The Bruno Frey Bubble

About four months ago, I reported about the apparent self-plagiarism by Bruno Frey, David Savage and Benno Torgler. I found the case particularly ironic, as Bruno Frey repeatedly wrote about the fact that the pressure to publish to get tenure can lead to scholar to unethical behavior, and about the lack of space in journals for young scholars to publish the articles needed for tenure.

The case has taken a much larger dimension now, as many more cases of self-plagiarism by Bruno Frey and his students have appeared (see many links in the comments on the post mentioned above). This raises two very important questions: 1) how could such a culture of self-plagiarism arise? 2) How could they get away with it for so long?

To answer the first question, I think we need to put Bruno Frey is the context of the German(-speaking) academic environment. At least in Economics and Business, the typical German professor publishes a lot of rather insignificant articles, in particular book chapters and "Festschrifts." These works are rarely original, and are not expected to be so. There is also a tradition of writing "educational" pieces that explain economic concepts, say the Edgeworth box or voluntary export restraints, for journals targeted towards professionals in industry and government (as well as students). Again, there is nothing original in there, except maybe the way something is explained.

Bruno Frey works within this paradigm. His work lacks creativity in the sense that he recycles a lot of his ideas for multiple publications, often copying extensively his own words. The differences is that he does that at a higher level than his German colleagues, in international journals that are actually read. And many of his original papers are in fact not that original it appears. If we take the Titanic paper as an example, the empirical exercise he performs is routinely done in undergraduate statistics classes with the same dataset. His contribution is pedagogical, he found a good and interesting way to explain something already present in the body of knowledge.

Like a bubble that keeps getting fed by self-fulfilling expectations, Bruno Frey built on his initial success and continued with this strategy and encouraged his students to do the same. And several of them have assembled remarkable portfolios that way. I mentioned that of Benno Torgler in my original post, but there are several others who got into positions that seem beyond the usual reach of a Swiss doctoral program.

There is another way in which this resembles a bubble. The Economics department at the University of Zurich has made considerable efforts over the past decade or so to become a program that can compete with the better departments in the world. It is certainly among the best in Europe. It did so by americanizing itself: dropping to a large extend the rigid chair structure so prevalent in German speaking universities, hiring internationally respect scholars and creating a proper PhD program with courses and exams. Bruno Frey has not followed this trend at all. In fact, he insisted on exempting his students from the course and exam requirements. The Frey group lives in a cocoon apart from the rest of the department, and lives entirely following the role model of Bruno Frey. Call this living in a bubble.

Or a cult. The interaction of Bruno Frey and his students is reminiscent of a prophet and his disciples who follow him everywhere and write down every word he utters. Well, I exaggerate somewhat, but this does definitely not look like a standard interaction between a mentor and his students. It looks like they follow him blindly, and with his everlasting confidence, he makes them follow his example in publishing.

But this bubble is now popping under the assault of widespread scrutiny from editors, the Economics community and an internal investigation at the University of Zurich. The second question of course is how it was possible for Bruno Frey to act so unethically for so long (he is 70). It appears that he has been caught in the past, but it never became public, or at least explicitly. For example, he has been booted out of an editorial board, but there was no mention of why, his name just disappeared from the list. Also, the journals he has been publishing in are often not prominent and thus not that well read. In fact, it looks like he targeted them so that the audience would not overlap, including editors and referees (the added bonus of this strategy that it satisfies the goal of increasing the pedagogical reach by reaching very different audiences).

Hiding this unethical may have been helped by the fact that Bruno Frey actually tried to present himself as an expert on publishing ethics in Economics. He has written about the perils of publication pressure and how this can lead to slicing papers into insignificant bits, to self-plagiarizing and other unethical behavior. He has complained loudly about the ranking craze which he has been so adept to exploit, both with his self-plagiarism and by requiring authors to cite other works in Kyklos to increase its impact factor. While he is certainly not the only editor to do so, it is ironic that he openly campaigned against such practices. Bruno Frey abused the moral high ground in which he pictured himself.

But as every lie that grows too big over time, this is unsustainable. And it will be less likely to happen in the future with initiatives like this one. Making this unethical behavior more visible will prevent it.

That said, self-plagiarism is not limited to the Bruno Frey group or German speaking economists. I will discuss soon another case that I find particularly enraging.

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