Alphabetical discrimination?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Apr 20 13:16:40 UTC 2006

>>From the Chronicle of Higher Education, Thursday, April 20, 2006

A glance at the spring issue of The Journal of Economic Perspectives:
"Alphabetical discrimination" in economics

 Scholars who are struggling to build an academic career in economics may
need only to look at their last name to understand the source of their
professional woes. A study by two economists has found that having a
surname with a first letter that is earlier in the alphabet is correlated
with several measures of success in the field.  The authors -- Liran
Einav, an assistant professor of economics at Stanford University, and
Leeat Yariv, an associate professor of economics at the California
Institute of Technology -- examined faculty data at 35 top-ranked
economics programs. They found that "faculty with earlier surname initials
are significantly more likely to receive tenure at top-10 economics
departments." At top-five programs, a person's probability of receiving
tenure increased by 1 percent for each letter closer to the front of the
alphabet that the beginning of their surname was.

The authors also found that, the earlier in the alphabet the first letter
of their last name was, the more likely it was that economists would
become fellows of the Econometric Society, or even receive the Clark Medal
or Nobel Prize. The authors call their findings an example of
"alphabetical discrimination," and suggest that the phenomenon stems from
the discipline's norm of crediting co-authors of publications
alphabetically.  They say the practice may be affecting tenure at top
programs because "lower-ranked departments put more weight on vitae and
publication counts, while top departments care more about visibility and
impact. Surname initials may be more important for the latter."

They note that in disciplines like psychology, in which co-authors are
listed according to their contribution, rather than alphabetically, there
is no relationship between last names and tenure. Ms. Einav (named as the
article's first author) and Ms. Yariv (named last)  add that the behavior
of economists suggests an awareness of alphabetical discrimination.
Between 1980 and 2002, they say, economists who had last names that began
with letters later in the alphabet were less likely to participate in
projects involving co-authors than were those who did not.  The authors
call for a turn away from the practice in economics of crediting authors

The article, "What's in a Surname? The Effects of Surname Initials on
Academic Success," is available to subscribers or for purchase on the
journal's Web site.

--Jason M. Breslow

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