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How to read research papers

Ezra Klein made an interesting observation a few days ago about how opinion journalists read papers by experts:

[T]his is one of the difficulties with analysis. Fairly few political commentators know enough to decide which research papers are methodologically convincing and which aren't. So we often end up touting the papers that sound right, and the papers that sound right are, unsurprisingly, the ones that accord most closely with our view of the world.

To which Will Wilkinson said "Amen": 

This is one of the reasons I tend not to blog as much I’d like about a lot of debates in economic policy. I just don’t know who to trust, and I don’t trust myself enough to not just tout work that confirms my biases. This is also why I tend to worry a lot about methodology in my policy papers. How much can we trust happiness surveys? How exactly is inequality measured? How exactly is inflation measured? Does standard practice bias standard measurements in a particular direction? Of course, the motive to dig deeper is often suspicion of research you feel can’t really be right. But this is, I believe, an honorable motive, as long as one digs honestly. Indeed, I’m pretty sure motivated cognition, when constrained by sound epistemic norms, is one of the mainsprings of intellectual progress.

One way to weigh competing research papers is to consider the publishing outlet.  Presumably, peer-reviewed articles will carry greater weight.  Except that Megan McArdle doesn't presume:

Especially for papers that rely on empirical work with painstakingly assembled datasets, the only way for peer reviewers to do the kind of thorough vetting that many commentators seem to imagine is implied by the words "peer review" would be to . . . well, go back and re-do the whole thing.  Obviously, this is not what happens.  Peer reviewers check for obvious anomalies, originality, and broad methodological weakness.  They don't replicate the work themselves.  Which means that there is immense space for things to go wrong--intentionally or not....

This is not to say that the peer review system is worthless.  But it's limited.  Peer review doesn't prove that a paper is right; it doesn't even prove that the paper is any good (and it may serve as a gatekeeper that shuts out good, correct papers that don't sit well with the field's current establishment for one reason or another).  All it proves is that the paper has passed the most basic hurdles required to get published--that it be potentially interesting, and not obviously false.  This may commend it to our attention--but not to our instant belief.

This jibes with a recent Chonicle of Higher Education essay that bemoaned the explosion of research articles: 

While brilliant and progressive research continues apace here and there, the amount of redundant, inconsequential, and outright poor research has swelled in recent decades, filling countless pages in journals and monographs. Consider this tally from Science two decades ago: Only 45 percent of the articles published in the 4,500 top scientific journals were cited within the first five years after publication. In recent years, the figure seems to have dropped further. In a 2009 article in Online Information Review, Péter Jacsó found that 40.6 percent of the articles published in the top science and social-science journals (the figures do not include the humanities) were cited in the period 2002 to 2006.

None of this provides much comfort for the layman interested in navigating through the miasma of contradictory research papers.  How can the amateur policy wonk separate the wheat from the chaff? 

Below are seven useful rules of thumb to provide you.  These are not foolproof -- in fact, that's one of the rules -- but they can provide some useful filtering while trying to discern good research from not-so-good research: 

1)  If you can't read the abstract, don't bother with the paper.  Most smart people, including academics, don't like to admit when they don't understand something that they read.  This provides an opening for those who purposefully write obscurant or jargon-filled papers.  If you're befuddled after reading the paper abstract, don't bother with the paper -- a poorly-worded abstract is the first sign of bad writing.  And bad academic writing is commonly linked to bad analytic reasoning. 

2)  It's not the publication, it's the citation count.  If you're trying to determine the relative importance of a paper, enter it into Google Scholar and check out the citation count.  The more a paper is cited, the greater its weight among those in the know.  Now, this doesn't always hold -- sometimes a paper is cited along the lines of, "My findings clearly demonstrate that Drezner's (2007) argument was, like, total horses**t."   Still, for papers that are more than a few years old, the citaion hit count is a useful metric.

3)  Yes, peer review is better.   Nothing Megan McArdle wrote is incorrect.  That said, peer review does provide some useful functions, so the reader doesn't have to.  If nothing else, it's a useful signal that the author thought it could pass muster with critical colleagues.  Now, there are times when a researcher will  bypass peer review to get something published sooner.  That said, in international relations, scholars who publish in non-refereed journals usually have a version of the paper intended for peer review. 

4)  Do you see a strawman?  It's a causally complex world out there.  Any researcher who doesn't test an argument against viable alternatives isn't really interested in whether he's right or not -- he just wants to back up his gut instincts.  A "strawman" is when an author takes the most extreme caricature of the opposing argument as the viable alternative.  If the rival arguments sound absurd when you read about them in the paper, it's probably because the author has no interest in presenting the sane version of them.  Which means you can ignore the paper. 

