Unusual advantages

November 17, 2016

“Myths about the impact of having a surname starting with a letter late in the alphabet have been debunked by a new analysis,” according to the article on Tolga Yuret’s study in Scientometrics (“End-of-alphabet surnames ‘do not harm careers’”, News, 2 November).

But what about unusual surnames? I’ve long noticed that there seem to be relatively fewer of the more common English-language surnames in academic texts’ author indices and bibliographies.

The five commonest surnames in the US and Britain (weighted for the respective population sizes at the turn of the century) are, in order, Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown and Jones.

Of the roughly 870 individuals who have won a Nobel prize to date, about 454 were born in Anglophone countries. If distributed proportionately, and using easily available statistics, one expects about 14 Nobel laureates to bear one of the above five surnames. In fact, only nine do; and excluding Literature and Peace as largely non-academic prizes, it falls to six, of which none are surnamed Johnson, Williams or Jones. This suggests, conversely, that less-common names are positively discriminated.

Even for my own citations, Harzing’s Publish or Perish shows almost 10 times the citations for me as “P Gwyn-Ellis” (peer-reviewed) as for the same number of my peer-reviewed papers going by the less unusual “P. G. Ellis” or Paul G. Ellis.

Unfortunately, my one attendance at a Nobel ceremony was only as a member of the audience (1972), so any effect of using an unusual surname is no guarantee of supreme academic success.

Paul G. Ellis (aka P. Gwyn-Ellis)
Business-school tutor and academic copy-editor
London and Chichester

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