I received the following email from someone who’d like to remain anonymous:
Lately I [the anonymous correspondent] witnessed that Bruno Frey has published two articles in two well known referreed journals on the Titanic disaster that try to explain survival rates of passenger on board.
The articles were published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives and Rationality & Society. While looking up the name of the second journal where I stumbled across the article I even saw that they put the message in a third journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences United States of America.
To say it in Sopranos like style – with all due respect, I know Bruno Frey from conferences, I really appreciate his take on economics as a social science and he has really published more interesting stuff that most economists ever will. But putting the same message into three journals gives me headaches for at least two reasons:
1) When building a track record and scientific reputation, it’s publish or perish. What about young scholars that may have interesting stuff to say, but get rejected for (sometimes) obscure reasons, especially if you have innovative ideas that run against the mainstream. Meanwhile acceptance is granted to papers with identical messages in three journals that causes both congestion in the review procedures in biases acceptance, assuming that for two of three articles that are not entirely unique two other manuscripts will be rejected from an editorial point of view to preserve exclusivity by sticking to low or constant acceptance rates. Do you see this as a problem? Or is the main point against this argument that if the other papers would have the quality they would be published.
2) As an author one usually gets the question on “are the results published in another journal” (and therefore not original) or “is this paper under review in an another journal”. In their case the answer should be no for both answers as they report different results and use different methods in every paper. But if you check the descriptive statistics in the papers, they are awkwardly similar. At what point do these questions and the content overlap that it really causes problems for authors? Have you ever heard about any stories about double publications that were not authorized reprints or translations in other languages (which usually should not be problematic, as shown by the way in Frey publication list) and had to be withdrawn? Barely happens I guess.
Best regards and thank you for providing an open forum to discuss stuff like that.
I followed the links and read the abstracts. The three papers do indeed seem to describe similar work. But the abstracts are in remarkably different styles. The Rationality and Society abstract is short and doesn’t say much. The Journal of Economic Perspectives abstract is long with lots of detail but, oddly, no conclusions! This abstract has the form of a movie trailer: lots of explosions, lots of drama, but no revealing of the plot. Finally, here’s the PNAS abstract, which tells us what they found:
To understand human behavior, it is important to know under what conditions people deviate from selfish rationality. This study explores the interaction of natural survival instincts and internalized social norms using data on the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania. We show that time pressure appears to be crucial when explaining behavior under extreme conditions of life and death. Even though the two vessels and the composition of their passengers were quite similar, the behavior of the individuals on board was dramatically different. On the Lusitania, selfish behavior dominated (which corresponds to the classical homo economicus); on the Titanic, social norms and social status (class) dominated, which contradicts standard economics. This difference could be attributed to the fact that the Lusitania sank in 18 min, creating a situation in which the short-run flight impulse dominated behavior. On the slowly sinking Titanic (2 h, 40 min), there was time for socially determined behavioral patterns to reemerge. Maritime disasters are traditionally not analyzed in a comparative manner with advanced statistical (econometric) techniques using individual data of the passengers and crew. Knowing human behavior under extreme conditions provides insight into how widely human behavior can vary, depending on differing external conditions.
Interesting. My only quibble here is with the phrase “selfish rationality,” which comes up in the very first sentence. As Aaron Edlin, Noah Kaplan, and I have stressed, rationality doesn’t have to imply selfishness, and selfishness doesn’t have to imply rationality. One can achieve unselfish goals rationally. For example, if I decide not to go on a lifeboat, I can still work to keep the peace and to efficiently pack people onto existing lifeboat slots. I don’t think this comment of mine affects the substance of the Frey et al. papers; it’s just a slight change of emphasis.
Regarding the other question, of how could the same paper be published three times, my guess is that a paper on the Titanic can partly get published for its novelty value: even serious journals like to sometimes run articles on offbeat topics. I wouldn’t be surprised if the editors of each journal thought: Hey, this is fun. We don’t usually publish this sort of thing, but, hey, why not? And then it appeared, three times.
How did this happen? Arrow’s theorem. Let me explain.
One day in graduate school, my friend Tex asked me if I knew what Arrow’s Theorem was. I said, yeah, it’s something about the impossibility of a voting rule—No, he interrupted. Not that one. I’m talking about the other Arrow’s Theorem.
The other Arrow’s Theorem? What’s that, I asked. Tex replied: the theorem is that any result can only be published at most five times.
Hmm. I thought about this one for a bit, and then Tex interrupted me again, saying: That’s the weak form of Arrow’s Theorem.
I took the bait and asked, What’s the strong form?
Tex replied; The weak form of Arrow’s Theorem is that any result can be published no more than five times. The strong form is that every result will be published five times.
Fast forward a few years.
It’s 1995, and I’m wandering the fourth floor of Evans Hall in a daze, stunned that my colleagues have just voted by a 2-1 margin to kick me out of the statistics department. Various conversations from the previous few years came to mind: I gave one of my (non-Bayesian) colleagues a prepublication manuscript of Bayesian Data Analysis, and a couple days later he responded in a note that hierarchical models weren’t new, he’d used them back in the late 1940s when he did applied statistics . . . another colleague who, after I’d given an entertaining pre-election talk to the department in late October, 1992 (this being Berkeley and Bill Clinton being way ahead in the polls, it was a festive occasion), had cornered me and said that before seeing my talk he’d never realized how little there was to this political science stuff . . . and after that same talk one of my more applied (!) colleagues asking me why, since votes are discrete, I wasn’t using a discrete-data model such as a Poisson (and, no, he wasn’t persuaded by my argument that if you have 100,000 votes in a congressional district, it’s ok to model it as continuous) . . . and–and here’s the point of this particular digression–one of my more genial colleagues, who’d asked me about my work on monitoring convergence of iterative simulations. I assured him that the work was influential as well as innovative, to which he replied: But if it’s a good idea, why do you have only one paper on the topic? A good research project will have several papers . . .
I’m very happy in New York and wouldn’t trade my current life for anything, so Arrow’s theorem did me a favor. But still . . .
What’s happened since then? I never intend to publish the same thing over and over, but sometimes people ask me to write something for a journal, and I need to come with something . . . And sometimes you really do want to reach different audiences. I blog in 4 different places (here and the three “sister blogs” you see on the top of the blogroll here). I certainly don’t mind publishing blog entries in journals. Or, to take a more fully academic example, Jennifer, Masanao, and I are publishing our paper on multiple comparisons in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness: despite the obscure-seeming title, Jennifer assures me this is an influential venue. We’re also working on a related discussion paper for a statistics journal. Different audiences. For yet another example, I’m not the only researcher to get funding from multiple sources to do similar work. And I think this is ok (as long as I do the work!).
And consider George Orwell. He wrote the same thing over and over, hammering out his ideas in different low-circulation magazines. To write is to think.
To return to the articles by Frey et al. discussed at the beginning: Remember the strong form of Arrow’s theorem. Two more publications will come of this, for sure.
P.S. Just to clarify: No, I don’t think Bruno Frey did anything wrong.