Are political scientists really this delicate?

I’ve been reading some news coverage about the now-retracted paper published in Science, which purported to show that voters’ opinions on same-sex marriage could be altered by conversations with gay canvassers. Some of the things the senior author, Donald Green, said in one article struck me as very odd, from my perspective in the natural sciences. I wonder if the culture in political science is really that different?

Here’s the first quote:

“It’s a very delicate situation when a senior scholar makes a move to look at a junior scholar’s data set,” Dr. Green said. “This is his career, and if I reach in and grab it, it may seem like I’m boxing him out.”

In case you don’t have your scorecard handy, Dr. Green is the senior author of the paper. There’s only one other author, a graduate student named Michael LaCour. LaCour did all of the actual work on the study (or at least he said he did — that’s the point of the retraction).

In physics, it’s bizarre to imagine that one of the two authors of a paper would feel any delicacy about asking to see the data the paper is based on. If a paper has many authors, then of course not every author will actually look at the data, but with only two authors, it would be extremely strange for one of them not to look. Is it really that different in political science?

Later in the same article, we find this:

Money seemed ample for the undertaking — and Dr. Green did not ask where exactly it was coming from.

“Michael said he had hundreds of thousands in grant money, and, yes, in retrospect, I could have asked about that,” Dr. Green said. “But it’s a delicate matter to ask another scholar the exact method through which they’re paying for their work.”

Delicacy again! This one is, if anything, even more incomprehensible to me. I can’t imagine having my name on a paper presenting the results of research without knowing where the funding came from. For one thing, in my field the funding source is always acknowledged in the paper.

In both cases, Green is treating this as someone else’s work that he has nothing do do with. If that were true, then asking to see the raw data would be presumptuous (although in my world asking about the funding source would not). But he’s one of only two authors on the paper — it’s (supposedly) his work too.

It seems to me that there are two possibilities:

  1. The folkways of political scientists are even more different from those of natural scientists than I had realized.
  2. Green is saying ridiculous things to pretend that he wasn’t grossly negligent.

I don’t know which one is right.


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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

One thought on “Are political scientists really this delicate?”

  1. Whatever the story here, I’m sure traditions differ. In some fields, alphabetical order is standard for all papers, in some reverse alphabetical order is, in some the main author is at the end of the list.

    I draw the line at taking responsibility, though. All authors of the paper are responsible if there is a serious mistake, it has to be retracted, etc. If you don’t know the other authors and the data well enough to feel good about it, then you shouldn’t put your name on the paper. Certainly the senior author can’t rid himself of responsibility so easily.

    Other differences: In some fields, books, rather than papers, play a major role at the forefront of advancing the field. In some fields, giving a talk at a conference is literally reading a paper, and appears verbatim in the proceedings. This led to puzzlement at a conference of astronomers and historians where the historians wondered why so much time was allowed to get the proceedings contributions in; from their point of view, by definition they have to be finished before the conference.

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