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I'm a graduate student in theoretical particle physics, where the standard is that all author lists are alphabetized. However, even in other disciplines of physics, it's quite common for author lists to be ordered by the amount of the contribution. At some point I will probably be judged by people who are not entirely familiar with the standards of particle theory, and even if they are they probably have subconscious biases towards earlier authors.

I also happen to have a last name that's around the middle of the alphabet. I can feasibly find an advisor whose name is after mine, but the most natural choices (including my current advisor) all happen to be before mine alphabetically. My current choice makes me a bit worried because most of his other students also have names before mine alphabetically. I'll probably have a number of publications with other people in the group, and it's not unlikely that I'll be the last author on most or all of these.

Is this something that I should be seriously worried about? (My heart tells me no, but my brain isn't sure.) Will I have much more trouble in the future than comparable candidates who are listed earlier? Or is it a fairly small effect which is much less significant than choosing a good advisor in the long term?

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28  
I can feasibly find an advisor whose name is after mine - no...just, no! –  TCSGrad Dec 16 '13 at 6:17
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If you have not yet published anything, now is the time to change your name, perhaps to Logan Aardvark. –  Dave Clarke Dec 16 '13 at 6:26
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Alternatively, if you feel uncomfortable being the last author, feel free to add my name at the end of the list in any paper of yours. :) –  Federico Poloni Dec 16 '13 at 12:58
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Hmm. Are you also worried about getting undue credit and an unfair advantage by having your name appear first? –  Kevin Dec 16 '13 at 17:28
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Trust me, you don't have it that bad. :-P –  David Z Dec 16 '13 at 21:20

6 Answers 6

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Yes, there is a subtle unconscious bias. Even in a field where author names are always alphabetical, papers will be cited in talks as Author1 et al, so if you happen to be Author1 your name will be slightly more disseminated.

Is it true? Yes. Is it fair? No, not entirely. Is it a big deal? No. Should you change your advisor as a workaround? No.

The best way to overcome this bias is going to conferences and getting your face and name known to other people in the field. So it won't matter if your name is Aardvark or Zwingli, because people will know you anyway and know that you did some respectable work.

Another thing you can do to reduce the impact of this bias on your CV is adding a statement on the lines of the following sentence that I put in mine:

"As is common practice in mathematics, the author order is usually alphabetical and does not reflect a difference in contribution. "

(by the way, I can relate: I have been alphabetically last author on 86% of my joint papers).

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In fields where author's names are listed alphabetically -- like mathematics -- it is a very bad practice to say "Author1 et al". More strongly, barring exceptional circumstances when you refer to a theorem by multiple people you should say all the people's names whenever you say any of them. –  Pete L. Clark Dec 25 '13 at 6:26
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And a big +1 for the suggestion of simply adding a line to your CV to clear up any misconception that people in other fields might have. But I would put things more simply and more strongly than you have. I would suggest something like "The ordering of the authors' names does not connote differences in contributions. It is strictly alphabetical." –  Pete L. Clark Dec 25 '13 at 6:29

I have no idea about its credibility, and I'm certainly not trying to discourage Zhang's or Zyskowski's out there. But you might find this article interesting:

L. Einav, L. Yariv. What's in a Surname? The Effects of Surname Initials on Academic Success. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20 (2006), 175-187.

We present evidence that a variety of proxies for success in the U.S. economics labor market (tenure at highly ranked schools, fellowship in the Econometric Society, and to a lesser extent, Nobel Prize and Clark Medal winnings) are correlated with surname initials, favoring economists with surname initials earlier in the alphabet. These patterns persist even when controlling for country of origin, ethnicity, and religion. We suspect that these effects are related to the existing norm in economics prescribing alphabetical ordering of authors’ credits. Indeed, there is no significant correlation between surname initials and tenure at departments of psychology, where authors are credited roughly according to their intellectual contribution. The economics market participants seem to react to this phenomenon. Analyzing publications in the top economics journals since 1980, we note two consistent patterns: authors participating in projects with more than three authors have significantly earlier surname initials, and authors writing papers in which the order of credits is non-alphabetical have significantly higher surname initials.

It's absurd and ludicrous to take this kind of bias into account when choosing your advisor, though...

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I knew about this paper; that's actually what led me to ask this question. However, it is good to hear that it's not something I should be concerned with in terms of picking an advisor. –  Logan Maingi Dec 16 '13 at 6:50
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Is it only me or do others hate the term "Nobel prize in economics" as well? Nobel did not decide to make such a crap, so nobody should call it this way. –  tohecz Dec 16 '13 at 13:11

Based on my own experience, even if your last name comes before your advisor's, your own research community will regard any joint work with your advisor to be primarily your advisor's work, despite your advisor's protests to the contrary, until you start publishing independently. The Matthew Effect is a much more significant than your position in the alphabet.

(My name comes before my advisor's, and I've advised students with names before mine and others after mine. I work in a field that orders authors alphabetically.)

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No, not so true, surely not in my subject (boundary math/CS). It quite depends on the advisor and on his attitude, and especially in small communities like ours, the students get recognized very well by their contribution. –  tohecz Dec 16 '13 at 13:09
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Yes, surely in your subject. I'm a theoretical computer scientist. –  JeffE Dec 16 '13 at 13:43
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Ok, then it's clearly a very varying thing. –  tohecz Dec 16 '13 at 13:45
    
@tohecz: I am also in mathematics, and I agree with JeffE's answer, at least up until the "advisor's protests to the contrary part". If I read a recommendation letter from someone that I trust and she goes out of her way to explain the student's contribution to the work and explain that it was substantial, then I will believe her. But across all of mathematics there is a certain positive "percentage discount" on joint papers with one's thesis adviser. As a thesis adviser, I don't find this practice to be especially irrational. –  Pete L. Clark Dec 25 '13 at 6:40

I work in a field [chemistry] where historically (before academic search engines), the advisor's name was always first, since that was probably the person you had the best chance of identifying when you went to your local library and sat down with the print version of chemical abstracts.

The modern practice is to list authors by intellectual contribution (which usually puts the adviser last, but not always). To add to the confusion, some advisers still operate by the older method.

Many journals now want a statement of author contributions to appear in the text. This type of statement removes any ambiguity over who did what, and resolves both the author ordering problem and the sadly still recurring vanity author problem.

For example: B.N.N. designed the synthesis and prepared key intermediate 1. J.V.V. prepared derivatives A and B. B.N.N. and J.J.V. characterized the compounds. H.G.T. and A.B.C. coded and compiled the computational models. B.N.N. and H.G.T. designed the study and wrote the manuscript.

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Please, always specify which subjects your post applies to. I have never read or written an aritcle with other than alphabetical order of authors. –  tohecz Dec 16 '13 at 13:07

Yes it will. The problem is not the alphabet, its the advisor and others, readers, I am not at my library so I cant link to the Psychologic rules behind, sry

but

as you asked 'Is this something that I should be seriously worried about?' the point is, you cant avoid the problem - live with your (his/her) name (hair color, size and, and, and), and think about doing the best ...

you cant avoid psycholigic probs, so better not to take care, if you cant change it.

I answer with a tautologie: Take an advisor that is good. ;-)

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Think about:

Frank Wilczek, Edward Witten, Athony Zee, Bruno Zumino, Barton Zwiebach. etc.

Their last names initials are W or Z.

(They are in HEP theoretical physics, particle physics, like you.)

They hardly get anything for the authorship sorting. But they are doing fantastic well outstanding. They are hired by TOP institutes. Keep their names in your mind. Keep it up.

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