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If a paper has four or more authors, it is common to use the style "Firstauthor et al. discovered that the sky is blue.".

I do not like this style, as it is unfair to the other authors. In my field, authors are always listed alphabetically. So being first author is an accident of birth, rather than an indication of being the main contributor.

One option is to list out all the names, but this can be impractical. (A compromise is to list out all the names at the first mention, and then revert to "Firstauthor et al." when mentioning the same paper again.)

I often see no names used e.g. "[1] discovered that the sky is blue." However, this is bad grammar -- parenthetical citations should not be treated like proper nouns. (The passive voice is one way to avoid this issue. i.e. "It is known that the sky is blue [1].")

Is there a style that avoids these problems? Is it acceptable to refer to a paper by an acronym, as in "ABCD discovered that the sky is blue." or "ABCD [1] discovered that the sky is blue"?

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    Every field uses different norms (first author most important, last author most important, alphabetical, etc). If your field lists people alphabetically, then being "first author" is not a meritorious distinction and people in your field won't read it as such. At the end of the day, references are to help the reader find the work and, in the prose itself, help the text read easier. If the nature of the authors is actually important, then you can spend time discussing that in the paper, e.g. "The common thread in all our papers is Dr. So-and-so, which is important to point out because…" – user0721090601 Mar 5 '17 at 23:18
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    @guifa Even if you know that being first author is meaningless, it's hard to avoid the unconscious bias -- "Aaronson? Yes. That name sounds familiar. Zhang? No. I've never heard of him." – oval Mar 6 '17 at 1:23
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    In this situation everyone in your field know that first authorship means nothing so I don't see any problem. If you yourself pick the main contributor it seems much more unfair and questionable, assuming you did not know the story of every single paper, so you will judge based only your guts. From grammatical point of view "whoever and coauthors" is the answer to your question. – Greg Mar 6 '17 at 1:58
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    @guifa In my area collaboration is the norm and most papers have 2-6 authors. It's enough of a problem that I know one person who is rumored to have changed their name for this reason. – oval Mar 6 '17 at 4:03
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    Why would you need the passive voice? The sky is blue [1]. does not use passive. – gerrit Mar 6 '17 at 10:50
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I'm going to advocate for using the style "[1] discovered that the sky is blue," even though you dislike it for grammatical reasons. I don't think that citations written like this need to be considered as parenthetical comments - they are just references, and can be used in place of the authors' names. Sometimes I will also see "Ref. 1 discovered that the sky is blue," which at least avoids putting the citation at the beginning of the sentence.

I agree that using "X et al." for an alphabetical paper is often misleading, and even though people are aware of this, it is difficult to avoid that bias. I have seen, in related cases, people refer to, e.g. "work from the group of Y" to avoid this. However, I do not recommend this, as it attributes more importance to the supervisor's contribution, and it is very easy to misunderstand the roles of people on a given project. (This also intersects with seniority, gender, etc. - big shot authors are more likely to be credited in this way.)

Author names as an acronym also seems quite useful, but I've mostly seen them used in cases where either A) there is a paper or idea that is classic in the field, or B) a single paper is a subject of focused discussion, and is discussed in depth by many other papers. For an example of B, there is the AMPS "firewall" paper in physics: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firewall_(physics) - they are also not compatible with giant author lists more common in some fields!

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    Thanks for the thoughtful answer. I haven't seen "Ref. 1 discovered that the sky is blue" before. Is it common in your area? – oval Mar 6 '17 at 3:56
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    Also, *The paper [1] shows that the sky is blue." – Federico Poloni Mar 6 '17 at 6:44
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    Personally I'd go with 'In [1] it was shown that the sky is blue'. – Jessica B Mar 6 '17 at 6:59
  • In my field, the Ref. 1 style is fairly common, though I've also seen the variants Federico and Jessica note, those are also good options! – AJK Mar 6 '17 at 16:14
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    Eeeew. No. Papers do not discover things; people discover things! – JeffE Mar 7 '17 at 0:27
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Stick to the journal's rules.

