudonyms like "Anonymous".

You mean, like, other than being economists?

Posted by: grape_crush on April 13, 2006 at 5:50 PM | PERMALINK

grape_crush: You mean, like, other than being economists?

Yeah, not that that reason isn't more than enough.

Posted by: alex on April 13, 2006 at 5:59 PM | PERMALINK

Oh, man! Could this post be more of an entrapment for smart-asses?

You know, Yglesias could go with a different initial vowel for his surname ---if he wanted to...

Posted by: Toby Petzold on April 13, 2006 at 6:02 PM | PERMALINK

Hmmm, do you think "Aardvark And Big Time Patriot" would be better than just "Big Time Patriot"? Just call me the number one anteater from the United States of Anteaters...

Posted by: Big Time Patriot on April 13, 2006 at 6:32 PM | PERMALINK

All of my names are in the middle to end of the alphabet. Same with my blog's name. When looking for a plumber, I avoid AAAAPlumbing, the first listing in the book. Anyone who shouts and waves and says "Here I am, Alice Aardvark the Plumber -- I've dropped my original last name (Zinnser) because I want attention and I want it now!" -- well, you're just not my type. On the other hand I have confidence in DeLong, Galbraith, Galbraith, Sawicky, and Stiglitz.

Posted by: PW on April 13, 2006 at 7:03 PM | PERMALINK

Despite several comments from scientists, the discussion still has not captured how we do it in the biomedical research field. The last author is the senior author and is generally the lab chief (the one who raised the money through a grant), the next to last might be the head of another lab with a lesser contribution. The first author is the one who did the work, and IS generally a graduate student or postdoc. After the first they follow in order of contribution. So in a long author list those about 60-70% of the way down generally contribute the least.

Posted by: M. L. Dodson on April 13, 2006 at 7:52 PM | PERMALINK

"I understand avoiding arguments over who contributed more, but why would the alphabetically later folk surrender to the ridiculous alphabetical system?"

Because the alphabetically earlier people occupy the positions of power. Put your name first on a paper with a name like Zip and you are instantly crusheed by The Man! :)

Posted by: jefff on April 13, 2006 at 8:07 PM | PERMALINK

Heh, in biology it is kind of funny. In some cases it looks better for the head of the lab to be last author than first so they will put somebody else (a technician or something) as first author even if they did most of the work.

Posted by: jefff on April 13, 2006 at 8:14 PM | PERMALINK

I was in the Army back the palmy days when no one was particularly mad at anyone else--never heard a shot fired in anger. Anyway, the point is that in those days you wanted to be in the Third Squad. Reason: they'd take compulsory volunteers from the First Squad, then the Second Squad. Then they'd turn around and start with the Fourth Squad. Third got overlooked.

A corollary of the rule that three oclock is not a good time to start anything, either am or pm.

Posted by: Buce on April 13, 2006 at 9:24 PM | PERMALINK

Can't really say I put much stock in anything brought to my attention by a blog in the "W's".

Posted by: steve duncan on April 14, 2006 at 9:16 AM | PERMALINK

I teach a science class, and every time I hand back exams, I do so in reverse alphabetical order. I figure it is a small act to balance out a lifetime of injustice for the Wallaces and Youngs of the world.

And I'm changing the name of my blog from "Carpe Datum" to "aaaaaaaaaaaaCarpe Datum" if I can ever get on a blogroll.

Posted by: Observer on April 14, 2006 at 10:04 AM | PERMALINK

When I was coaching youth baseball I set the batting order to be alphabetical order. That way the kids only had to remember one order all season.

For fairness I rotated the starting batter for every game. The player who was next to bat after the last out in the previous game was the leadoff hitter in the next game.

Thus if batter 7 made the final out in a game then batter 8 was the starting batter in the next game.

Suprisingly this method produced just as good of hitting results as when I would spend hours trying to figure out the optimal order with the players I had.

Under 6th grade or so I don't think the players are consistent enough to really determine an optimal batting order.

So Observer you need to do more than just reverse order. I suggest a gaussian distribution. (grin)

Posted by: Tripp on April 14, 2006 at 10:39 AM | PERMALINK

Interesting parallel you draw with the blogs. Could this be why my blog, You Forgot Poland!, is on the G-list?

No cracks about my writing, please. :D

Posted by: mags on April 14, 2006 at 11:07 AM | PERMALINK

Mr 7th grade teacher, Miss Van Vechten, would hand out graded papers in reverse alphabetical order, as revenge for a lifetime of this stuff.

Posted by: DonBoy on April 14, 2006 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK

Yep, I have sufferred alphabetical discrimination my whole life, and I grew up with lots and lots of Wards when I was a child.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on April 14, 2006 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

Add Gary Becker to that list

Posted by: hmm on April 15, 2006 at 12:28 AM | PERMALINK

Mystery and SciFi authors have been on to it for some time. Since most bookstores shelve alphabetically by author. you pick a nom de plume that the browsers will see first.

Posted by: YOP on April 15, 2006 at 12:27 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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