The space between the signal and the action

In the game-theoretic world, the gunner never shoots: the other side looks at the options down the game tree, realizes that one action will lead to his or her getting shot, and doesn’t take that action. In Game Theory textbooks, cases never go to court: both sides calculate the risk-adjusted expected payoff from trial, and if it is positive for one hyperrational side, then it is negative for the other hyperrational side, and a settlement can be calculated based on that. In both cases, knowledge that an event could occur largely has the same effect as the event itself.

But there was an eight-year glitch in the game-theoretic matrix, which has given us an interesting chance to see what happens between when a signal of a legal position is sent and when the position actually hits.

Here in 2014, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling regarding the patentability of software, Alice Corp v CLS Bank. The first draft of the ruling was published in 2006.

The question in the 2006 case of Labcorp v Metabolite was whether a patent of this form was valid:

1. draw the patient’s blood,
2. measure the level of a chemical in the blood, and
3. correlate that level to the risk of a disorder.

Steps 1 and 2 are by themselves not patentable, because they are physical processes but are entirely not-novel. Step 3 may be a novel correlation, but it is an abstract scientific discovery, and one may not patent abstract ideas or research results. So is the combination of the physical-but-quotidian steps 1+2 with the abstract-but-novel step 3 a physical and novel invention?

The Court’s decision (PDF) was one sentence long: Continue reading

A model of peer review

Science, a peer reviewed journal, recently published an article lambasting the quality of peer review in many journals that are not Science. The article described itself as “the first global snapshot of peer review across the open-access scientific enterprise”, and found peer review in that context to be lacking.

As one who leans toward the theoretical and the methodological, I naturally wonder what is the model underlying the claim that “peer review across the open-access scientific enterprise” would be of low quality. My understanding is that “open-access” is defined to include any journal that does not charge subscription fees, but allows readers free access via the Web. So we need some sort of model that explains why the lack of reader fees would lead to a consistently lower quality of referee effort.

Generally speaking, the discussion about scientific peer review tends to be…lacking in scientific rigor. Those who have written on the matter, including some involved in open access journals, all seem to agree that a claim that open access would induce lower referee effort makes little sense. It’s basically impossible to write down into a real model.

So in this and the next column, I attempt to fill the gap and provide a theoretical framework for describing a one-paper peer review process. I get halfway: I stop short of the general-equilibrium model covering the entire publication market. I also don’t specify the cost functions that one would need to complete the model, because they wouldn’t make sense in a partial equilibrium model (i.e., there’s no point in a specific functional form for the cost function without other goods and a budget constraint).

Nonetheless, we already run into problems with this simple model. The central enigma is this: what incentive does a referee have to exert real effort in reviewing a paper?

After the break, I will give many more details of the game, but here are the headline implications of the partial model so far, which don’t yet address the central enigma:

  • The top-tier journal does not necessarily have the best papers. This is because the lower-tier journals have papers that have gone through more extensive review.
  • More reviews can raise reader confidence that a paper is good. However, the paper is published after only a handful of reviews. Stepping out of the game, situations where dozens or hundreds read the paper before publication would do much to diminish both false positives and false negatives in the publication decision.
  • Readers are more likely to read journals that maintain a high standard.
  • Readers are also more likely to read journals where the referee exerted a high level of effort in reviewing the papers, and can also read those papers with less effort. The problem of trusting a false paper is mitigated, because careful reviews produce fewer false positives. However, referee effort is not observable.

All of this is still under the assumption that referees have an incentive to put real effort into the review process, an assumption I’ll discuss further next time.

After the jump, the rest of this entry will go into more precise detail (~3,000 words) about the game and some of its implications. Continue reading

big sky, big money

A genuine “big sky” shout-out to grad school friends Dave Parker and Erika Franklin Fowler, both PROMINENTLY featured in this week’s fascinating PBS Frontline “Big Sky, Big Money” examining “dark money” in Montana politics and in campaigns around the country in the wake of Citizens United (2010). Parker, a coauthor on research looking at congressional investigations, is a dedicated student of American politics. He’s driven countless hundreds of miles this year collecting information on campaign advertisements from local television stations, filling a vital gap in available information about what’s going on in American politics. And he is rewarded with a spot on PBS Frontline,  the coolest show on TV’s nerdiest channel. Not bad!

oversight: overlooked or unhinged?

For the past thirty years, students of American government have leaned hard on a metaphor contrasting “police patrol” and “fire alarm” oversight. It’s an interesting and useful idea, but basically unsupported by careful empirical work. My esteemed colleague David C.W. Parker (who blogs about Montana politics here) and I have looked at the partisan dimensions of congressional oversight in a couple academic articles – a 2009 article here published in Legislative Studies Quarterly and a forthcoming article in Political Research Quarterly. This summer we published a short essay, “Oversight: Overlooked or Unhinged?” in Extension of Remarks, the newsletter of the Legislative Studies Section of the American Political Science Association. It’s basically an effort to work through the critique of the “fire alarm” metaphor with an eye on current events. Did you miss it? Here it is again.

sunshine may be a great disinfectant

Apparently, Louis Brandeis, Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1916 to 1939 coined the phrase, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” A 1913 Harper’s Weekly article, entitled “What Publicity Can Do,” is where you can find the original article. (Hat tip to the Sunlight Foundation.)

So is it true? No.

While sunshine is a very good disinfectant, but it takes longer to disinfect:

And it might depend on what you are disinfecting: