Upshot extra: referencing studies is tricky

One of the small, but important, decisions I have to make when writing Upshot posts is how to reference an academic paper. What do I call this thing to which I’m linking?

Here’s the deal: People really like to see their work in The New York Times. I get it. I like it too! It’s a sign that the work is important. The organizations with which one is affiliated care about that. It’s good publicity, especially if they’re named.

Readers want to know what kind of person the researcher is: Is he a law professor? Is she an economist? Who are you talking about, Austin?

I want everyone to be happy (why not?), but getting all of that information for all authors — names, affiliations, titles, etc. — into a piece is not so simple. Imagine:

A study by Marie Curie, a physicist and chemist at the University of Paris, Albert Einstein, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., Paul Erdős, an itinerant mathematician, Jonas Salk, a physician at the University of Pittsburgh, Adam Smith, an economist at Glasgow University, Issac Newton, a physicist at Cambridge University, and Alan Turing, a mathematician at Manchester University found that …

Even if that very long handle for a paper works upon first introduction — and I don’t think it would — it will absolutely not work for subsequent references.

I need short handles. “Curie et al.” — prominently featuring the first author — would be the typical academic citation. (Side note: I see that the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law now uses full names: “Marie Curie”.) Consequently, I often write things like, “University of Paris physicist and chemist Marie Curie and colleagues” for the first reference and “Ms. Curie’s study” for subsequent ones. (Over at JAMA Forum, they require titles to be listed, so you see things like “Marie Curie, M.A.”*)

This throws a lot of recognition to Marie Curie and the University of Paris but to no other individuals or institutions. Is that fair?

No! Things are never fair. However, if Ms. Curie is first author because it is her study, on which she did most of the work, and those other guys helped, but not much, then it’s arguably as close to fair as I can make it, given the constraints.

But, what if the order of authors does not reflect whose study it is or how much work they did? In this case, for instance, they’re ordered alphabetically. It’s possible contributions were about equal across collaborators.

This is the situation for the paper I highlighted in my Upshot post that appears today. My original draft referenced it as a study by “University of Chicago economics professor Eric Budish and colleagues.” In a phone conversation with the authors, I learned that he’s first author only due to his good fortune of working with colleagues with names further along in the alphabet. In the revision, all the authors get a mention. However, it turned into “Ms. Williams’ study” because I thought that readers would like to know that she won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. The authors felt that was fine. (I’d not have done it if they didn’t say so.)

All of this came to mind when I saw Justin Wolfers’ post about coverage of the recent Case-Deaton paper, for which Anne Case is the lead author.

Slate’s David Plotz described the research as having been written by “Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton and Anne Case, who is his wife, and also a researcher.” Likewise, Ross Douthat, writing in The New York Times Sunday Review, described this as research by “Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton and his wife, Anne Case.”

Did I fall into the same trap? I highlighted the award-winning author, so I’m guilty, maybe (?). I didn’t highlight the apparent lead author (for good reason, though). I didn’t bias my highlighting toward a man over a woman, so good for me (?).

Apart from judging my own performance, this just further illustrates how tricky a thing short-handle citation can be. It’s never fair!

Dan Diamond had a very good take on this matter.

I reached out to both Anne Case and Angus Deaton. (Starting with a note that began “Professors Case and Deaton – Good morning!”) I even remember deliberately typing out their email addresses in that order, to make sure I was reflecting authorship. [Side note: I also take care to list email addresses in status or ownership order, when I can. Either Dan and I are both weird in this way or we’re both geniuses.]

But only Deaton responded. And because only his comments found their way into my article, I focused more on Deaton’s role as a result.

This is a useful consideration. Very often one individual (other than me) provides a lot more input into my Upshot pieces than any others — either tipping me off to research papers or providing expertise as a reviewer of a draft. Thanks to Dan, when that happens, I now make sure to cite them by name (if they’ve done some relevant work I can use), even include a quote if it makes sense (and they wish to participate in that way). I worry less about naming other, less instrumental authors in work I cite, especially that which I cite in passing (that isn’t the centerpiece of a post).

I’d like to throw credit to everyone and every organization, but it’s just not feasible. Faced with constraints, I should at least mention those who have been most helpful and responsive. There’s not always a right way to do this, even if there are some clear wrong ones.

* Searching, I could only find reference to Marie Curie’s master’s degree in physics. If she holds other degrees, someone point me to a reference please!


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