Wednesday, September 15, 2004

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The academic kingdom

Eugene Juan Non-Volokh reprints a Fabio Rojas e-mail that characterizes the different styles of legitimate academic work (as opposed to simple plagiarism):

During grad school, I discovered there were two modes of "legitimate" academic work: craftsman and bureaucrat. The craftsman worked alone, or with one or two colleagues, to carefully write papers and books. This is the "classic" scholar approach. When you think of a philosopher mulling over every turn of phrase or a historian carefully citing ancience documents, you are thinking "craftsman."

Much to my surprise, I also learned that a lot of scholars are "Bureaucrats": they have grants, research assistants and a large network of co-authors. This kind of scholar is more like an architect - he designs the overall project, but an army of helpers puts together the final project.

At first I was horrified, but I came to realize that some research has to be conducted in this fashion. You simply can't conduct national surveys all by yourself. At the Chicago Soc dept (where I got my Ph.D.) you had a lot of both. Sociology (and political science as well) produces research that requires huge team efforts as well finely crafted individual work. Lot of mass surveys/experiments as well as carefully argued social/political theory.

I also realized that big name scholars get their reputation by being brilliant craftsmen or by being extremely competent academic entrepreneurs. I grew up worshipping the craftsmen - Ron Coase is a great example - infrequent, but outstanding publications. But now I realize a lot of famous names only produce their quantity because they rely to heavily on assistants.

I don't have any problems with Rojas' two categories, except that they omit two other styles of (mostly) legitimate academic work that characterize a much larger fraction of the profession -- the Recycler and the Importer.

The recyclers are academics who come up with one big theoretical idea, and then try to use that idea to explain every possible phenomenon under the sun. If the idea is a good one, this can prove to be a very fruitful exercise in explanation, providing a sharp theoretical lens to examine puzzles that not been suitably explained. In economics, one could arguably make the case that this is how Gary Becker and Joseph Stiglitz earned their Nobels.

Of course, the problem with recyclers is that sometimes the idea isn't all that great -- and over time, fails to explain even the areas that originally inspired the academic. Alas, this is the more likely outcome for recyclers. The good scholars then go back to the drawing board and try to tweak their original idea, or come up with a new one. The bad ones -- well, they cling to their theories for dear life, often publishing the same idea over and over and over again. Even if the original idea has some merit, most academics recycle their ideas way past the point of diminishing marginal returns.

The Importer is the academic who engages in intellectual arbitrage. They develop an expertise outside their disciplinary boundaries, and then import the ideas, paradigms, and analytical tools culled from these outside areas to explain phenomenon within their discipline. Within political science, for example, most rational choice scholarship was imported from economics. The pioneers -- Anthony Downs, Thomas Schelling -- were economists.

As academic specialization increases, importers can serve a very useful purpose, ensuring that there is some diffusion of knowledge across the disciplinary fields. However, one could also argue that importers are not always discriminating in their tastes, leading to the spread of some dubious, non-falsifiable paradigms across the social sciences and the humanities.

Readers are invited to submit other legitimate styles of academic work -- "hack," "media whore," or "blogger" don't count.

(In next week's installment of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Academic Kingdom, Marlan Perkins and I will examine which of these species are carnivorous!)

posted by Dan on 09.15.04 at 11:15 AM


So, it's often the original "bad ideas" of stubborn Recyclers that get the less discriminating Importers in trouble?

posted by: wishIwuz2 on 09.15.04 at 11:15 AM [permalink]

What about Academic Hunter, where Aussie nutjob Steve Irwin runs around poking tenured professors with sticks, or grabbing them by the leg and twirling them around and around? When do we get to see that show?

posted by: Independent George on 09.15.04 at 11:15 AM [permalink]

How about something like "The Theocrat"? This academic develops (possibly through a "Bureaucrat" research process) a belief system which then not only infuses everything he, but also causes him to dismiss the work of others. Those other academics, he argues, are wrong and (1) need to study his work more; (2) haven't studied enough to realize he's right; and/or (3) have attempted to replicate his work but aren't skilled enough to do so.

