On the ethics of research cloning

Even though the Journal of Economic Perspectives recently went open access, a move the American Economic Association should be applauded for, I am still receiving physical copies. It is a nice journal to read while lounging in the garden or on a plane ride. The last issue has as usual a good set of interesting articles, including one I had reported on earlier when it was still a working paper. But while checking what I had said about it, I noticed something rather odd: the paper I discussed was ultimately published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. I had to investigate.

The two papers are by Bruno Frey, David Savage and Benno Torgler. They both report on the sinking of the Titanic and discuss the characteristics of the passengers who survived versus those who perished. Both papers come to the same conclusions. The texts are different, though, and the published regressions are slightly different, with no explanation why, because there is no reference to the other paper. One has therefore to read in much detail to understand what the contribution of each paper is, if there is any.

All this is very fishy. It really looks like the authors are playing games here, trying to get multiple publications out of the same work. They do not mention the other work to fool editors and referees into thinking these are original contributions, as required for any submission to those journals. They tweak the results and rewrite the text so that they cannot be accused of blatant self-plagiarism. This is unethical behavior, but it is not unheard of in the profession.

But like a late-night infomercial, there is a bonus. Looking at the author's CVs, I notice that they have a third publication with the same topic and results, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Bruno Frey has also published two short pieces in German in magazines prior to the academic publications: 1, 2, both pdf.

Now, who are the authors? David Savage is a PhD student at Queensland University of Technology. He must have been following orders of the more senior authors, either without realizing their unethical behavior or watching in horror and not being able to do something about it. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt. His adviser is Benno Torgler, who has already an impressive track record for someone whose first refereed publication was in 2002. His RePEc profile lists 105 working papers and 52 journal articles. Looking at the published works, it seems to like to revisit previous papers by adding new twists to them. Nothing wrong with that, but it may explain why there is no major hit in the publications. There is simply too much slicing and no single slice is a major contribution worth a good publication. But early in his career, he published a series of articles on tax morale using the World Values Survey. Using the same data and the same methodology, he managed to publish several articles whose distinguishing feature is only that they look at a different set of countries: Asia, transition countries, Canada, Latin America, and possibly more. While I must confess that I have not read the papers in detail, there is simply too much material, and Benno Torgler may be innocent, I still find these patterns very disturbing.

It took me some time to figure out where Benno Torgler earned his doctorate. It is at the University of Basel, under the supervision of René Frey (Basel) and Bruno Frey (Zurich), who are brothers, after undergraduate studies at the University of Zurich. Which bring us to Bruno Frey. He is a researcher of international recognition, mostly for his work on welfare economics, happiness research, and critiques of fundamental assumptions in economic models. He credits himself with over 600 published articles and books, an astounding number in Economics. Of course, if this number comes about by slicing papers or republishing known results as described above, this number is less surprising. Looking at his list of major articles, one can surely suspect something is not quite right. I do not have the time (or the will) to go all of this, but there is indeed a lot of rehashing the same themes, which is OK when one uses new data sets or new approaches. But seeing those quantities, that seem unlikely.

Another aspect that I find disturbing in Bruno Frey's record is that his recent work has been railing against the tendency of academics (and especially their administrators and grant makers) to look for quantifiable evidence of their productivity, what he calls "evaluitis." He writes against the pressure to publish and the prominence of rankings of research output. I have reported about some of this writing myself (1, 2, 3). But again he seems to be repeating himself a lot, even in published articles, essentially criticizing a game that he seems to be excelling at. Either he is sarcastic or hypocritical, I cannot decide.

I realize the accusations I am making here can have severe consequences. But I am only accusing, not condemning. I leave the reader the opportunity to make her own opinion, as I have linked to plenty of evidence. I hope to be proven wrong, that these three individuals are indeed extremely innovative and productive. But from what I have seen so far, my prejudice is strongly negative in this regard.

Update (Sunday): I have been alerted that there is a fourth publication about the same Titanic study, in Rationality and Study.

Further update: A follow-up post.

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