A few weeks ago the following came in the email:
Dear Professor Gelman,
I am writing you because I am a prospective doctoral student with considerable interest in your research. My name is Xian Zhao, but you can call me by my English name Alex, a student from China. My plan is to apply to doctoral programs this coming fall, and I am eager to learn as much as I can about research opportunities in the meantime.
I will be on campus next Monday, September 15th, and although I know it is short notice, I was wondering if you might have 10 minutes when you would be willing to meet with me to briefly talk about your work and any possible opportunities for me to get involved in your research. Any time that would be convenient for you would be fine with me, as meeting with you is my first priority during this campus visit.
Thanks you in advance for your consideration.
To which I’d responded as follows:
Hi, I’m meeting someone at 10am, you can come by at 9:50 and we can talk, then you can listen in on the meeting if you want.
And then I got this:
Dear Professor Gelman,
Thanks for your reply. I really appreciate your arranging to meet with me, but because of a family emergency I have to reschedule my visit. I apologize for any inconvenience this has caused you.
OK, at this point the rest of you can probably see where this story is going. But I didn’t think again about this until I received the following email yesterday:
Dear Professor Gelman,
A few weeks ago, you received an email from a Chinese student with the title “Prospective doctoral student on campus next Monday,” in which a meeting with you was requested. That email was part of our field experiment about how people react to Chinese students who present themselves by using either a Chinese name or an Anglicized name. This experiment was thoroughly reviewed and approved by the IRB (Institutional Review Board) of Kansas University. The IRB determined that a waiver of informed consent for this experiment was appropriate.
Here we will explain the purpose and expected results of this study. Many foreign students adopt Anglicized names when they come to the U.S., but little research has examined whether name selection affects how these individuals are treated. In this study, we are interested in whether the way a Chinese student presents him/herself could influence the email response rate, response speed, and the request acceptance rate from white American faculty members. The top 30 Universities in each social science and science area ranked by U.S. News & World Report were selected. We visited these department websites, including yours, and from the list of faculty we randomly chose one professor who appeared to be a U.S. citizen and White. You were either randomly assigned into the Alex condition in which the Chinese student in the email introduced him/herself as Alex or into the Xian condition in which the same Chinese student in the email presented him/herself as Xian (a Chinese name). Except for the name presented in the email, all other information was identical across these two conditions.
We predict that participants in the Alex condition will more often comply with the request to meet and respond more quickly than those in the Xian condition. But we also predict that because the prevalence of Chinese students is greater in the natural than social sciences in the U.S., faculty participants in the natural sciences will respond more favorably to Xian than faculty participants in the social sciences.
We apologize for not informing you that were participating in a study. Our institutional IRB deemed informed consent unnecessary in this case because of the minimal risk involved and because an investigation of this sort could not reasonably be done if participants knew, from the start, of our interest. We hope the email caused no more than minimal intrusion into your day, and that you quickly received the cancellation response if you agreed to meet.
Please note that no identifying information is being stored with our data from this study. We did keep a master list with your email address, and a corresponding participant number. But your response (yes or no, along with latency) was recorded in a separate file that does not contain your email address or any other identifying information about you. Please also note that we recognize there are many reasons why you may or may not have responded to the email, including scheduling conflicts, travel, etc. An individual response of “yes” or “no” to the meeting request actually tells us nothing about whether the name used by the bogus student had some influence. But in the aggregate, we can assess whether or not there is bias in favor of Chinese students who anglicize their names. We hope that this study will draw attention to how names can shape people’s reactions to others. Practically, the results may also shed light on the practices and policies of cultural adaptation.
Please know that you have the right to withdraw your response from this study at this time. If you do not want us to use your response in this study, please contact us by using the following contact information.
Thank you for taking the time to participating in this study. If you have questions now or in the future, or would like to learn the results of the study later in the semester [after November 30th], please contact one of the researchers below.
Xian Zhao, M.E. Monica Biernat, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology Department of Psychology
University of Kansas University of Kansas
Lawrence, KS 66045 Lawrence, KS 66045
“Thank you for taking the time to participating in this study,” indeed. Thank you for not taking the time to proofread your damn email, pal.
I responded as follows to the email from “Xian Zhao, M.E.” and “Monica Biernat, Ph.D.”:
No problem. I know your time is as valuable as mine, so in the future whenever I get a request from a student to meet, I will forward that student to you. I hope you enjoy talking with statistics students, because you’re going to be hearing from a lot of them during the next few years!
I guess the next logical step is for me to receive an email such as:
Dear Professor Gelman,
A few weeks ago, you received an email from two scholars with the title, “Names and Attitudes Toward Foreigners: A Field Experiment,” which purportedly described an experiment which was done in which you involuntarily participated without compensation, an experiment in which you were encouraged to alter your schedule on behalf of a nonexisting student, thus decreasing by some small amount the level of trust between American faculty and foreign students, all for the purpose of somebody’s Ph.D. thesis. Really, though, this “experiment” was itself an experiment to gauge your level of irritation at this experience.
In all seriousness, this is how the world of research works: A couple of highly-paid professors from Ivy League business schools do a crap-ass study that gets lots of publicity. This filters down, and the next thing you know, some not-so-well-paid researchers in Kansas are doing the same thing. Sure, they might not land their copycat study into a top journal, but surely they can publish it somewhere. And then, with any luck, they’ll get some publicity. Hey, they already did!
Good job, Xian Zhao, M.E., and Monica Biernat, Ph.D. You got some publicity. Now could you stop wasting all of our time?
Thanks in advance.
P.S. In case you’re wondering, the above picture (from the webpage of Edward Smith, but I don’t know who actually made the image) was the very first link in a google image search on *waste of time*. Thanks, Google—you came through for me again!
P.P.S. No, no, I won’t really forward student requests to Zhao and Biernat. Not out of any concern for Z & B—perhaps handling dozens of additional student requests per week would keep them out of trouble—but because it would be a waste of the students’ time.
P.P.P.S. When I encountered the fake study by Katherine Milkman and Modupe Akinola a few years ago, I didn’t think much of it. It was a one-off and I didn’t change my pattern of interactions with students. But now that I’ve received two of these from independent sources, I’m starting to worry. Either there are lots and lots and lots of studies out there, or else the jokers who are doing these studies are each mailing this crap out to thousands and thousands of professors. But, hey, email is free, so why not, right?
P.P.P.P.S. I just got this email:
Dear Dr. Gelman,
Apologize again that this study brought you troubles and wasted your valuable time. Sincerely hope our apology can make you feel better.
I appreciate the apology but they still wasted thousands of people’s time.