Handelsblatt, Germany’s business daily has been investigating Bruno Frey and his habitual self-plagiarising for some months now. Bruno Frey is an economics professor at the University of Zurich and has been making a habit of publishing the same paper in multiple journals. He is also apparently a potential candidate for a Nobel prize!! Frey apparently carried out a fairly trivial analysis of the people who survived the Titanic sinking but then went and got it published – with very minor variations – in 5 different journals. That such mundane and repetitive material would be published in fairly heavyweight journals does not say much for their review processes.
One of the most senior economists of the German speaking world faces serious questions about his scientific modus operandi. Bruno Frey and his research team are accused of self-plagiarism. Additionally, they at least showed an amazing degree of sloppiness with regard to literature research. Five older publications from different authors on exactly the same research question are missing from the references.
This blog (among others, especially Andrew Gelman’s as well as “Economic Logic” and the EJMR forum) has played a role in making the whole thing public. On Wednesday, 6 July the University of Zurich has started a formal investigation against Frey, based on the “suspicion of unethical scientific conduct”.
Bruno Frey (University of Zurich), Benno Torgler (Queensland University of Technology) and Torgler’s Ph.D. student David Savage simultaneously published a series of papers dealing with the sinking of the Titanic, but neither cross-reference their own work nor cite a number of older papers by other researcher addressing exactly the same topic.
The articles by Frey, Torgler and Savage appeared in the “Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organization”, “PNAS”, “Rationality and Society” and the“Journal of Economic Perspectives” in 2010 and 2011. They used individual-level passenger data showing the age, gender, ticket class and nationality of 2207 people sailing on the Titanic and employed an econometrical analysis on the determinants of survival. For several months the authors have been criticised because they simultaneously published nearly identical papers in four different journals without mentioning their other work on the same topic to the editors.
Professor Debra Weber-Wulff comments on Bruno Frey on her blog:
The “Journal of Economic Perspectives” (JEP) has formally censured him, the “Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organization” (JEBO) has blacklisted the authors and will not accept any further papers from them. Frey and Torgler have said that Savage is not at fault and have tendered excuses at 3 of the 4 journals [German language detail: The article says that they "excused themselves", I always thought you had to ask the other party to excuse you --dww]. Apparently, Frey had not gotten around to writing to the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” (PNAS) before the Handelsblatt started its investigations.
The whole issue seems to have started with the blog Economic Logic and an entry entitled “On the ethics of research cloning“. The author of the blog had a good look at the CVs of the senior authors and finds evidence both of slicing results very thin in order to get much publication mileage out of them, as well as republishing the same results multiple times. In the comments a number of other clones showed up, and a FreyPlagWiki (the currently popular German way to collect evidence on scientific misconduct and plagiarism) was set up.
Interesting things have popped up, such as Frey exempting his doctoral students from coursework now required by the University in Zürich, or his being dropped from an editorial board without explanation.
Olaf Storbeck has found further examples of Frey’s multiple publications which he documents in this Google Table describing the “cloning” of 5 publications. But Storbeck’s article contains some disturbing reports of the behaviour of Journal Editors – in particular Jürgen Backhaus Professor of Finance and Fiscal Sociology at the Political Sciences Faculty of the University of Erfurt and Editor-in-chief of Springer’s European Journal of Law and Economics (EJLE).
Bruno Frey: More cases of self-plagiarism unveiled …. However, when I talked to Jürgen Backhaus on Sunday, the editor-in-chief was strongly backing Bruno Frey. Backhaus argued that Frey is known for his new and unconventional ideas. According to Backhaus, it was necessary to repeat them again and again to get them through to a reluctant audience. Backhaus told me:
“It is well known in the profession that Bruno Frey works like this.”
He said that it was an honour to be able to publish an article by Frey:
“He is an internationally renown academic who is a candidate for the Nobel prize.”
According to Backhaus, publishing an article by Frey enhances the attention for other articles in the journal. I asked him how he would explain to a PhD student that the official submission guidelines of the journals apparently are not applicable to Frey. His answer was:
“Bruno Frey is a trademark. The PhD student still has to build one.”
I was really stunned by these remarks. I emailed those quotes (in German) to Backhaus prior to publication. He confirmed that I quote him correctly. (Translations from German into English were done by me, however.) …… If the EJLE wants to retain any credibility and if Springer takes the COPE guidelines seriously, they won’t have any choice but to officially retract both articles. Additionally, I don’t see how Frey can stay on the editorial board of a journal which submission guidelines he repeatedly has clearly violated.