How do we determine author order?

Academics enjoy splitting into obscure little groups and rarely agree about what is interesting. Perhaps the only thing we can agree on is that academics, and the problems facing academics, are fascinating. A major problem for academics is determining author order on joint works. Most academic articles are created by teams. Given, in marketing at least, being earlier in the order is more prestigious this creates a problem where teams might find it hard to determine author order. “Lead authors may receive more credit than their coauthors.” (Brown, Chan and Lai, 206, page 17).

Unfortunately there is always ambiguity about who is the most deserving. While I haven’t seen many big fights among my colleagues there is plenty of opportunity to generate the sort of simmering resentments that academics seem especially prone too.

Brown and his colleagues looked at marketing papers from 1991 to 2000 to better understand co-authorship decisions. They found that alphabetic order varied in popularity by journal but was quite widespread. This suggested that contribution wasn’t always the key decision criteria in determining order. (The assumption behind this conclusion is that people with names early in the alphabet don’t contribute more than other people. Although given I have a surname starting with a B I’m all for the inference that early in the alphabet means you did more work.)

They started with the idea that author order is a signal of contribution to the outside world. What then are the circumstances when this signal is muted? “….we find that the alphabetical ordering rule is positively correlated with the quality of the article, more likely to occur with Asian and European authors, and less likely to occur when there are more coauthors and the first author is from a lower-ranked institution.” (Brown, Chan and Lai, 2006, page 18).

The arguments are fairly logical. They suggest that on high quality articles there is less chance of carrying a slack author so a fair share rule works better. (This arguments seems a little strong to me.) They found more co-authors lead to less alphabetical ordering. I wasn’t sure about this but they suggest that although bargaining over order becomes harder (and so more likely to be avoided) with more co-authors the value of being first is higher with more co-authors so those who have contributed more will fight more for ordering by contribution. They also suggested that first authors at lower ranked institutions are less likely to accept alphabetical order. These authors need to build their careers and can’t afford to be magnanimous and share too much credit for their work and ideas. The cultural argument is a bit limited and the stats not especially strong but apparently US based people are (a little) less likely to accept alphabetical order.

Work like this helps us better understand marketing academia. I hope Brown did most of the work given the alphabetical ordering on their paper.

Read:  Christopher L. Brown, Kam C. Chan, and Pikki Lai (2006) Marketing Journal Coauthorships: An Empirical Analysis of Coauthor Behavior, Journal of Marketing Education, 28 (1), pages 17-25.