Publish And Be Damned

The A to Z of authorship: analysis of influence of initial letter of surname on order of authorship

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: (Published 22 December 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:1460
  1. Ruth Chambers, professor of primary care developmenta,
  2. Elizabeth Boath, heada,
  3. Steph Chambers (r.chambers{at}, pupilb
  1. a Centre for Health Policy and Practice, School of Health, Staffordshire University, Stafford ST18 0AD
  2. b Newcastle under Lyme School, Newcastle under Lyme ST5 1DB
  1. Correspondence to: R Chambers

    The initial letter of a surname is commonly used to distinguish an individual from a cohort of people, from school to academic level. Having a surname with an initial letter towards the end of the alphabet is regarded by some as a disadvantage; Larry Adler's grandfather, born Zelakovitch, changed his surname “after growing tired of being at the end of every queue.”1

    An ongoing debate concerns the value of authorship that does not “make clear who has contributed what to the published study, nor … clarify who is responsible for the overall content.”2 Some journals, for example the Lancet, require and publish authors' specified contributions. 3 4 The BMJ is not prescriptive, accepts both approaches, and points out that readers should infer nothing from the order of authors as indicated by the definition of authorship within the Vancouver guidelines, as conventions differ. 2 3

    The order of authorship, rather than contributorship, is commonly used to assess the prestige that an author incurs from a published research study; for instance in shortlisting candidates for interview. We aimed to determine whether the order of authors' names in published papers gives an unfair advantage to those whose surnames have an initial letter towards the beginning of the alphabet.

    Methods and results

    We included all BMJ editorials and articles (papers, general practice, information in practice, clinical review, and education and debate) with two or more authors published from 1 August 2000 to 31 July 2001. We excluded authors placed fourth or later. For each article we recorded the order of the authors according to the initial letter of their surname. Overall, we reviewed 550 articles and editorials, with 1456 authors (figure).


    Position of surname relative to coauthors according to initial, in papers and editorials from BMJ August 2000 to July 2001

    The figure shows the ranking of the authors by initial letter of surname. First authors were more common than second or third authors for nine of the 13 letters in the first half of the alphabet (A, E, F, G, H, I, J, L, M), but this applied to only two letters in the second half of the alphabet (P, Y). Although there is a high percentage of first authorships for those with surnames beginning with a Y, there were only seven authors in this category.

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    Having a surname with an initial letter at the beginning rather than the end of the alphabet seems to be an advantage for order of authorship in papers in the BMJ. Academics could follow the precedent set by Larry Adler's grandfather and consider changing their surname to enhance their likelihood of first authorship.

    Our results reinforce the current debate on the meaning of the alphabetical order of authorship, rather than contributorship. The BMJ advises authors that “authorship credit should be based only on substantial contribution to conception and design, or analysis and interpretation of data; drafting of the article and revising it critically [and] final approval” of the paper.2 Would it not be fairer for medical journals to publish a formula that links the order of authorship explicitly to the extent of contributorship, rather than rely on authors' informal decisions?


    Contributors: RC conceived the idea and design of the study, contributed to the interpretation of the data, and drafted the article. EB contributed to the design, led on the analysis, and critically revised the article. SC contributed to the design, collected the data, and approved the manuscript of the article. RC acts as guarantor for the paper.


    • Funding No external funding.

    • Competing interests None declared.


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