Saturday, March 17, 2012

Bruno Frey: the epilogue?

A little less than a year ago, a controversy erupted about the publishing practices of Bruno Frey and his students. Indeed, they tend to repackage their research and submit it to multiple journals simultaneously (or sometimes successively), without cross-references and without alerting editors to this. This is in clear violation of the submission conditions of most academic journals and even goes against principles Bruno Frey has himself advocated in multiple (of course) publications: there is not enough space for everyone to publish on the one hand, and the pressure to publish leads people to (self-)plagiarize on the other hand. On his homepage, Bruno Frey crows about over 500 or 600 publications, depending on where you look, numbers that are completely surreal for any self-respecting academic economist.

The scheme blew in his face when some editors and some blogs started raising questions when very similar articles about the Titanic, with Benno Torgler and David Savage, appeared in four journals (some say there is even a fifth one in German, but I cannot verify). And the article was not even original, as a similar analysis was done and published 25 years prior and is now standard reading and exercise in statistics courses. Newspapers picked up the story, Frey went into denial but finally confessed to the editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, who published correspondence about the case and publicly admonished him for multiple submissions (he do not yet know about the prior literature). But that is only for this case, there are all the other ones. The University of Zurich, from where Bruno Frey recently retired, promised an investigation. That was sometime in the Summer. Since then, nothing.

One could suspect the University would do nothing, as Bruno Frey is the best ranked economist in German-speaking universities. And the prolonged silence clearly seemed to corroborate this. But rumors started circulating in the hallways, rumors that were not encouraging at all. But no evidence from Zurich.

Finally, I got good evidence from a reliable source. And it is indeed not encouraging. The University of Zurich mandated three prominent academics to look into the case. But the mandate was formulated in such a way that only the articles about the Titanic could be analyzed. The experts came to the obvious conclusion that unethical behavior was at play for this case. They could not mention the others and thus the University concluded that this was a one off miss-step. The University gave Frey a verbal admonishment, which does not go on his record, and did not release the report.

But this was not an one-off miss-step. Frey has been banned from the editorial board of Public Choice for a similar case of re-publication. He is by now banned from publishing in at least a half-dozen journals. To make matters worse, he has himself advocated to go against plagiarizers and others that unnecessarily take up valuable publication space. The investigation should have looked at his whole career, like when a scientist is suspected of fabricating data and all his publications are subject to scrutiny. And it is not like the information would be difficult to obtain, it is readily available and people have even compiled it, as documented in the FreyPlag Wiki.

For more about the case, you can read my past blog posts: 30 April 2011, 3 September 2011, 27 September 2011. Also, Olaf Storbeck's Economics Intelligence blog was the one that convinced the University of Zurich to finally (pretend to) act: 4 July 2011, 4 July 2011, 5 July 2011, 6 July 2011, 7 July 2011, 9 July 2011, 20 August 2011, 29 August 2011, 12 September 2011


Anonymous said...

Typical swiss hypocrisy.

Kansan said...

That was unfortunately to be expected. Frey was too prominent and important for the University of Zurich.

Keep pressing.

Anonymous said...

Since Frey is above the retirement age for swiss public servants his contract had to be renewed every year or so. As far as I can tell Frey had no intention of retiring but rather his contract was not renewed by the department.

Anonymous said...

Confirmed. This seems pretty harsh punishment. Frey asked for his contract to be renewed and the department declined. They essentially fired him. Not sure what part of this is disappointing (for anyone but Frey).

Anonymous said...

Zurich still tried to hide the fact that Frey was a serial offender. Zurich made no announcement about the report. And Frey is claiming he was not punished (I saw a recent email from him).

I applaud Economic Logician for bringing this to light.

Anonymous said...

Bruno Frey also has an appointment with the Warwick Business School, which WBS is touting regularly. Anything happening there?

Anonymous said...

Does anyone really believe that Bruno Frey is unique? I would argue that examination of "outlier" publication numbers for professors/scientists in any discipline would reveal similar occurrences.