Why yes, I do know one in my field -- why do you ask? :-)

posted by: Opus on 09.15.04 at 11:15 AM [permalink]

Oops -- that should read: "infuses everything he *does*"

posted by: Opus on 09.15.04 at 11:15 AM [permalink]

There are academics who dichotomise every variable and those who don't.

There are the professional righteous, angry academics in the ethnic studies departments (or alas, the poly sci departments), and lately there are the milquetoast self-hating whiteys in the 'critical whiteness studies' game.

posted by: stari_momak on 09.15.04 at 11:15 AM [permalink]

My area is economics, so my examples bear to that discipline, but I believe these categories have examples across the academic world, and are all legitimate approaches.

The Contrarian - The academic who sees a point of conventional wisdom and says "we'll see about that" and crafts studies specifically designed to disprove it, or find a loophole. Repeat for career, with different wisdoms. Paul Krugman springs instantly to mind (I can't imagine what his academic research could be construed as, other than an intentional attempt to find a flaw in the free trade argument), as do the pair who wrote the paper about monopsonies and minimum wages.

The Empiricist - The academic whose research interests are driven by the discovery of good datasets. He finds an interesting source of data, and asks himself "What can I do with this?", rather than having a theory, and seeking a good dataset. Many IO economists use this approach.

The Dilettante - The academic who enters a field, writes a paper or two which overturns the applecart of that field, and moves on, leaving chaos and disorder in his wake, never to write on this topic again. Intentionally or not, John Nash did this to economics.

The Compiler - the academic whose most important contribution is to assemble a textbook, which puts his field all in one place at the fingertips of his colleagues. Often this involves taking dense academic research done by others, and making it tractable. 15 editions later, he is universally cited as one of the Greats of his time. In Economics - Marshall and Samuelson. Jean Tirole in IO Economics.

These categories are not exclusive - a dilettante can be a contrarian, an empiricist can be an importer. Some categories are more common than others - having more than a few Compilers, for example, is counterproductive, but the more empiricists out there hunting data the better.

posted by: rvman on 09.15.04 at 11:15 AM [permalink]

Good analysis, but Recyclers don't have to be theoretical. In my field, computer science, a lot of Recyclers work by coming up with one large piece of difficult code and then reusing it indefinitely to generate papers. If you can write an unusual operating system, or a numerical library with a twist, or a virtual reality system with a couple new features, you can publish papers on the overall design, every detail of the implementation, and every application you can think of.

posted by: davis on 09.15.04 at 11:15 AM [permalink]

The charge of recycling is pretty weak in the case of Becker and absolute nonsense in the case of Stiglitz. Stiglitz made big contributions to capital theory and growth economics in the 1970s which had nothing to do with asymmetric information, and in any case, the various parts of his work which dealt with asymetric information (insurance markets, wage discrimination, neo-Keynesian macroeconomics) have very little similarity to one another in their modelling.

Similarly, Becker did not just recycle a single model. Unlike the hordes of Becker wannabes that used to pollute Chicago, he took a genuinely fresh approach to almost every problem; there is, once more, very little structual similarity between his work on addiction and his work on marriage.

posted by: dsquared on 09.15.04 at 11:15 AM [permalink]

Types of economists

Rudi was a very funny, colorful speaker of English, with a gift for offbeat but perfect turns of phrase. He had a classification system for economists, depending on their research style. "Goldsmiths" were careful, meticulous workers - which Rudi admired. "Pigs" just sort of jumped into an issue and wallowed around. But that was OK too, if it was done with sufficient vigor and originality. Rudi described Larry Summers as a "fearful pig" - and it was a compliment.

On the other hand, "plumbers" were economists who devised intricate contraptions with no clear purpose. I won't tell you who he described as "dreadful plumbers", but he was right.

