credit where credit is due: gender and authorship conventions in economics and sociology

[Ha — I wrote this last night and set it to post for this morning — when I woke up saw that Fabio had beat me to it. Posting anyway for the limited additional thoughts it contains.]

Last week Fabio launched a heated discussion about whether economics is less “racially balanced” than other social sciences. Then on Friday Justin Wolfers (who has been a vocal advocate for women in economics) published an Upshot piece arguing that female economists get less credit when they collaborate with men.

The Wolfers piece covers research by Harvard economics PhD candidate Heather Sarsons, who used data on tenure decisions at top-30 economics programs in the last forty years to estimate the effects of collaboration (with men or women) on whether women get tenure, controlling for publication quantity and quality and so on. (Full paper here.) Only 52% of the women in this population received tenure, compared to 77% of the men.

The takeaway is that women got no marginal benefit (in terms of tenure decision) from coauthoring with men, while they received some benefit (but less than men did) if they coauthored with at least one other women. Their tenure chances did, however, benefit as much as men’s from solo-authored papers. Sarsons’ interpretation (after ruling out several alternative possibilities) is that while women are given full credit when there is no question about their role in a study, their contributions are discounted when they coauthor with men.

Interesting from a sociologist’s perspective is that Sarsons uses a more limited data set from sociology as a comparison. Looking at a sample of 250 sociology faculty at top-20 programs, she finds no difference in tenure rates by gender, and no similar disadvantage from coauthorship.

While it would be nice to interpret this as evidence of the great enlightenment of sociology around gender issues, that is probably premature. Nevertheless, Sarsons points to one key difference between sociology and economics (other than differing assumptions about women’s contributions) that could potentially explain the divergence.

Sociology, as most of you probably know, has a convention of putting the author who made the largest contribution first in the authorship list. Economics uses alphabetical order. Other disciplines have their own conventions — lab sciences, for example, put the senior author last. This means that sociologists can infer a little bit more than economists about who played the biggest role in a paper from authorship order — information Sarsons suggests might contribute to women receiving more credit for their collaborative work.

This sounds plausible to me, although I also wouldn’t be surprised if the two disciplines made different assumptions, ceteris paribus, about women’s contributions. It might be worth looking at sociology articles with the relatively common footnote “Authors contributed equally; names are listed in alphabetical order” (or reverse alphabetical order, or by coin toss, or whatever). Of course such a note still provides information about relative contribution — 50-50, at least in theory — so it’s not an ideal comparison. But I would bet that readers mentally give one author more credit than the other for these papers.

That may just be the first author, due to the disciplinary convention. But one could imagine that a male contributor (or a senior contributor) would reap greater rewards for these kinds of collaborations. It wouldn’t say much about the hypothesis if that were not the case, but if men received more advantage from papers with explicitly equal coauthors, that would certainly be consistent with the hypothesis that first-author naming conventions help women get credit.

Okay, maybe that’s a stretch. Sarsons closes by noting that she plans to expand the sociology sample and add disciplines with different authorship conventions. It will be challenging to tease out whether authorship conventions really help women get due credit for their work, and I’m skeptical that that’s 100% of the story. But even if it could fix part of the problem, what a simple solution to ensure credit where credit is due.

Written by epopp

January 11, 2016 at 1:47 pm

One Response

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  1. An interesting and much more difficult topic to study for sociologists is the impact of being the first author on a paper with a much more senior scholar. Do you get credit for the work or does the senior scholar, despite authorship order?

    Liked by 2 people


    January 11, 2016 at 5:34 pm

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