Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Ceremonial science: the state of Russian economics

A question worth asking is what damage did the Soviet era do to economics in Russian. Well now we may have, at least part of, the answer.

A paper by Alexander Libman and Joachim Zweynert in Economic Systems (Volume 38, Issue 3, Pages 289-468, September 2014) looks at Ceremonial science: The state of Russian economics seen through the lens of the work of ‘Doctor of Science’ candidates.

The highlights of the paper are:
  • We perform an empirical analysis of a dataset of extended abstracts of 552 Russian Doctor of Science theses.
  • The scientific work of Russian ‘Doctor of Science’ candidates is marked by a ‘ceremonial’ way of quoting scientific authorities and using simple mathematics and quantitative criteria.
  • Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes and Karl Marx are the most quoted authors; there are almost no references to authors from the REPEC list.
  • Russian Dr. Sc. theses are more theoretically oriented than Russian journal articles, but the vast majority deals with applied economics; modern economic theory and econometrics are practically absent.
Still quoting Marx may not be a good sign. RePec standards for Research Papers in Economics.

A troubling comment from the paper is,
A number of papers have investigated the state of economics in Russia.2 In particular, Lokshin (2009) analyzed 250 papers on issues of poverty published in leading Russian journals between 1992 and 2006. He found that 60% of these papers did not have a clearly defined research question and half of the papers contained no references. There were no papers containing a formal theoretical model or a formal statistical test.
The paper's conclusion reads:
The aim of this paper was to learn more about the economic research and, indirectly, the teaching at average Russian universities and research units. We argue that this examination might affect the ‘economic culture of decision-makers’. This culture, in turn, may influence the quality of decision making in politics, administration, and business, and it may affect the understanding and acceptance of the market mechanism among broader strata of the population. Our paper augments the existing literature by introducing and analyzing a new dataset of Russian Dr.Sc. theses, which serve as criteria for career advancement and selection in most Russian universities.

Our analysis provides the following overall picture of Russian Dr.Sc. candidates in economics. Most of them concentrate on empirical research on particular regions or industries. Furthermore, they claim that their research has a high practical relevance. At the same time, few of them use econometrics or formal models. Many theses contain quantitative criteria merely as guidelines for possible decisions. The actual value added of these criteria as opposed to verbal exposition is often questionable. The typical Dr.Sc. candidate does not publish internationally and does not follow current developments in economics. References to international authors are usually to classic authors or to Nobel Prize winners, not to current leading scientists. This overall picture shows that the old Soviet patterns maintain an impact on the practice of today’s average Russian economists.

Furthermore, our results suggest a predominantly ‘ceremonial’ attitude toward research in economics in Russia. Various elements (practical relevance, simple quantitative methods, and quotes of classical economists) are combined without taking into account how they fit with each other or whether they are helpful for producing the desired research objective. The research conducted in the capital cities, at the MSU, SPSU, and at the RAS (especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg institutes), seems to be less ‘ceremonial’ and shows a higher level of adherence to international standards. However, even these research establishments demonstrate multiple problems. Finally, we do not find a single scholarly community in Russia that successfully demonstrates acceptance of international standards. Rather, we observe that some elements of these standards are accepted by some communities without taking the others into account.
So Russian economics may have a way to go to catch up with the West. One wonders what the state of other subjects is in Russian universities.

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