Citation omissions in an economics preprint have set off a wave of recrimination and speculation on a widely read economics discussion board.
Commenters accuse the authors of purposely omitting citations that would have undermined the paper’s claims to novelty and contributions to the field, leveling acrimony and personal attacks. Economists Petra Persson at Stanford and Maya Rossin-Slater at the University of California, Santa Barbara told us they hadn’t been familiar with the omitted papers at the time they first posted their preprint, but their work remains distinct from these previous studies. Nevertheless, the two quickly updated the preprint of their paper – accepted by the top-tier economics journal American Economic Review – to include additional citations. An editor at the journal said it’s not unusual for authors to request such changes before publication, and dismissed the accusations made on the discussion board, calling the site “not a legitimate source of information.”
The study, “Family Ruptures, Stress, and the Mental Health of the Next Generation,” used data from Swedish national databases to compare mental health outcomes of people born to women who lost a relative while pregnant and women who lost a relative in the first year after giving birth. In their manuscript, Persson and Rossin-Slater write that their study is the “first to document a causal link between fetal stress exposure and mental health later in life.” (The economic implications, they note, are that higher rates of stress among poor people may explain why poverty persists across generations.)
The response has been acrimonious, with online commenters accusing the two authors of everything from deliberate omissions to outright plagiarism of study design and datasets. At the Economics Job Market Rumors site, the related discussion thread — which extended well past 1400 comments at the time of this writing — veers from sober analysis toward the offensive. Less constructive comments run the gamut from berating Persson and Rossin-Slater for being successful women in their field to rating them based on their attractiveness. The accusations have extended beyond the two authors to encompass journal co-editor Hilary Hoynes, professor of public policy and economics at UC Berkeley, and four anonymous reviewers whom the authors thank in their most recent draft of the paper.
After the authors initially posted their findings online in December 2015, they have updated the draft with additional citations – including two papers singled out by online commenters, a 2011 paper by Quetzal A. Class and colleagues and a 1978 publication by Matti O. Huttunen and Pekka Niskanen.
In an email, Persson and Rossin-Slater said they became aware of the Class et al paper and others that had studied associations between family rupture and mental health “on or shortly after” May 11, and had uploaded a revised manuscript with additional citations on May 16.
We were not aware of any of these studies when we initiated our research project in 2011, nor when we submitted the finished manuscript to the American Economic Review (AER) in 2014.
In their 2011 paper, Class et al. used an earlier version of the Swedish database that Persson and Rossin-Slater analyzed, and looked at the influence of prenatal stress on infant size and preterm birth risk. Huttunen and Niskanen, in their retrospective epidemiological study, evaluated the effects on schizophrenia risk of losing a father in utero versus losing a father in the first year of life.
In an updated footnote describing Class et al 2011, Persson and Rossin-Slater write:
Related, an epidemiological study by Class et al. (2011) uses Swedish data, and compares the birth outcomes of children whose mothers experienced a close relative death during different months of pregnancy to those of children whose mothers did not. They demonstrate a negative correlation between exposure to death in utero and birth outcomes. However, an important limitation of this study is that it does not fully account for non-random exposure to death, an issue that our identification strategy (and that of Black et al. (2016)) is designed to alleviate. While our primary contribution is to analyze the consequences of antenatal stress exposure on childhood and adult mental health, our results on birth outcomes lend credence to a causal interpretation of these earlier correlational findings.
In another footnote regarding the Huttunen and Niskanen paper, they write:
Huttunen and Niskanen (1978) attempt to filter out the post-natal effects by comparing the mental health of 167 individuals whose fathers died before their birth to that of the 168 individuals whose fathers died in the year after their birth. However, since in utero exposure to the death of a relative affects gestation length (and hence, the date of birth), this approach also suffers from endogeneity concerns.
Persson and Rossin-Slater told us other ways in which their study differs from preceding epidemiological papers:
(i) we focus on deaths of three generations of maternal relatives, (ii) we analyze a larger set of health outcomes, and (iii) we use prescription drug claims data to capture mental health outcomes.
Hoynes confirmed to us that Persson and Rossin-Slater had contacted her to ask if it was acceptable to revise the paper to include the Class et al paper, a request which she granted and described as “not unusual.” Until a manuscript has been published, she wrote, she accepts such changes.
Hoynes also said that she had not heard from any of the paper’s reviewers about the matter, and dismissed Econ Job Rumors as an “unmoderated platform” and “not a legitimate source of information.”
We also received input from Janet Currie, professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton, who was Rossin-Slater’s thesis advisor at Columbia University. Currie echoed Hoynes, saying that Econ Job Rumors is “not a legitimate source of information” and that commenters there:
quite often have the ‘wrong end of the stick’ and unfortunately have threads that harass and malign women in economics…economics is worse than most of the STEM fields in terms of representation of women … perhaps this sort of thing is part of the reason.
Currie confirmed that Persson and Rossin-Slater’s paper uses the same Swedish data as Class et al. did, but that it is data that many authors have used, giving publications by Costas Meghir at Yale and Morten Palme at the University of Stockholm as examples. Many researchers have followed the protocols of the Swedish government for linking to and accessing these data, “and there is nothing unethical or wrong with this,” said Currie. “It just shows how clueless the Econ Job Rumors people can be.”
Currie also said that although Persson and Rossin-Slater initially overlooked some relevant citations, they had already cited several other papers noting a correlation between family ruptures and poor fetal health outcomes:
Economists often take an issue where others have noted a correlation of some sort and try to see whether that correlation can be said to be causal.
We have also reached out to Brian D’Onofrio at Indiana University, the senior author on the Class et al paper at the center of the citation storm. D’Onofrio told us that he is aware of the situation and has emailed the editors of AER, but he did not specify the nature of that email.
D’Onofrio also confirmed he received an anonymous email that has been circulated, which criticized the authors’ decision to update the paper with additional citations. Here is an excerpt from the anonymous email:
It (i) suggests that one can exploit hazy cross-field divisions to plagiarize a research idea without attribution to previous contributions; get an article accepted and (ii) then easily cover it up at printing stage by adding a small footnote when the article is in the galleys and the authors are dealing with typists and admin staff rather than editors.
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