Art Carden  

Caveat Emptor: Will The Buyer Be Caught?

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An economist who has published in the American Economic Review has written a paper that s/he thinks is his/her best work--estimating a probability of 1/3 that it lands in the AER. The anonymous author is offering to sell the paper to an anonymous bidder, make requested revisions, and presumably see the paper through to publication (here is Alex Tabarrok with more).

I wonder who will be tempted to bid on this and whether they might ultimately be caught. Presumably, grad students and early-career assistant professors already have a fairly well-defined research agenda. Especially as this story disseminates through the profession, I suspect a lot of people--dissertation advisers, friends, co-authors--might be suddenly suspicious of an AER-quality manuscript appearing among a young scholar's works (unless said scholar decided, perhaps wisely, to sit on it for a while).

Bidders would also be taking a risk given that the paper would be outside a prospective bidder's field. I have written pretty widely, but people would be justly suspicious if I suddenly posted an AER or QJE-quality macro paper on my website. Ethics aside, I don't think it would make sense for me to bid. I had one paper make it as far as the referees at the QJE before it was rejected, but I haven't actually published in any of the super-top journals. It's not very likely that the paper is in one of my areas, so it would probably send up a huge red flag if I, a professor at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama (not Stanford University in Palo Alto, California as some people think unless I'm very careful about enunciating the first syllable in "Samford") were to suddenly "produce" a piece of AER-quality scholarship that, in all likelihood, isn't related to the rest of my research agenda. I would essentially be bidding for reading material, but if I want AER-quality reading material, I can just read the AER.

Again, cast ethics aside. In this case, who should bid?

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CATEGORIES: Labor Market

COMMENTS (11 to date)
Patrick L writes:

"The paper is applied micro". Applied micro is pretty broad, but that should knock a few faces down on the Guess Who board right? I'm sure that in the bidding process you could get a tiny bit more info to see if it's relevant, assuming you made a serious offer.

Perhaps AER should bid for it, using some sort of kickstarter method, since if the paper is clearly an advancement of the science, it should be sold to the community for whatever its actually worth. Though perhaps that creates perverse incentives.

Phil writes:

If I were buying that paper, I'd redo the research and rewrite it myself. That way, I have full records that it's my own work.

Really, aren't you just buying the idea? Replicating someone else's work should be easy and untraceable.

Maximum Liberty writes:

I like this theory:

It seems everyone assumes that this is:

(a) a real offer;
(b) a troll of some kind; or
(c) possibly including an experiment.

I'd like to add a possibility to the mix. Maybe the OP believes that someone is selling a paper that is likely to be submitted to top journals and objects to it. Can you think of a better way to attract scrutiny to submissions? It neatly avoids the problem of accusers becoming the subject of retaliatory investigation.

Emily writes:

This cannot be transacted in a way that is likely to benefit a potential buyer unless you create some very implausible conditions. For instance, the existence of a strong third party enforcer working with any potential buyer who gets to the point of finding out identifying information about the seller or paper. Otherwise, someone else could have already expressed interest, found out information, and be waiting to rat you out. But the seller cannot conceal this information from potential buyers because the worth of the paper is based significantly on the content of the paper, and probably also on the identity of the seller. (If they're exaggerating their publishing record, the paper is not worth as much.) But no third party enforcer like that exists, and you can't contract that. You also need implausible third party enforcement against the seller. The seller insists on being paid in a non-traceable way (which benefits both of you), he delivers the paper, you submit the paper, and then he accuses you of stealing his paper (which he says he shared with you in a draft form.) He has the drafts/code to prove it, and he can answer questions about it that you can't answer.

Or you could posit the existence of a job that having this publication will help secure, but being shown to be have behaved fraudulently will not get you fired from.

Both of these are extremely unlikely, so it is probably fake.

AMW writes:

The bidders who would be the best fit that I can think of:

1. An assistant prof with several solid, B+ publications under his belt looking for an A publication to ensure tenure.

2. An assistant prof with one (and only one) A publication and little else on his vita. The second A will, again, probably ensure tenure at most schools.

Silas Barta writes:

Whoever the buyer is, the would need to protect themselves by making sure to:

1) *completely* reword the paper,
2) swap out some evidential support with different evidence,
3) redo all the charts, resampling the data where possible,
4) change out key terminology where they can get away with it (i.e. introduce a new term for a commonly used, hard-to-express concept)

This is in case the author plans to trap the buyer by threatening to reveal an escrowed version of the paper from an earlier date, so that the buyer could at least say, "yeah, they're on the same topic, and make a lot of the same points, and have the same conclusion, but I totally did this on my own -- look how different it is".

And, of course, let's not forget:

5) Learn the paper and its topics better than you know the back of your hand, so can actually answer questions about it.

See also my comment (can't do a direct link for some reason) about the need for a "Zero Knowledge Proof" in this situtation in order for the author to verify the paper is good without getting its entire contents.

(please use all information in this post legally)

Kevin Dick writes:

I agree with "Emily" that, as stated, there is no way to get past the holdup problem.

However, I also believe "Phil" has a cheat that may be able to produce some expected surplus. Of course, his solution has significantly less value than if you could complete the vanilla transaction.

There may be other plausible cheats, so the interesting thing about this offer is that forces interested parties to explore cheatspace.

Hazel Meade writes:

I liked the suggestion made over on the Marginal Revolution post that instead of bidding to be the primary author, bid for a co-authorship. A co-authorship would help you establish a track record of publishing on the topic, and make publication more likely by riding on the reputational coattails of the primary author.

MingoV writes:

I believe that an economist decided to do a psychology/economics/ethics experiment. No one should bid.

S Miller writes:

What proof is there that this person has not sold the same paper to multiple individuals? Then it would show up in the databases that schools *supposedly* use to check for plagiarism.
Even redoing the research would not fully remove this dilemma.

R Hamel writes:

I don't see how the buyer could be plausibly vulnerable to blackmail. Since the seller is presumably more established and more talented than the buyer, the seller ought to have more to lose from the scheme being exposed.

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