Incompetence as a Signalling Device

by Henry Farrell on August 26, 2009

“Scott”: has a great short piece at _IHE_ on Gambetta’s book on communication among criminals, which _inter alia_ summarizes Gambetta’s theory of the signalling benefits of incompetence in Italian academia.

bq. Gambetta argues that something similar takes place among the _baroni_ (barons) who oversee the selection committees involved in Italian academic promotions. While some fields are more meritocratic than others, he says, the struggle for advancement involves a great deal of horse trading. “The barons operate on the basis of a pact of reciprocity, which requires a lot of trust, for debts are repaid years later. …The most powerful figures in this system, says Gambetta, tend to be the least intellectually distinguished. … “… and this is what is the most intriguing, they do not try to hide their weakness. One has the impression that they almost flaunt it in personal contacts.” … Gambetta argues that the cheerful incompetence of the _baroni_ is akin to the mafioso’s way of signaling that he can be “trusted” within his narrowly predatory limits.

bq. “Being incompetent and displaying it,” he writes, “conveys the message _I will not run away, for I have no strong legs to run anywhere else._ In a corrupt academic market, being good at and interested in one’s own research, by contrast, signal a potential for a career independent of corrupt reciprocity…. In the Italian academic world, the kakistocrats are those who best assure others by displaying, through lack of competence and lack of interest in research, that they will comply with the pacts.”

The Impact Factor’s Matthew Effect

by Kieran Healy on August 26, 2009

Via Cosma, comes the following article:

Since the publication of Robert K. Merton’s theory of cumulative advantage in science (Matthew Effect), several empirical studies have tried to measure its presence at the level of papers, individual researchers, institutions or countries. However, these studies seldom control for the intrinsic “quality” of papers or of researchers–“better” (however defined) papers or researchers could receive higher citation rates because they are indeed of better quality. Using an original method for controlling the intrinsic value of papers–identical duplicate papers published in different journals with different impact factors–this paper shows that the journal in which papers are published have a strong influence on their citation rates, as duplicate papers published in high impact journals obtain, on average, twice as much citations as their identical counterparts published in journals with lower impact factors. The intrinsic value of a paper is thus not the only reason a given paper gets cited or not; there is a specific Matthew effect attached to journals and this gives to paper published there an added value over and above their intrinsic quality.

The full paper has some more detail. Duplicates are defined as those papers published in different journals but which nevertheless have the same title, the same first author, and the same number of cited references. With this definition the authors find 4,532 pairs of duplicates in the Web of Science database across the sciences and social sciences. (This is a pretty striking finding in itself.) Remember that the impact factor of a journal is meant to be a (weighted) product of the number of citations to articles in that journal — i.e., a journal’s prestige is a function of the quality of the articles appearing in it. But here we see that, for the same papers, the impact factor of the journal affects the citation rate of the paper. The mechanism is straightforward, but it’s neat to see it shown this way.

(Appropriately enough, I have posted this at both Crooked Timber and OrgTheory. We’ll see which one gets the links and comments.)