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Econ coauthorship update

The other day I posted some remarks on Stan Liebowitz’s analysis of coauthorship in economics. Liebowitz followed up with some more thoughts:

I [Liebowitz] am not arguing for an increase or decrease in coauthorship, per se. I would prefer an efficient amount of coauthorship, whatever that is, and certainly it will vary by paper and by field. If you feel you are more productive with many coauthors, that is not in contrast to anything in my paper. My point is that you will pick the correct number of coauthors if you and your coauthors are given 1/n credit (assuming you believe each author contributed equally). If, however, all of the coauthors are given full credit for the paper (and I have evidence that, in economics at least, authors are far more likely to receive full credit than 1/n credit), authors will get credit for more papers if they use more coauthors than would otherwise be best for total research productivity. My criticism is in the inefficiency induced by not using 1/n as the reward system. [I assume, I think reasonably, that increasing the number of real authors eventually causes too big a team and that productivity falls (too many cooks).]

A particular form of excessive coauthorship consists of gratuitously putting friends on a paper. This form of excessive coauthorship doesn’t actually hurt research productivity since gratuitous authors have nothing to do with writing the paper. Gratuitous coauthorship is a rational (although unethical) response by authors to a reward system that does not give 1/n credit. We shouldn’t be encouraging this type of behavior.

I’ve been involved in almost every authorship situation. I’ve added coauthors who’ve written just a couple paragraphs. I’ve done this not to do a favor for a friend, but just to make the paper better. For Bayesian Data Analysis, I keep adding new coauthors. I don’t remove the old authors even after they’ve stopped contributing. I once had a project I did entirely myself, but at the time I was feeling paranoid so I approached two colleagues—not friends, just two people I slightly knew—and invited them on to the project. They contributed a lot to the papers that got written, but originally I included them only because I was afraid that any paper with myself as sole author wouldn’t get taken seriously. I was once deeply involved in a research project—at one point I was dictating formulas to my coauthor over the phone—and then I was stunned to find that my coauthor did not want to include my name on the project as a coauthor, he just wanted to thank me in the acknowledgments. I wrote Red State Blue State with four coauthors, all former students. The publisher recommended that, even though all five of us were officially authors, and we were all on the title page, that my name alone should be on the cover, so it would sell more books, because nobody wants to read a book with five authors. I discussed it with my coauthors and we followed the publisher’s suggestion, but I regret it. I think all authors should be on the cover. And we didn’t sell a lot of books anyway. Once or twice I’ve done collaborative projects and then seen papers floating around with our work but without my name on it. Conversely, I’ve been coauthor on collaborative projects where I’ve done very little. Once I wrote a paper with an economist—it was a joint effort, he had the original idea but I wrote most of the paper. I thought I should be first author but he told me that in econ it’s always alphabetical. Once I insisted on a reverse-alphabetical authorship for a paper just to ensure that my end-of-alphabet coauthor would get the appropriate share of credit. I listed George Romero as a coauthor on the zombies paper, just because. I like adding coauthors; they almost always add something useful, and I don’t really worry about the distribution of credit.

14 Comments

  1. mkln says:

    you guys are talking about different things.

    • Andrew says:

      That’s fine, it’s good to talk about different things. There are many aspects to coauthorship.

      • Jack PQ says:

        I would emphasize that norms and cultures are field-specific. In physics, you can have dozens, even hundreds, of co-authors on a paper. In economics and finance, the norm is that authors must be listed alphabetically, implicitly it is assumed that the share of work is equal among co-authors (never precisely true, but true enough over repeated co-authorships), and you do not get a co-authorship if you are just a research assistant or if you made a clever but small contribution (you just get a thank you on p.1).

        This is not a “better” way to do things, but it is the norm in economics and finance, and deviations create problems.

        I think having co-authors is good for the field for another reason: it is harder to pass along fake findings. So, in principle, these two wrongs make a right (inefficiently many co-authors plus risk of fake findings).

  2. Joseph says:

    Part of the problem is that writing an article with n authors is not equal in work to writing an article with one author. It is actually a lot more work to integrate all of the comments and develop the paper in the face of competing demands. This complicates matters enormously (how much of the extra work is legitimate editing and improvement and how much is lost due to coordination problems).

    But I do note that fields with few authors on average tend to like schemes like 1/n credit (where n=number of authors) and people from fields with a lot of authors prefer “a paper is a paper”. Personally, I like to count the first author papers (and maybe the senior author papers where the first author is a trainee) plus the total, both of which give different numbers.

