Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bruno Frey's academic utopia

Bruno Frey has fallen into disgrace these days as he has been shown to play dangerous games of self-plagiarism, submissions to multiple journals and hypocrisy in describing the perverse incentives facing researchers. I have argued recently that he is living in a bubble that has now popped.

Apparently not. With this wife Margit Osterloh, he just authored a paper about the impact of rankings on academic publishing. Their argument is that the current emphasis on rankings pushes academicians to privilege publication to science. They want to decouple funding, tenure and promotion from any evaluation metric. Rather, scientist should be carefully selected at their initial appointment and then be given guaranteed funding and only be asked to evaluate themselves. This strikes as a very utopian view of academia, and in particular a view that surprisingly ignores the impact of incentives on motivation. While the Frey and Osterloh utopia may yield in a few cases the expected very innovative researchers willing to take substantial risks along new paths, most would free-ride to a large degree. The best example of this is the French system of "research associates" on the national research foundation, who are appointed right after their doctorate for a lifetime position of researcher with no other significant duties. While this system has yielded some success stories, the research impact of these associates is rather dismal compared to researchers elsewhere who are subject to regular evaluations using publication metrics.

Reading through the paper, I could not resist to see the irony in many of the arguments, where Frey could be really writing about himself. A few quotes:
In academia, examples can be found (e.g. the ‘slicing strategy’) whereby scholars divide their research results into a ‘least publishable unit’ by breaking the results into as many papers as possible in order to enlarge their publication list.

Of course, Bruno Frey and his students are big specialists in slicing.
there is evidence showing that academics with the highest score in publication rankings score only modestly in a ranking based on their contributions in editorial boards (Rost and Frey, 2011).

Note that Frey was kicked off an editorial board for resubmitting a published paper elsewhere.
For example, a broad and international selection of reviewing peers is necessary in order to avoid cronyism.

Frey's colleague Ernst Fehr recently anointed one of his students with the most prestigious prize for an European economists. Frey and Osterloh argue that awards cannot be manipulated, while citations metrics can. I do not think this is true, in fact awards are easier to manipulate because they are determined by small committees. Citations come from the whole research community.
Another example is editors who encourage authors to cite their respective journals in order to raise their impact rankings

Frey requires this for acceptance in the journal he co-edits, Kyklos. At least, the paper does not mention self-plagiarism this time.

Is this paper a mea culpa? It certainly does not read that way. As in his previous writings on the publishing game, he comes across as someone about it all, who tell everyone how things should be while claiming the moral high ground. The paper was completed on August 24, 2011, thus well after all the conflagration about the hypocrisy of Bruno Frey, yet it does not show anything about it. Bruno Frey has not learned a thing. And, do you want to bet that he is submitting this to journal, taking away space that young researchers need to get publications for tenure, as he has argued before? In fact this particular paper would fit much as a blog post than into a journal.

Addendum: And they are doubling up with another paper, entitled "Input Control and Random Choice - Improving the Selection Process for Journal Articles" with the following abstract:
The process by which scholarly papers are selected for publication in a journal is faced with serious problems. The referees rarely agree and often are biased. This paper discusses two alternative measures to evaluate scholars. The first alternative suggests input control. The second one proposes that the referees should decide only whether a paper reaches a minimal level of quality. Within the resulting set, each paper should be chosen randomly. This procedure has advantages but also disadvantages. The more weight that is given to input control and random mechanism, the more likely it is that unconventional and innovative articles are published.

You read it right: instead of peer review, they advocate complete tyranny by editors who randomize over a select set or, alternatively, to decide early who is worthy publishing and then let the chosen few do as they wish. Which is how Bruno Frey and his lackeys have been operating. But at least Frey and Osterloh have had the decency to withdraw that last paper (which is why I print the abstract above).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For an overview of several cases of self-plagiarism by Frey et al. please see http://freyplag.wikia.com/wiki/FreyPlag_Wiki