Most serious journals have a style guide that will cover this issue. Focus your creativity on the content, not on the form.

The purpose of citations is simply to give an easy an convenient way for readers to locate the earlier work you relied on. It is not to show deference or to "pay tribute" to other researchers or to indicate who you think contributed most to a given paper. Let epistemology scholars and historian worry about who discovered what first.

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    Indeed, some journals explicitly forbid the "[1] did something" format. – Fábio Dias Mar 6 '17 at 16:00
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    Sure. If I don't have a choice, then I don't have a choice. But often I do have a choice e.g. when uploading preprints to arxiv. – oval Mar 6 '17 at 18:21
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Let's go over the alternatives proposed so far, plus one of my own:

Foo et al. proposes that the sky is blue [ 1 ]. This is in contrast to Fizz and Buzz, which maintain that the sky is more greenish [ 2 ].

The most clean alternative, but I see where the OP is coming from. If everybody does that, and assuming that especially in large cooperations alphabetical ordering of authors becomes natural, it certainly becomes an advantage to have a last name starting with "Aa".

[ 1 ] proposes that the sky is blue. This is in contrast to [ 2 ], which maintains that the sky is more greenish.

This is the solution proposed by AJK in her/his answer. Many "style purists" don't particularly like this writing, as it essentially uses references as nouns rather than as annotations to the text. I personally don't mind this style, as I think it communicates intent fairly well, and that should be what it's all about. However, be wary that some might find this style of writing to be "wrong" and complain about it.

The paper [ 1 ] proposes that the sky is blue. This is in contrast to the paper [ 2 ], which maintains that the sky is more greenish.

I see no real advantage of this phrasing in comparison to the previous approach - it's only longer. Note that even in this version the references are not really annotations, but part of the text itself. That is, if you remove the references from the above sentence, it does not actually make much sense anymore (unlike in the first variant).

Ref 1 proposes that the sky is blue. This is in contrast to Ref 2, which maintains that the sky is more greenish.

I have seen this variation maybe two or three times in the wild so far, and I am not sure why you would use it over the second variation. The only advantage I see is that it "looks" more like a regular English sentence, but it still has the problem that the reference is part of the sentence rather than being an annotation.

A common thought in research is that the sky is blue [ 1 ]. However, some challenge this by arguing that the sky is more greenish [ 2 ].

My personally preferred option is to rephrase the statement to focus on the thought or result itself, rather than on who produced it. If you do that, the problem tends to go away naturally. Even independently of writing style, I have always found texts to read better once you remove all the "A said, B said, C said" boilerplate and focus on what has actually been said.

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  • I agree with the rule that the sentence should still parse after any citations in brackets are removed. Phrasing things so as to avoid discussing who made the contribution is good. However, sometimes it's hard to do. e.g when contrasting the contributions of different papers. – oval Mar 6 '17 at 18:34
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I would emphatically oppose xLeitix' suggestion of

[ 1 ] proposes that the sky is blue. This is in contrast to [ 2 ], which maintains that the sky is more greenish.

or

The paper [ 1 ] proposes that the sky is blue. This is in contrast to the paper [ 2 ], which maintains that the sky is more greenish.

Instead, I believe that

Ref 1 proposes that the sky is blue. This is in contrast to Ref 2, which maintains that the sky is more greenish.

is the way to go if you would like to avoid First et al. Yes, the reference here is a part of the sentence, not just an annotation, and that's OK since it isn't parenthesized. In the same spirit, it is common to also write

Figure 3 shows the XYZ dependence of ABC.

where "Figure 3" is also clearly a part of the sentence, and not just annotation.

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  • I agree that parentheticals should be viewed as annotations, rather than part of the sentence. However, it's a rule that is often ignored. I see "Substituting x=0 into (1) gives y=2." in math papers, rather than the more grammatical "Substituting x=0 into Equation 1 gives y=2.". – oval Mar 6 '17 at 19:32
  • @oval Funny that you mention this, I'm also guilty of this sin, though I adhere to the guidelines of my answer. – LLlAMnYP Mar 6 '17 at 21:06

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