Blame Flows Downhill

Junior academics get blamed when group research data is wrong.
Blame Flows Downhill

WHO GETS BLAMED when a team of academics uses erroneous or misleading data in its research—the more established authors, or the junior researchers on the team? That question was posed by Ginger Zhe Jin, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland in College Park; Benjamin Jones, a professor of strategy at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management; Susan Feng Lu, an associate professor of management at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management; and Brian Uzzi, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg.

Their research is a deeper investigation into a condition known as the “Matthew Effect,” named after a verse in the Bible’s book of Matthew: “For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance.” In the academic world, the Matthew Effect means that the most eminent author of a collaborative work tends to receive most of the credit for its success.

But the researchers wanted to consider the opposite side of the question: Would established authors also receive most of the blame for errors, or would they be shielded by their reputations?

Jin, Jones, Lu, and Uzzi used the Web of Science research database to find nearly 500 multi-author papers that had been published between 1993 and 2009 and later retracted because of fabricated data, plagiarism, errors, or other problems. They calculated the eminence of each retracted author by citations of previous papers, and researched how often the authors’ previous work continued to be cited after the retraction. They then compared these citations to those of a control group whose papers had been published without incident.

They found that more eminent authors continued to be cited about as often as those in the control group, while their junior colleagues not only saw their citation numbers drop, but also had lower citations even five years later.

What explains the disparity? It’s possible that the more eminent authors simply have larger bodies of work, which instills confidence in other members of the academic community. It’s harder for fellow researchers to judge—or trust—lesser-known authors, says Jones. He adds, “It’s realistic to assume that the person you haven’t seen before is likely to be the source of the problem.”

Download the working paper “The Reverse Matthew Effect: Catastrophe and Consequence in Scientific Teams.”