Friday, December 12, 2003

Ordering Authors

Every scientific field has their own rules for the order of authors in a paper. In theoretical computer science, tradition dictates that we list the authors alphabetically by last name. I don't agree with this tradition; rarely do all the co-authors of a paper play an equal role. The decision whether to add someone as a co-author, and thus an equal, often becomes difficult.

But breaking with tradition can have its own problems. I have three papers that break the alphabetical rule though two were in biology which has its own rules. In the other back in 1990, Carsten Lund, a graduate student at the time, made the key step in developing an interactive proof system for the permanent. For that we made him first author in the Lund-Fortnow-Karloff-Nisan paper. In retrospect I regret this decision. It only added confusion to those who cited the paper. Also did Lund not play as important a role in other papers where we kept alphabetical order? Breaking with tradition, even with the best of intentions, can often cause more harm than good.

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