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Tuesday, March 07, 2017

On Perverse Incentives and Replication in Science

Douglas Campbell:

On Perverse Incentives and Replication in Science: Stephen Hsu has a nice blog post on this topic. He writes about this common pattern:

1. Study reports results which reinforce the dominant, politically correct, narrative.
2. Study is widely cited in other academic work, lionized in the popular press, and used to advance real world agendas.
3. Study fails to replicate, but no one (except a few careful and independent thinkers) notices.

#1 is spot-on for economics. Woe be to she who bucks the dominant narrative. In economics, something else happens. Following the study, there are 20 piggy-back papers which test for the same results on other data. The original authors typically get to referee these papers, so if you're a young researcher looking for a publication, look no further. You've just guaranteed yourself the rarest of gifts -- a friendly referee who will likely go to bat for you. Just make sure your results are similar to theirs. If not, you might want to shelve your project, or else try 100 other specifications until you get something that "works". One trick I learned: You can bury a robustness check which overturns the main results deep in the paper, and your referee who is emotionally invested in the benchmark result for sure won't read that far. ...

Most researchers in Economics go their entire careers without criticizing anyone else in their field, except as an anonymous referee, where they tend to let out their pent-up aggression. Journals shy away from publishing comment papers, as I found out first-hand. In fact, much if not a majority of the papers published in top economics journals are probably wrong, and yet the field soldiers on like a drunken sailor. Often, many people "in the know" realize that many big papers have fatal flaws, but have every incentive not to point this out and create enemies, or to waste their time writing up something which journals don't really want to publish (the editor doesn't want to piss a colleague off either). As a result, many of these false results end up getting taught to generations of students. Indeed, I was taught a number of these flawed papers as both an undergraduate and a grad student.

What can be done? ...

    Posted by on Tuesday, March 7, 2017 at 11:23 AM in Academic Papers, Economics | Permalink  Comments (45)


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