The Editor’s Curse

I’ve never been especially supportive of the attempt to describe academic professions by means of the market metaphor, which seems to me too narrow a frame. However, a recent piece by Neal Young, John Ioannidis, and Omar Al-Ubaydli caught my attention. They argue that – just like the winning bidder at an auction – the editors of scientific journals may be over-betting.

The average bid in an auction is likely to get close to a reasonably ‘true’ value. However, accurately predicting the value of a good affords no reward, because it is not the average bidder who wins. ‘The Winner’s Curse’ is a catchphrase suggesting that the winning bid in an auction must come from the bidder who holds the highest expectations about the present value of a good of uncertain value – which is very likely to be too high.

In Young et al.’s paper such good of uncertain value is ‘scientific information’. They suggest that the more trials and repetitions have been conducted for a scientific study, the more likely it is that the scientific community comes to an agreement about its ‘true’ value. As in the auctions, however, these are not the results that get published in top-tier journals. Instead, editors may be biased to grant preferential publications to “extreme, spectacular results”. Regrettably, these results turn out to be ‘false’ all too often. Young et al. report that, of the 49 most-cited papers on the effectiveness of medical interventions published in top journals in 1990–2004, 25% of the randomized trials and 83% of the non-randomized studies had already been contradicted by 2005.

Given the artificial scarcity of good publication outlets, and the large supply of scientific papers, the market for scientific information is bound to fail. Oligopolistic editors serve as middle-men between the producers (scholars) and the consumers (other scholars, funding bodies, society-at-large) and bear minimal costs for their failure to select valuable scientific information. The curse, in other words, befalls the consumer. Who is, let me add, either in a weak position to fight back (if she is not a scholar herself and so suffers from asymmetric information) or in a conflict of interest (if she is a scholar).

The authors conclude that “there is a moral imperative to reconsider how scientific data are judged and disseminated”. Since when do market failures entail moral indignation? Perhaps this owes to the fact that only Al-Ubaydli is an economist, while Young and Ioannidis Medical Doctors and that the article has appeared on a medical journal.

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