Using alphabetical ordering for authors' names is a long established tradition in mathematics. In the situations of extremely unequal contributions, is it reasonable to break from this tradition? Has there been any examples? If it is common, what is the threshold for breaking from alphabetical ordering?
Edit: this answer is about pure math.
It’s not common. In 25 years of reading math papers I‘ve only ever seen one example of a paper that had a nonalphabetical author ordering. It was an English translation of a Russian paper from the 1970s written by a PhD student and his advisor. I don’t know what the story was behind this unconventional author order, but all I know is that the advisor’s name appears first even though alphabetically he comes second.
In the situations of extremely unequal contributions, is it reasonable to break from this tradition?
No. Since you’re going against the overwhelming norm in math publishing, no one will have a clear sense of what exactly you’re trying to say. Also, consider the fact that it could be that the author order that reflects the actual author contributions might coincide with the alphabetical order (for example in the paper I mentioned, it was competely random that the PhD advisor came second alphabetically and could easily have been the other way around). In that case the signal will be lost entirely.
My conclusion is that the idea of forcing this signaling mechanism on a math publication culture that isn’t adapted to it is illogical, ineffective, and will lead to inconsistent results that are only very weakly correlated with the effect you’re trying to achieve. If I were a journal editor and I received a submission that tries to use this mechanism, I would tell the authors to find a different way to say what they want to say about the author contributions.
It is not actually true that in mathematics alphabetical order is a long established tradition. This is only true in pure mathematics.
In many parts of applied and computational mathematics, ordering by contribution (or other criteria) is just as widely or more widely used. Only a handful of my my 50+ papers are in alphabetical order.
My take, different from Dan Romik's, is that most professional mathematicians are well aware that there are different conventions in different parts of mathematics, and that they can well put things in perspective. That is certainly true for evaluating colleagues during annual evaluation time or when you apply for positions. If you're in a hard-core pure math area where nobody uses non-alphabetical author order, such a paper may seem odd but I am pretty sure that everyone will still be able to see what the purpose is.
In the answers and comments, it's suggested that it's extremely rare in pure math, and there are only one or two such papers. I'd suggest that while it is rare, it's not as rare as Dan Romik's answer and a couple of comment's suggest. I myself have noticed a number of papers where the author list is non-alphabetical (and in fact I'm a co-author on one). My impression is that the two most common reasons for these situations are:
- there was some confusion about the alphabetical ordering, typically with non-English names (maybe unRomantic names is better?) as in paul garrett's comment and as seems to be the case in Dan Romik's example
- the contributions to the paper were highly unbalanced among co-authors (e.g., the RSA paper---at least from A's perspective)
That said, just by seeing such a situation, it's probably not clear why the author order is non-alphabetical, and people will wonder why when they notice it. So unless some of the authors feel strongly about it, I wouldn't recommend doing this as a matter of course, and especially not unless all authors agree.
Here are some alternative suggestions for how to handle a situation like this:
- Break the project up into two (or more) different papers, using different subsets of authors to better represent author contributions.
- Instead of making separate papers, have 1 paper but with appendices with different sets of authors.
- Include a comment in the introduction about each author's contributions.
- Be generous (or thankful, depending on which party you are), and don't worry about it. (This is the probably the most common solution to this rather frequent situation, and unless the paper is really groundbreaking, sharing credit shouldn't be too much of a burden.)