John Shannon may be a mere undergrad at Hillsdale College in Michigan, but he knows enough about history to be surprised that Aristotle had written an entire book about economics that Shannon had never heard of.
That curiosity led to the discovery that a highly cited paper about pricing in cancer drugs was missing a reference to a rather relevant source about a treatise by the Greek philosopher, prompting the Journal of Clinical Oncology to correct the paper. But to Shannon, a missing reference is not the only problem with the paper.
As he notes in an essay in Public Discourse, Shannon’s interest was piqued when he noticed this passage in a 2013 paper in the Journal of Clinical Oncology on the fair price — “just price,” or Justum Pretium — of cancer drugs:
Aristotle is credited to be the first to discuss the relationship between price and worth in his book Justum Pretium—the just price. Sixteen centuries later, Saint Albert the Great and Saint Thomas Aquinas refined Aristotle’s argument. Their conclusion: of moral necessity, price must reflect worth.
Interest piqued, Shannon did some checking and quickly found what he’d suspected – Aristotle never wrote such a manuscript. Indeed, the source of the misinformation, which wasn’t footnoted in the JCO article “Cancer Drugs in the United States: Justum Pretium—The Just Price,” appeared to be a podcast on National Public Radio. As Shannon wrote in an essay in Public Discourse (a publication of the Witherspoon Institute), the transcript reads:
Aristotle is often credited as the first person to take an in-depth look at the relationship between price and worth, devoting an entire book of the Ethics to the justum pretium – the just price. A remarkable work in its time, the Ethics was reintroduced to the Roman Catholic Church sixteen centuries later by Saint Albert the Great and his student Saint Thomas Aquinas. Albert and Thomas in turn refined Aristotle’s argument. Their conclusion? Of moral necessity, price must reflect worth.
To Shannon, the passage in JCO doesn’t just lift its ideas from the NPR broadcast. In response to an email from RW, he told us:
The piece came to my attention in late July of this year when I was searching for contemporary understandings of the just price. I googled “justum pretium” and this article was the first hit. I initially used it as an example of a modern misunderstanding of just price doctrine, but this example was just so bad I had to dig into it, and the blog post was the result.
In his essay he writes:
Initially, I was shocked to discover that Aristotle had written an entire book devoted to the just price. I had heard of his works on politics, ethics, poetics, and logic, but a complete work devoted to economics was news to me. Had these four medical doctors discovered a long-lost manuscript, perhaps one that had fallen behind a bookshelf in an old monastery, and thus made a ground-breaking contribution to the Aristotelian corpus (and written in Latin, no less!)?
As he looked deeper, he came to think that the authors had misinterpreted the NPR source:
An article in a medical journal justifies its title with a claim that Aristotle wrote a book that he didn’t write in a language that he didn’t speak. They draw this claim from a misunderstanding of a public radio broadcast, which itself misunderstands the only scholarly source it relies on. Not only do they paraphrase and even quote this article without citing it, they proceed to ignore what it actually says about the just price and instead substitute their own definition.
The October 1, 2013, article by Kantarjian et al entitled “Cancer Drugs in the United States: Justum Pretium—The Just Price” (J Clin Oncol 31: 3600-3604, 2013) contained an error.
In the Introduction, paragraph 3, sentences 1-4 were missing references. This paragraph and the title were inspired and influenced by a National Public Radio broadcast and related excerpt, as well as the mentioned work and available literature, including the translated work of Aristotle (Book V of Nicomachean Ethics) and the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas. The omitted references are as follows:
10a. Boyd A: The Just Price (No. 2062). Engines of Our Ingenuity, National Public Radio, January 2013
10b. Ross WD (translator): Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle. Internet Classics Archive, 350 BCE
10c. Rothbard MN: The Philosopher-Theologian: St Thomas Aquinas (excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, Volume 1: Economic Thought Before Adam Smith). Auburn, AL, Mises Institute, 2009
10d. Hagen MJ: St Thomas Aquinas: Economics of the just society. Presented at the Austrian Student Scholars Conference, Grove City College, Grove City, PA, December 12, 2012
The online version has been corrected in departure from the print. The author apologizes for the error.
The paper has been cited 52 times, earning the designation of “highly cited” from Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.
You’ll note that the correction only notes the missing reference, with no adjustment to the assertion that Aristotle wrote a long-lost book called Justum Pretium.
Kantarjian confirmed to us that the problem only related to sourcing, saying the correction stemmed from:
an oversight in referencing one source and the related sources.
Zwelling’s name may be familiar to readers of this blog. We wrote about a 2013 paper of his in PLOS ONE on the lack of reproducibility of studies by researchers at his institution.
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