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.

Real-Time Debates

I made this piece a standalone contribution instead of a comment to Tiago’s post on Blogs, mainly for its length and for increased visibility (see why below). As Tiago points out, “most of the action in blogs happens tucked away in the comments sections” and their “social/collaborative dimension is the one with the greatest potential to change, to improve and to make a profound intellectual impact.” I agree, but let me stress that their social/antagonistic dimension must not be underplayed. After all, who doesn’t love a heated economic squabble? The progress of economics has been marked by debates about mercantilism, socialist calculation, marginalism, monetarism, rationality assumptions…

Blogs empower (almost) real-time debates. (For the sake of comparison: though Mises’ 1920 seminal article surely received early responses, Lange’s challenge came in 16 years later, and Hayek’s contributions to the socialist calculation debate went on well into the 60’s.) Of course, debates can linger on for years even in the digital arena, too. And, at any rate, debates do not simply pop up because there is a convenient way to debate (though that helps).

All this lengthy introduction to make just two points:

i) Indeed, blogs should be better (understood and then) valued for their contribution to the advancement of the discipline. Yet, I agree with Tim Kane that “it’s still probably not advisable for graduate students or junior faculty to blog instead of focus on tenurable research … for now”.

ii) There should exist some way to transfer the livelihood of blogs and real-time debates into academic journals. In fact, there exists one I know of. So, the increased visibility of a standalone post is to promote a brand new graduate journal: the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics.

ejpe-logo-300x161The only thing graduate about the journal is that the three editors (Tyler DesRoches, Luis Mirels-Flores, and Tom Wells) are graduate students at EIPE. Other than that, it is an extraordinary product of the highest academic standards… with several extras:

* Aris Spanos’ ten pages worth of fierce reviewing/bashing of McCloskey and Ziliak’s latest book on statistical significance. And, of course, the even fiercer fighting back of the authors.

* Maurice Lagueux’s provocative dissecting of Don Ross’ new book on microexplanation, with Don Ross’ own reply.

* Cristina Marcuzzo’s inaugural address as this year’s President of the European Society for the History of Economic Thought.

* An underrated means for conveying histories, stories, and ideas: an interview with Uskali Mäki.

* Summaries of recent PhD dissertations in the history and philosophy of economics.

… and much more.

I followed closely the early developments of the journal, but I admit to not having seen coming anything this good, really. If you think this is petty marketing, be informed that the entire EJPE project is open access. So, stop reading this already, and go take a look at the first issue.

Professional Association for Kids

I come to this distinguished readership begging for inputs and advice.

I was recently appointed as a board member of a professional association (for the history of economics) in representation of the interests and needs of its younger members. Though obviously the young members of that association could have shown much better judgment, now it is too late for correcting that failure, and I need to take action in the pursuit of their/our interests.

So, what are the needs and interests of young historians of economics? When I think of it, I often feel that what I need most is to be listened to and taken seriously. And this is precisely what I intend to do first: listen to the requests and proposals of the young members and take them very seriously. But, however noble such attitude may sound, there are many more and far more practical tasks to be attended to.

In my first round of proposals, I suggested to:

* set up the association’s blog – need I refer to the main source of inspiration for that idea?

* organize professional training workshops for the young – to openly deal with questions such as “how to referee a scholarly paper” or “how to prepare a class/course”. These are central professional skills for academics, and yet we only learn them indirectly, by imitation and trial-and-error, but I believe we could make use of direct instructions as well.

* start a regular newsletter with job openings, conferences, and such useful information – requested by another young member of the association.

* get the working paper series started – I proposed it a few years ago, it’s been launched, but has been lying dormant ever since.

* find some publication outlets for the best papers presented at the annual conference by the young members. (We also thought about prizes – as in monetary prizes – for the best papers and dissertations, but this will ultimately depend on the health of the association’s wallet.)

* expand the association’s network, both nationally and internationally: more exciting colleagues plus more exciting papers equals more fun… ehm, I mean, professional growth – suggested by a senior board member.

As for you, dear readers of this blog, what do you think a professional association could/should do for its younger members?

The 44th American President

As Obama becomes the new President of the USA, I happen to wonder what has happened to the political orientation of our profession.

George Stigler (1959: 524) argued that economists are conservatives “in the sense of being hostile to an increasing number of innovations in economic policy.” But the pie-chart below suggests that we no longer are so hostile. The question is then: why?capturedata78

Leaving aside the quite likely possibility that the survey (by econ4obama.blogspot.com) was biased, if economists have embraced ‘change we need,’ does it mean that (i) we do need the change,  (ii) economists have realized that we do need it, (iii) economists are so honest that they admit we need it, (iv) economists agree with the majority of the American laypersons?

Let’s play along and imagine that the answers to the four quesitons were yes-yes-yes-yes. Which ‘yes’ would be the most surprising?