Monday, 16 January 2017

I should have changed my name to Aaron A. Aardvark

Alphabetic discrimination in economics was a topic of casual conversation while I was completing my PhD, mainly as a result of this paper (ungated earlier version here) by Liran Einav (Stanford) and Leeat Yariv (CalTech). I was reminded of this paper when I read the William Olney paper that I blogged about a couple of weeks ago, that had the researchers' surname first initial as a control variable.

Now, Matthias Weber (Bank of Lithuania, and Vilnius University) has a new and very readable paper that reviews the literature on alphabetical discrimination. It is argued that economists with surnames closer to the start of the alphabet (e.g. A, or B) have an advantage in terms of career progression, etc. compared with economists with surnames closer to the end of the alphabet (e.g. Y, or Z). This arises because of the convention in economics to list authors on multi-authored papers in alphabetical order.

How does this lead to an advantage? There are a couple of likely mechanisms. First, only the name of the first author appears in a citation when there are three or more authors. The rest of the authors disappear into the 'et al.' So, if visibility is important for name recognition, then authors who are more-often the first author (those with names closer to the start of the alphabet under an alphabetical ordering convention) would benefit most. Second, disciplines that don't use an alphabetical ordering convention typically order the authors by their relative contribution, so that the first author had the largest or most important contribution to the article. Therefore, readers in these disciplines may assume that the first author under an alphabetical ordering was also the author who made the largest contribution to the article, and give them greater credit (again, advantaging those with names closer to the start of the alphabet).

The alphabetical author ordering convention is peculiar to economics and to a few other disciplines -Weber notes "‘Business & Finance’, ‘Economics’, ‘Mathematics’, and ‘Physics, Particles & Fields’" as the disciplines that use this system, with others using a contributions-based ordering.

There are three main papers that have investigated the effect of alphabetical discrimination in economics, and Weber provides a useful summary of all three (along with other papers of interest). The first paper is the Einav and Yariv article linked above. They use data on faculty from the top 35 economics departments in the U.S., and find that:
Faculty with earlier surname initials are significantly more likely to receive tenure at top ten economics departments, are significantly more likely to become fellows of the Econometric Society, and, to a lesser extent, are more likely to receive the Clark Medal and the Nobel Prize.
The latter results (on the John Bates Clark Medal and the Nobel Prize) are not statistically significant, so are suggestive at best. The size of the effect on tenure is quite large:
In the regression for top five departments, each letter closer to the front of the alphabet increases the probability of being tenured by about 1 percent.
The same result holds for the top ten economics departments, but fades as lower quality departments are included (probably because the best economists with names early in the alphabet are already employed at the top universities).

The second paper (ungated version here) is one I hadn't read before, by Georgios Efthyvoulou (Birkbeck College, University of London). Efthyvoulou extends the Einav and Yariv analysis by looking at the top 17 and bottom 51 (of 68) economics departments in the U.S. He finds that, when restricting the sample to full professors only:
...having a last name initial “A” instead of “Z” increases the probability of being employed by a top economic institution, by slightly more than 20%.
The results for economists at all academic ranks are statistically insignificant. Efthyvoulou also finds similar results for the U.K. (but again they are statistically insignificant). More interestingly, he looks at the number of downloads and citations on RePEc, and finds that:
...being an A-author, and not a Z-author, increases (the logarithm of) the total number of file downloads by 13% and (the logarithm of) the total number of abstract views by 11%.
The third paper is this one (ungated earlier version here) by Mirjam van Praag and Bernard van Praag (both University of Amsterdam). The van Praags use data on all articles published in eleven top economics journals from 1997 to 1999, and look at the effect of alphabetical ranking (i.e. the first initial of the author's surname) on productivity. They find:
...a significantly negative effect of 'letter' on scientific performance; this indicates a reputational advantage of A-authors over Z-authors, resulting in an increased scientific output of 3.4 articles... and a 0.16... -article higher annual productivity.
All of this suggests that economists with an "A" surname have a distinct advantage over those with a "Z" surname, and all of the articles linked above have recommended some move towards either a contributions-based ordering or a random ordering of authors (the latter being a point that Debraj Ray and Arthur Robson have also made). However, no such change has yet been made, so clearly I missed an opportunity to change my name to Aaron A. Aardvark.

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