I am currently doing a Ph.D. in Theoretical Computer Science, and any research paper I encountered so far has the author's names in alphabetical order of their surnames.

For example consider the most fundamental book on algorithms: "Introduction to algorithms" by Thomas Cormen, Charles Leiserson, Ronald Rivest, and Clifford Stein.

Also consider the book: "Parameterized Algorithms" by Marek Cygan, Fedor V. Fomin, Lukasz Kowalik, Daniel Lokshtanov, Dániel Marx, Marcin Pilipczuk, Michal Pilipczuk and Saket Saurabh

Basically take any paper in the TCS domain, all follow this pattern. This pattern is not followed in other domains where the authorship is decided based on the individual contribution of the authors. In other words, a person having the most contribution to the paper is given the first authorship. Likewise, a person with less contribution would have his/her name appear later in the list of authors.

This scenario is worrying for me for a long time now. Suppose if I am the person who did most of the work and my name appears at the last, then I would be considered a bad researcher by the people of other domains. Also, a university or company would be reluctant to hire me based on my last authorships. And if I do not follow the norms, I would be judged by my fellow researchers and the TCS community.

I consider this norm, fundamentally flawed. Can somebody provide a good reason as to why such a norm is followed in the TCS domain?

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    $\begingroup$ I once overheard (not by choice -- it was in my office) a lengthy argument among co-authors regarding the name order on a non-theory paper [not one I was involved in]. It was then that I truly began to appreciate the TCS convention. $\endgroup$ – Aryeh May 26 '20 at 20:17
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    $\begingroup$ "This pattern is not followed in other domains where the authorship is decided based on the individual contribution of the authors." You probably mean in computer science because definitely in mathematics authors are listed by their last names. $\endgroup$ – A.2 May 27 '20 at 4:39
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    $\begingroup$ "Suppose if I am the person who did most of the work and my name appears at the last, then I would be considered a bad researcher by the people of other domains." It is very highly likely that your work will be judged by theory people who are already aware of this convention. Even if it is not the case then you can just explain the convention to the people you care about. $\endgroup$ – A.2 May 27 '20 at 4:43
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    $\begingroup$ Finally, I think it is a good idea because often results in theoretical grows out of long discussions involving more than two people and it is not always easy or possible to disentangle and rank everybody's contributions. $\endgroup$ – A.2 May 27 '20 at 4:47
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    $\begingroup$ You just write in the beginning of your list of publications something along the lines of "In theoretical computer science, most papers use the convention that the co-authors are listed in alphabetical order." Then also people from other fields know how to interpret it. $\endgroup$ – Jukka Suomela May 27 '20 at 16:39

The American Mathematical Society has released a statement (pdf link) about the commonly accepted practice of listing authors in alphabetical order in mathematics. Their reasoning applies, in my opinion, to TCS as well.

This kind of theoretical research is often done in small groups of 2-5 people. In close collaboration it can be difficult to determine who came up with which idea and/or whose ideas are more important for the main results. Using the alphabetical order lets us circumvent arguments about it and default to "everyone contributed equally", which is often (but not always) more or less the case anyway. It's also easy to explain to non-mathematicians by e.g. showing the above statement. When you apply to math/TCS positions, the hiring committee will be aware of this convention and won't hold your last name against you. My impression is that researchers in fields close to math/TCS tend to know about it as well.

In biology and other fields where research is based on experiments, papers are written by large groups whose members have distinct roles. A professor has an idea and obtains funding, one researcher designs the experiments, some lab assistant runs them, someone else analyzes the results, others write the paper. In this context it makes more sense to differentiate the authors by their contribution.

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    $\begingroup$ @Inuyashayagami It is not "first authorship", it is "co-authorship". The whole concept of "first author" doesn't exist here. $\endgroup$ – Jukka Suomela May 27 '20 at 21:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Inuyashayagami Since the entire field of TCS orders authors alphabetically, there's no such thing as "first authorship" that you're being denied. All authors are treated as equal. This may feel unfair to you if you actually did most of the work, but at least being the last author is no worse than being first. Also, your advisor's contribution may be difficult to quantify. If they gave you a carefully chosen research problem to work on, guided you in the right direction at the beginning, and then helped with proof checking and writing, that's already quite a bit. $\endgroup$ – Ilkka Törmä May 27 '20 at 21:38

In theoretical computer science (and mathematics), there is also the issue that the work develops and heavily changes over time:

  • You state and prove a lemma.
  • After one week, the lemma has become irrelevant since one of your co-authors has proved a much stronger statement.
  • After one week, this much stronger statement also has become irrelevant since the structure of the entire approach has been simplified by another co-author.

So the individual steps that the research has taken are not necessarily visible in the final paper. How do you want to assign credit to the various co-authors? How do you want to rank them? Should only authors be listed who have contributed something that explicitly shows up in the final version?


Because in a good collaboration, the total contribution of the individual authors exceeds in total a 100%, at least emotionally. All authors should feel it is their paper. If you start ordering authors by other means, then you have to start ranking the contribution of authors - which is a big can of worms that nobody wants to handle (because agreeing on ranking among people is impossible, see Arrow's theorem).

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    $\begingroup$ While this is true, and a good reason, I think it does not really explain why the norms of our community differ from other communities. Because I think what you say is true in every field, (that is, the conditional: IF a collaboration is good THEN ...) yet in all other fields except math, they choose to open that can of worms. :shrug: $\endgroup$ – Joshua Grochow Jun 17 '20 at 23:42

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