Academia

Arrow’s theorem update

Jul 12 '11

A few months ago I wrote about Arrow’s Theorem (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), using, as an example, four overlapping papers on the same topic published in different journals by economist Bruno Frey and his collaborators.

The papers were various reanalyses and interpretations of the well-known dataset of survival on the Titanic; see this comment by Antony Unwin for details.

In general I’m not opposed the multiple publication of overlapping material–as I noted in my blog (and my follow-up) on the topic, I think a bit of overlap is ok and can stimulate development and clarification of an idea.

Given all this, I was surprised to learn from this article by Olaf Storbeck that Frey might be disciplined for self-plagiarism:

On Wednesday, 6 July the University of Zurich has started a formal investigation against Frey, based on the “suspicion of unethical scientific conduct”. . . . Bruno Frey (University of Zurich), Benno Torgler (Queensland University of Technology) and Torgler’s Ph.D. student David Savage simultaneously published a series of papers dealing with the sinking of the Titanic, but neither cross-reference their own work nor cite a number of older papers by other researcher addressing exactly the same topic. . . . For several months the authors have been criticised because they simultaneously published nearly identical papers in four different journals without mentioning their other work on the same topic to the editors. This is a clear violation of the submission guidelines of the journals and economists consider this being unethical. The “Journal of Economic Perspectives” rebuked the authors publicly and will publish the conversation with Frey in its forthcoming issue. The editor of the JEBO apparently black-listed the authors with regard to further publications. . . . Frey, Torgler and Savage by no means have been the first economists who econometrically address the survival probabilities of the people sailing in the Titanic. At least five older publications with a very similar research outline and similar results exist [but were not cited by Frey et al.] . . .

In statistics the Titanic example is ubiquitous in textbooks, but when I’ve seen it, it’s usually been presented more as a fun example than a serious bit of social science. So I don’t really hold it against Frey et al. that they didn’t cite (or perhaps even read) various previously published analyses of the Titanic data.

One key question to me in the Frey case is the quality of the work. It’s not so easy to publish a paper in a top journal–let alone, 4 top journals. On the other hand, Antony Unwin wasn’t so impressed by the analysis (see link above), and I respect Unwin’s opinions and judgment.

P.S. Update here: Storbeck’s translation of an interview with Frey from a German-language newspaper.