    I also think that cross field comparisons are pernicious. Comparing my work (Epidemiology) to an economist would be dreadfully unfair, regardless of which scheme was used. Of far greater utility is comparing people within scientific areas. It’s harder to do, but would be a lot more accurate.

  3. Steve Sailer says:

    Ralph Alpher and George Gamow wrote an important physics paper on the Big Bang Theory in 1948. Gamow added his pal Hans Bethe’s name to the authors so it would be known as the Alpher-Bethe-Gamow paper:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alpher%E2%80%93Bethe%E2%80%93Gamow_paper

  4. Mike Spagat says:

    My experience is that economists care quite a bit about the number of co-authors on a paper and can get pretty edgy already when a third author is added in. Young people are penalized particularly for having co-authors and will be strongly advised early in their careers that they really need to have a few successful single-authored papers or else all their joint papers will soon will be devalued. During hiring decisions someone will invariably say that he has no idea if a candidate is any good because all her papers are co-authored. To me, the evaluation system in economics is much more about evaluating people than it is about evaluating research.

    My general experience working with people in other fields, particularly physicists, is that if they think someone brings a unique skill or perspective to a project they won’t hesitate to sign that person up and give co-authorship. There doesn’t seem to be an expectation that a good researcher should be able to do everything by his/her self. I definitely prefer this attitude and think it leads to better work….although maybe I just think this because I’ve got hardly any skills….

  5. Lee Sechrest says:

    I was once on the promotion committee for a faculty member (from a department other than my own), whose wife, also a faculty member, was his frequent co-author. His own department members were resistant to his promotion on the grounds that his good articles were mostly attributable to the input from his wife. I knew him and his work and argued otherwise, and his promotion was recommended. The very next year I was on the promotion committee for his wife, and the argument was made that her good work was mostly attributable to her husband’s input. I knew her and her work also and argued otherwise, and her promotion was recommended. But I do believe that had I not been on their committees and familiar with the work of both, they would not have been recommended for promotion. Both went on productive careers even though they drifted apart in their interests and areas of work.

    It seems strange to me that someone on a selection committee or promotion committee cannot figure out whether a “coauthor” knows what he or she is doing.

  6. I agree with the above comments that different fields have different schemes for deciding what warrants authorship. I was told that, in economics, it’s rare to have more than three or four coauthors (is this true?). In that case, I can see how equal credit would arise. In my particular field (ecology), we have a different method of assigning credit because it’s not uncommon for papers to have anywhere from five to twenty or thirty authors. All authors do not receive full credit or the same amount of partial credit (the 1/n rule), in fact the distribution of credit is highly uneven. Typically, first author receives the lion’s share of the credit. After that, it varies by author and lab convention. Some labs put the PI last and any additional authors in the middle, such that the first author receives the most credit, the last author receives a good deal of credit (as PI), and the middle authors are those that contributed substantially to the project but less so than the first author or PI (usually listed alphabetically). In other labs, authors are listed in order of decreasing credit, such that the last author contributed least to the project. I’ve seen papers with 20-30 authors where the first four or five authors were the major contributors and the rest listed in alphabetical order. That’s a giveaway as to the relative contributions of each authors. I never realized that other fields did things so differently.

    As for who to include as a coauthor, my rule of thumb is that coauthors should be able to discuss the paper intelligently if accosted on the street by rogue ecologists demanding explanations. That’s a necessary, if not sufficient, condition.

    • Jack PQ says:

      I cannot find a link for the statistics, but if my memory serves, in economics and finance the distribution is roughly:
      * one author: 20 percent of all papers
      * two co-authors: 40 percent
      * three co-authors: 15 percent
      * four or five co-authors: 5 percent
      * six or more co-authors: negligible (I can think of only two cases, ever)

  7. Jonathan says:

    And what is YOUR Erdos number?

  8. ^3 says:

    Interesting issue. My utopia:

    1. Never worry about co-authors or even order of authors and always err on the side of inclusion. However, calculate each individual’s citation index with an exponential penalty against number of publications (or something like that). This could still be gamed, but it would work against the incentive to over-publish among those lacking intrinsic commitments, and bring the focus back to quality.

    2. The peer review of articles should always occur *before* data are collected. Result isn’t exciting? No matter. The focus should be on the question, its motivation, and the method/design.

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