The title of this post is a line that Thomas Basbøll wrote a couple years ago.
Before I go on, let me say that the fact that I have not investigated this case in detail is not meant to imply that it’s not important or that it’s not worth investigating. It’s just not something that I had the energy to look into. Remember, people can be defined by what ticks them off.
And now here’s the story. I got the following email from someone called Summer Madison:
I think this might interest you:
Hi, thanks for sending. Doesn’t quite seem like econ to me, except to the extent that econ is taken to include all causal inference for the social sciences.
Summer wrote back:
I was hoping you might consider posting on your blog re: the plagiarism issues raised by the article.
You might want to look at the link again — the paper is causing quite an uproar on EJMR.
I should add that if you read through the entire thread, you will see that a number of posters at EJMR have expressed the hope that you would comment on the plagiarism issues raised by the article.
“First, to the best of our knowledge, our study is the first to document a causal link between fetal stress exposure and mental health in later life.”
Also not cited but uses the exact same data set:
So the paper is promoted as a breakthrough in terms of new data and new question, but it is neither.
It looks pretty bad to me (but I have to admit that I did not look at the original articles, nor did I even read the whole Economics Job Rumors thread). So I’m making no statement on whether I think this really is plagiarism, how bad it was, what should be done about it, etc.
Instead I want to explore the question, Why to some cases of plagiarism or, more generally, unscholarly behavior, get me angry, while others amuse me, and others (such as the case above) don’t pique my interest at all?
These get me angry:
– That political scientist Frank Fischer who attacked the person who called him on his plagiarism.
– Matthew Whitaker, who ripped off the city of Chicago by selling them materials written by somebody else.
– Mark Hauser.
These get me amused/annoyed:
– Bruno “Arrow’s Other Theorem” Frey.
– That spy novelist who put together a book ripping off over spy novels.
This one I can’t quite bring myself to care about:
– The econ example above.
Why does this example not interest me? Maybe because it’s not in either of my main academic research fields (statistics or political science), it doesn’t have the amusing twist of the story of Frey (who, you might remember, had written a lot about motivations of researchers to cheat), and no monkeys were harmed during the course of the research.
I’m not saying my attitudes on these different cases are appropriate, and I’m certainly not trying to defend (or, in this case, adjudicate on questions of) unethical research practices. I’m just trying to give some sense of why I’m writing about some of them and not others.
Part of transparency is being open about what we decide not to write about.
P.S. I posted this awhile ago but it’s still not scheduled to appear for a few months. In the meantime I got an email from someone else which I’ll just append here:
Have you been made aware of the accusations of plagiarism of a forthcoming article by Petra Persson and Maya Rossin-Slater (PP-MRS) in the American Economic Review (AER)?
Retraction Watch has a story about the accusations
The article in question originally claimed to be the first to estimate the causal effect of maternal stress during pregnancy on the child’s mental health later in life. The paper is here
Some economists noted that this article was not the first to find such a link. How so? Scholars in medicine way back in 1978 already estimated this causal effect. Moreover, economists noted that a psychology study from 2011 also estimated this causal effect. This latter study used the same data set as the PP-MRS study.
PP-MRS responded by adding footnotes to the forthcoming AER paper, maintaining that their study is novel because it is the first to estimate causality, while the 1978 and 2011 studies merely estimate correlations.
Other economists have responded to this rebuttal with two critiques.
The first critique is by Brett Matsumoto, a research economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
This critique is formal and focuses squarely on the econometrics of the PP-MRS paper, casting doubting on PP-MRS’s claim to be the first to estimate a causal effect.
The second critique is a crowdsourced paper written by various anonymous economists writing under the pseudonym Nicolas Bearbaki (a play on ‘Nicolas Bourbaki’). The reason for the anonymity is for fear of professional retribution.
This critique is formal (less so than the Matsumoto paper), but is more blunt in its accusations against PP-MRS. This critique also mentions the editorial misconduct at the AER, as the handling editor (Hilary Hoynes, as mentioned in the Retraction Watch article linked above) is a recent coauthor of MRS. Such coauthorship is a violation of AER’s conflict of interest policy.
I, along with scores of economists in the shadows, would greatly appreciate if you could weigh in on this controversy. Many economists are scared to speak out against the AER, while many journalists generally do not understand the intricacies in estimating causal effects.
I responded that I don’t really have the energy to “weigh in on this” in the sense of looking at the details, but I’m happy to post something on it just to get the discussion out there. If the criticisms are indeed correct, I can really understand the frustrations out there.
P.P.S. This story continues to develop during the months between writing and posting. Today (1 Jul) I got another email from Summer Madison pointing me to this post from economist George Borjas who expresses concern about insider bias in the peer review process for the article in question.