5)  Are the author's conclusions the only possible conclusions to draw?  Sometimes a paper can rest on solid theory and evidence, but then jump to policy conclusions that seem a bit of a stretch (click here for one example).  If you can reason out different policy conclusions from the theory and data, then don't take the author's conclusions at face value.  To use some jargon, sometimes a paper's positivist conclusions are sound, even if the normative conclusions derived from the positive ones are a bit wobbly.  

6)  Can you falsify the author's argument?    Conduct this exercise when you're done reading a research paper -- can you picture the findings that would force the author to say, "you know what, I can't explain this away -- it turns out my hypothesis was wrong"?  If you can't picture that, then you can discard what you're reading a a piece of agitprop rather than a piece of research. 

7)  Fraudulent papers will still get through the cracks.  Trust is a public good that permeates all scholarship and reportage.  Peer reviewers assume that the author is not making up the data or plagiarizing someone else's idea.  We assume this because if we didn't, peer review would be virtually impossible.  Every once in a while, an unethical author or a reporter will exploit that trust and publish something that's a load of crap.  The good news on this front is that the people who do can't stop themselves from doing it on a regular basis, and eventually they make a mistake.  So the previous rules of thumb don't always work.  The  publishing system is imperfect -- but "imperfect" does not mean the same thing as "fatally flawed." 

With those rules of thumb, go forth and read your research papers. 

Other useful rules of thumb are encouraged in the comments. 

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Daniel W. Drezner

Death of the foreign policy mandarins?

Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post earlier this week calling the New START Treaty Obama's "worst foreign policy mistake yet."  This prompted a fair amount of blowback.  The New York Times' Peter Baker and Slate's Fred Kaplan tore Romney a new one dissected the substance of Romney's argument and found it wanting.  Senator John Kerry wrote a WaPo op-ed the next day that had a pretty contemptuous conclusion: 

I have nothing against Massachusetts politicians running for president. But the world's most important elected office carries responsibilities, including the duty to check your facts even if you're in a footrace to the right against Sarah Palin. More than that, you need to understand that when it comes to nuclear danger, the nation's security is more important than scoring cheap political points.

Now reading through all of this, it seems pretty clear that Romney's substantive critique is weak tea.  Objecting to the content of a treaty preamble is pretty silly.  Claiming that the Russians could put ICBMs on their bombers because of the treaty indicates Romney's ghost-writer doesn't know the first thing about the history of nuclear weapons some holes in the research effort. 

Putting the substantive objections aside, there are some interesting implications to draw from this kerfuffle.  First, START will be an easy test of the remaining power of the foreign policy mandarins.  As Time's Michael Crowley points out, START has the support of former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, former National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft and Stephen Hadley, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Senator Richard Lugar. 

If the Obama administration can't get Senate ratification of START despite the bipartisan support of the foreign policy community, well, it suggests that the foreign policy community doesn't have the political capital it once did.  I posited earlier this year that START would pass because it was pretty unobtrusive and wouldn't play a big role in political campaigns.  If GOP senators think differently, however, then you can kiss any foreign policy initiative that requires congressional approval bye-bye. 

This could seriously hamper U.S. foreign policy.  Politically, Romney was wise to pick on START, because its importance is not in the arms control.  Boosters like Kerry will talk about START like its the greatest thing since sliced bread, when in point of fact it's a modest treaty that yields modest gains on the arms control front.  No, START matters because its a signal of better and more stable relations with Moscow (much in the same way that NAFTA was not about trade so much as about ending a century-long contentious relationship with Mexico). 

So even if Romney gets chewed up and spit out by the foreign policy mandarins, there's a way in which he'll win no matter what.  By belittling the treaty, Romney will get its defenders to inflate its positive attributes.  This will force analysts to say that "both sides have exaggerated their claims," putting Romney on par with the foreign policy mandarins. 

Developing... in a bad way for the mandarins. 

UPDATE:  Barron YoungSmith makes a similar point over at TNR.  He's even more pessimistic than I am: 

[T]he responsible Republican foreign policy establishment is not coming back. Mandarins like George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, and James Baker, who have all testified or written on behalf of the START treaty—calling it an integral, uncontroversial way of repairing the bipartisan arms-control legacy that sustained American foreign policy all the way up until the George W. Bush administration—are going to be dead soon (or they've drifted into the service of Democrats). The people who will take their place will be from a generation of superhawks, like John Bolton, Liz Cheney, and Robert Joseph, who are virulently opposed to the practice of negotiated arms control. Mitt Romney, though a moderate from Michigan, is not going to be the second coming of Gerald Ford.

Well.... this might be true, if you think Mitt Romney has his finger on the pulse of the GOP voter.  Based on past experience, however, Mitt Romney has never been able to find that pulse. 

Still developing....

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