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Egalitarian Authorship | blog@CACM | Communications of the ACM


The order of names in academic papers is a frequent source of contention in disciplines where author order is supposed to provide hints about the author’s contribution to the underlying work. In some disciplines, the order gives precise indications of the roles and seniority among the party. In others, the convention is to follow alphabetic order on the surname, but still, some names come first.

Would there be a way to provide egalitarian authorship to papers? This task is not easy, since both anonymous authorship and collective authorship are often not welcome under publisher policies for authorship. In the case of ACM’s new policy for authorship, we quote: “Anonymous authorship is not permitted, although pseudonyms and/or pen names are permitted provided accurate contact information is given to ACM. ACM does not currently permit collective authorship.” Also, even if allowed, substituting the author list with a group name, or omitting it, is overkill when the aim is just to remove the order but keep the membership information.

Mathematically, we know the difference between an ordered sequence of names [“Camille Noûs”, “John Doe”] and an unordered set of names {“Camille Noûs”, “John Doe”}, but adding the set notation delimiters to the author list would hardly remove the subjectively perceived order. We do have tools that allow representing a set without exposing any order. One such tool is a Bloom Filter, obtained by hashing the set elements, independently k times, and obtaining coordinates on a 0-initialized bit array that are then updated to 1s. This results in a probabilistic data representation that can be queried for membership, although with some risk of false positives:

[0,1,0,1,1,0,0,1,0,0,1,1,1,0,1,0,0,1,1,0,0,0,1,0,1,0,1,1,0,1,0,1,0,0]

We would no longer see the names, and order is meaningless, but still it is not very practical to just print the bit string as the author. This could be made more human-friendly by creating a QR Code that bridges to a Web server that would interpret the posted bit string and answer author membership queries. If this had been the way to sign the still-anonymous Bitcoin paper (signed by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto), curious readers could at least try their guesses of potential authors and assemble a list of matching candidates.

There is a different way that does not require Web servers. An ingenious group of authors just came up with a radical and rather fun proposal that provides superimposed author stacks in LaTeX and other formats. Since I don’t want to assign any authorship order, I refer to them collectively as the Demaine Lineage—they are father and son. The proposal is titled “Every Author as First Author” and was presented at the informal MIT conference SIGTBD last April. The result is refreshing.

A close-up of a bookDescription automatically generated

 

The author list is typographically superimposed so that all authors get the same position, Ex Aequo. The paper provides an interesting and serious discussion of the problems around authorship order and comes with the macro definitions for LaTeX and BibTeX. It also suggests other unordered alternatives, such as arranging the visible names in a ring. Here, as they point out, there are interesting historical roots, as this was the approach used for groups of disgruntled subordinates to protest their leadership without exposing the identity of ringleaders. The image below from the British National Archives shows a sailor’s round robin letter addressed to a captain of one of the King’s ships, from the 17th century. (Round Robin apparently derives from the French term Rond Ruban, a round ribbon)

 

A close-up of a paper with writingDescription automatically generated

 

What is so far a fun experiment can still be a legitimate concern if we want to support groups that wish a more egalitarian approach to how group authorship is presented. Potential candidates are open letters, such as the recent call for a pause of giant AI experiments. The jury is still out as to what would be a practical approach to egalitarian authorship, and one that is acceptable under journal authorship guidelines.

 

Carlos Baquero is a professor in the Department of Informatics Engineering within the Faculty of Engineering at Portugal’s Porto University, and also is affiliated with INESC TEC. His research is focused on distributed systems and algorithms.


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