Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Author contributions

In this conference season, it seems like a good time to think about the issue of author contributions. Here are some of the methods for author listing used in computer science:
  • Alphabetical (the norm in theoryCS and communities heavily influenced by it)
  • Advisor-student: student name comes first, advisor comes last.
  • Work-ordering: first author did all the work, last author provided the funding, intermediate authors ordered by contribution (common in systems work)
Of course, there are combinations: I've seen alphabetical modified by advisor-student ordering, or alphabetical with sub-level work-ordering pieces etc, although the latter is not common in theoryCS. The arguments for and against the various methods are well known I imagine:
  • alphabetical ordering conceals who did the real work ("but the cream rises to the top")
  • Work ordering allows advisors to slap their names on anything coming out of their lab ("But they did all the work needed to fund this research: grant writing, selling, etc")
  • alphabetical gives undue eminence to authors whose names begin with 'A', (but see here for a counter-theory)
  • alphabetical ordering makes authors with names in the end of the alphabet lazy (Who're you looking at, punk ?)
  • theory papers can't be work-ordered, because ideas "float in the air without ownership" (yes, I have heard this argument many times, so don't snicker)
But what is perhaps more interesting is the problem of assigning author contributions, especially in systems like the alphabetical one where author contributions are not signalled by placement. Luca Aceto points out an unusually detailed description of author contributions, and speculates as to what a similar note might look like on theory papers.

He also links to an interesting set of axioms that Hardy and Littlewood developed before their famous collaboration started. I actually admire this approach. As a general rule, theory folks tend to be very allergic towards detailed discussions about contributions and what-not, but in collaborations, it's critically important to lay out the ground rules in advance, and the Hardy-Littlewood axioms are good because they lay out rules in advance that eliminate any problems later on: for example,
And, finally, the fourth, and perhaps most important axiom, stated that it was quite indifferent if one of them had not contributed the least bit to the contents of a paper under their common name . . .
Agreeing to such an axiom requires great trust between the collaborators, because of the immense potential for abuse, and maybe that's exactly the point: a good collaboration requires trust, and you can't agree to such an axiom unless trust already exists.
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