Source: Remembering Rudi by Paul Krugman

posted by: Asif Dowla on 09.15.04 at 11:15 AM [permalink]

How's about the Acedemic Hustler.

posted by: NeoDude on 09.15.04 at 11:15 AM [permalink]


Academic Hustler

posted by: ChristianSoldier on 09.15.04 at 11:15 AM [permalink]

how about Fourth year who writes half of his B.A. in the last week before it's due?

any takers?

posted by: patrick on 09.15.04 at 11:15 AM [permalink]

During my time in academia, the two classes I noted were the Innovators and the Crowd-followers. I myself fell into a third group, too proud to follow the crowd but too limited to innovate -- call me an Academic Refugee.

posted by: kenB on 09.15.04 at 11:15 AM [permalink]

Good post, I've added a link to it from mine.

One correction: I'm Juan Non-Volokh (or JNoV, if you prefer), not Eugene.


posted by: Juan Non-Volokh on 09.15.04 at 11:15 AM [permalink]

I would also like to add Mercenary to the categories. Some so-called scientists will author papers to support the marketing claims of their sponsor. The book "trust us, we're experts" documented a number of these folks and how they managed to help industries muddy the water and prevent the public from reaching rational conclusions about things like: smoking, toxic chemicals, ddt, and climate change. If you hear the buzzphrase "responsible science," then you are listening to someone who wants you to stop thinking.

posted by: Peter on 09.15.04 at 11:15 AM [permalink]

There is an academic species that is very prevalent in second and third tier institutions of higher education. It is the much feared and highly exalted DoMaMeTh (Do not make me think) beast that obtained advanced degrees in very narrow esoteric realms fully rooted in sociopolitics rather than upon real disciplinary soil. These beasts dominate certain habitats in the humanities, social sciences and the arts. By reason of administrative pusilanimity and institutional fear of incorrect behavior these monsters have been hired and fed for the past 10 or so years and now are tenured members of faculty with license to gaze upon their navels and terrorized students with their fallacies. They lack thought process skills and speak in slogans and loud denunciations designed to induce fear and support their inviolability. Many of these beasts will amble around academic fields and swamps for 20 or so more years. Nothing kills them except isolation or a call to assume an endowed chair in Laputa.

posted by: Thaddeus on 09.15.04 at 11:15 AM [permalink]

I'm also in econ; here are some of the exotic subspecies in my department:

1. Laborius Dataminius: Takes a reduced-form model, wrings it through hundreds of specifications (LD is something of a computer jock), and reports the one he likes the best. Likely to confuse significance tests for tests of importance. Produces oceans of banal but harmless research using a common statistical package. "The coefficient on GRDBZQH!99 is positive and significant."

2. Econometricus Complicatus: Finds an asymptotically efficient way to compute an uninteresting maximum-likelihood model, and then takes an asymptotically large amount of computing power to compute this. "Hey, I've found another way to do a unit-root test!"

3. The Calligrapher: Game-theorists who use impossible-to-reproduce script letters at an alarming rate in order to make sensible ideas seem difficult. Also applies to some mathematical-finance folks. Extremely mathematical but somewhat hostile to quantitative thinking. "But the real world is just a special case."

4. The Theocrat: His views of the world freeze at the time that he gets tenure. Lester Thurow and JK Galbraith are particular vintage examples of this, as was Stigler on a bad day. Lots of old macroeconomists lapsed into this way of thinking while the rest of the field moved on. "So-and-so is the worst president in history, even worse than Buchanan and Pierce."

5. The Evangelist: Krugman in the 1990s, Gary Becker on a good day. Landsburg when he isn't that esoteric. Probably annoy people at dinner parties because economics is embedded in almost every conversation topic imaginable.

6. The out-of-power Politico: Writes an economics weblog that's 90% about politics, 5% about coffee, and 5% about economics. Could be a discouraged evangelist or a budding theocrat. Depending on the party in power, the country needs either a small tax increase or a small tax cut. The survival of the world depends on this.

7. The Business Economist: Finds the real world too interesting and too lucrative to miss out. Works 80-hour weeks and deals with clients who don't know the difference between real interest rates and nominal interest rates. Has a high tolerance for idiocy and manages to at least keep people from doing horribly stupid things.

posted by: Chris on 09.15.04 at 11:15 AM [permalink]

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