Other disciplines don’t kid around about the ordering of authors in publications. In political science and economics, alphabetical or reverse-alphabetical ordering is the dominant approach, even though it distorts hiring decisions. In science, the first and last names matter – woe to the middle men! Harvard is so concerned about the trend that it instructs its faculty to “specify in their manuscript a description of the contributions of each author and how they have assigned the order in which they are listed so that readers can interpret their roles correctly [and] prepare a concise, written description of how order of authorship was decided.”
In law, lacking a tradition of co-authorship, there appears to be at best a weak norm that the first author is the primary contributor. That results in a set of interrelated problems:
1) To law audiences, the first author did the most work, and is rewarded in two ways. The first is qualitative, and pops up at tenure, promotion, and lateral review — “he was the driver on that piece,” or “she was just the second author.” Quantitatively, the bluebook foolishly permits multiple author works to be et al’d, meaning that the second through nth authors never get to see their name in the citation print. Given the rudimentary nature of impact citation analysis in the legal academy, this mean that people who are listed first get the citations and the people who aren’t don’t. This might be less troublesome if the “first author” norm was correct — that is, if first authors in law reviews actually did more work. But my bet is that given letter head bias, many co-authored pieces list as the first author the most prominent author (or at least the author at the best-ranked school). The upshot: first authors in law reviews are rewarded for being first in both qualitative and quantitative terms, though it’s not clear they ought to be.
2) To other disciplines, this is fundamentally screwy and is another reason not to publish in a law review. But interdisciplinary co-authored work published outside of the law reviews becomes that much more difficult as a result. If a law professor and a non law professor were to publish in an economics journal, my sense of the norm is to alphabetize. [Correct me if I’m wrong here.] Non legal audiences look at this and understand that it doesn’t signify relative contribution. Law audiences don’t have that filter on, and the result (again) is that the second author is punished, here for having a last name at the back of the alphabet.
3) Making sense of this mess requires coordination, which is quite hard because we lack a learned society that is sufficiently respected to impose change from above. We do have, however, a few very strong journals that have had remarkable success in changing otherwise intractable scholarly pathologies like article bloat. If the Harvard Law Review could -almost singlehandedly – impose a 25,000 word limit, surely it could fix this problem too. In my view, the top few journals (HYS) ought to, as a part of their blue-booking project, agree to impose something like the Harvard faculty author order guidelines on folks who are publishing joint projects in their pages. The default ought to be reverse alphabetical listing. Each article should state the respective contributions of the authors and, to the extent that they have deviated from the alphabet, why. Finally, HYS ought to reform the bluebook to insist that the first citation of any work include the names of all contributors to the piece, rather than permitting et al. treatment.