Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Academy Overweights Co-Authored Articles, To The Detriment Of Women, Faculty Of Color, And Faculty With Surnames That Fall Later In The Alphabet

Inside Higher Ed op-ed:  Bias in the Academy: Counting Co-Authors, by Linus Yamane (Pitzer College; "If your last name begins with the letter Z, he would like to co-author a paper with you"):

In light of the frequent campus climate issues of recent years, many of us in higher education have been thinking about inherent biases in our institutions’ appointment, promotion and tenure systems. How might faculty of color and women be systematically thwarted when they try to move up the academic labor market? One fundamental way such biases manifest themselves is how academe gives credit for single-author and multiple-author journal article publications.

In my field of economics, the number of authors per paper has increased monotonically over time. ...  [I]f departments do not distinguish between single-authored and co-authored journal articles, it is easier to increase the number of publications with co-authors.

When I talk with faculty members of color, they express a concern about this practice of co-authoring papers. They tell me that it is harder for faculty of color to find co-authors. In many ways, finding a co-author is like finding a spouse. We tend to marry people who look like ourselves. Tall people tend to marry other tall people. Educated people tend to marry other educated people. White people tend to marry other white people. There are similar patterns with co-authors. They tend to have ties to the same graduate schools. They have interests in the same subfields. And faculty members of color tend to write with other faculty of color. But with fewer faculty of color in academe, it is harder for those scholars to find appropriate co-authors.

Unfortunately, while the practice of co-authoring articles creates a bias against faculty of color, we can do little to change the situation immediately. If we can increase the number of faculty members of color in higher education, that will help, but it will take some time.

For today, we must focus on being careful about properly crediting the work in co-authored journal articles when we evaluate faculty members. While single-author papers send a clear signal about skills and abilities of the author, co-authored papers do not provide specific information about each author’s skills and abilities. That ambiguity can result in systematic biases. We must make sure that we recognize the work of co-authors in a fair and consistent way. ...

The extensive literature on scholarly productivity is uniform in measuring productivity. ... It basically divides each publication by the number of co-authors and adds up the total. It gives twice as much weight to an article with a single author over an article with two co-authors. It gives three times as much weight to an article with a single author over an article with three co-authors. And it gives equal credit to all the co-authors. ...

But on review committees and in academe in general, it is not clear that productivity is actually being measured this way. Some departments and review committees seem to give equivalent weight to co-authored journal articles and single-author journal articles [Reputational Capital and Academic Pay]. ...

With co-authored papers, another issue that review committees and others consider is author order. Sometimes the order in which the authors are listed signals the relative contribution of each author to the paper. Sometimes the authors are merely listed in alphabetical order. Sometimes regular co-authors merely alternate the order in which they list their names. This all makes the issue of author order difficult to interpret properly. ...

In the field of  of economics, the usual practice has been to list co-authors alphabetically. However, in the world of academe, the first author seems to get more credit than the other authors. . ... This practice of listing authors alphabetically has resulted in a very perverse outcome for economics professors. Professors with last names that start with a letter near the beginning of the alphabet are more likely to receive tenure than professors with last names that start with a letter near the end of the alphabet, as Liran Einav and Leeat Yariv found when examining assistant professors in top-ranked economics departments in the United States [The Effects of Surname Initials on Academic Success]. The key to success seems to be to find a smart co-author with a last name that falls later in the alphabet. ...

In the field of economics today, the vast majority of journal articles are co-authored. Since peer-reviewed journal articles are the gold standard in the field, it’s crucial that we evaluate single-author and multiple-author journal articles properly in tenure, promotion and review processes. All these publications should obviously count in the review process. But we need to count them appropriately and consistently. On average, single-author publications should be weighted twice as much as two-author publications, and three times as much as three-author publications. And we should not privilege the first author unless it is appropriate to do so. This holds for men and for women, for white faculty and for minority faculty. Otherwise we will end up further stacking the academic deck unfairly.

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Your own story says all of the top 15 law reviews have female editors. And women are being discriminated against? This is ridiculous.

Posted by: Mike Livingston | Jan 22, 2020 4:23:51 AM

I'd like to see a different approach. Attach less value to published papers and more to teaching skills. Yeah, radical, really radical.

Posted by: Michael W. Perry | Jan 21, 2020 9:38:36 AM