Learn Some Economics: The Effects of Surname Initials on Academic Success

And, dear readers, after a long hiatus, the (somewhat) educational Learn Some Economics has returned!  You’re totally happy it’s back.  No irony.  None.  Zero.

I was reminded of the paper I’ll be talking about today at my new place of work a couple of weeks ago.  Looking at my initials, SZ, the lovely girl who was training me asked what it was like to be alphabetically last throughout school.  Being called on last for virtually everything may have helped me develop a patient demeanor (nah) but I don’t think it affected my performance in school or elsewhere.  However, there are proven instances where a surname initial can screw a person over and the paper I will discuss looks at one example of this.

In their 2006 paper entitled What’s in a Surname? The Effects of Surname Initials on Academic Success, economists Liran Einav of Stanford and Leeat Yariv of CalTech, set out to estimate whether a surname initial can affect an academic economist’s professional success.  Einav and Yariv analyzed data on faculty at the top 35 economics departments in the US and publication data from the top 5 economics journals between 1980 and 2002.  They found that professors in the top 5 or 10 economics departments with surname initials closer to the beginning of the alphabet (A, B, C, etc.) were more likely to be tenured than those with initials closer to the end.  The top two graphs in Figure 1 below illustrate well that in the sample taken, tenured faculty more often had early-letter surname initials.  For example, about 50% of tenured faculty members in the top 5 economics departments had a last name that began with the letter J or earlier in the alphabet. Amongst untenured faculty, however, less than 30% had a last name in that part of the alphabet.

Further, in the top 5 departments, each surname letter closer to the beginning of the alphabet was associated with a one-percent increase in the likelihood that an economist was tenured, suggesting that an economist whose surname begins with A at either Harvard, Stanford, Chicago, MIT or Princeton is approximately 25% more likely to be tenured than one whose surname begins with Z. Astounding.

Why should a surname initial matter in tenure decisions, made by a committee whose members have information on a number of factors including publications in journals, the arguably biggest deciding factor?  Here’s why: an academic whose surname begins with a letter early in the alphabet, for example Adams, will, according to the norm in economics, have his/her name listed first on multi-authored journal publications.  If there are 3 economists contributing to a paper that is accepted for publication, their names will appear as follows: “Adams et al”.  The argument is that once Adams becomes more and more recognized by his/her peers over someone whose name is grouped in the “et al.”, he/she is more likely to have future working papers accepted to journals for publication. He/she is therefore more likely to obtain tenure, which highly depends on past publications and future publication potential.  And so, as is true with a lot of professions, reputation counts.

Not only do Einav and Yariv observe this alphabetical discrimination with respect to tenure, they observe it for fellows of the Econometric Society, Nobel prize winners and Clark Medal winners. Even when controlling for a number of characteristics such as country of origin and ethnicity, these results still hold true.

It’s important to note that this phenomenon is not present in all academic fields.  No significant correlation exists in the fields of psychology (see Figure 4 below), sociology or medicine.  The reason is that in these fields, authors are more often than not credited according to their contribution to the research, not according to the alphabetical ordering of surnames.  In the top 5 economics journals, multi-authored papers listed authors’ names alphabetically in 88% of instances while in the three disciplines listed above, names were listed alphabetically 40-50% of the time.

With a last name that starts with a Z, I’m pretty happy that I didn’t continue my alphabetically doomed career in academia.  Because that is what would have hindered my success in an academic career.


3 Comments on “Learn Some Economics: The Effects of Surname Initials on Academic Success”

  1. Melanie says:

    So interesting. Very much in the vein of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. According to Gladwell, date of birth can have a huge impact on your academic, athletic and social success in life. So though you were “disadvantaged” by your initials, you were ahead of most of us because you were born in January. It’s a really interesting book. I highly recommend it.

    PS. I always thought the mirror effect of your initials SZ was cool. 🙂

    • Sandra says:

      I referenced the birthdate/size discrimination discussed in Outliers the other day when discussing the name discrimination detected in this paper with a friend. They definitely are of a similar vein.
      I think in addition to being born in January, I was advantaged by having 3 brothers with whom I wrestled and played floor hockey, volleyball, and basketball while growing up (though not regularly).
      Thanks for reading, Mel!

  2. poy1 says:

    This was a great read! I’m not going to lie – I don’t usually have an interest in economics but I read your whole post 🙂

    Love the Gladwell book Outliers and your findings from the charts above are SO true. My initials are PY so I definitely relate to being picked last!

    I ran for student council in my last year of High School and I lost to someone who’s last name ranked almost half the alphabet higher!

    Upon further investigation, I noticed that ALL the winners that year were 1st on the ballot sheet! I still think that was the reason.. hahah!!


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