A little while back I read Dan Davies’ very good popular book on financial fraud, Lying For Money. Which prompted me to start a series of posts about the interesting analogies (and in some cases, disanaologies) between financial fraud and scientific fraud (see here, here, and here). Today, the latest post in the series: is there a scientific equivalent of a “market crime”?
A market crime is the most sophisticated type of financial crime–indeed, so sophisticated that there’s often disagreement from one jurisdiction to the next as to whether it’s even a crime at all. Insider stock trading, for instance, was banned in the US in 1934, but was legal in the UK until 1980 and legal in New Zealand until 1998. And there’s still no universal agreement as to who the victim of insider trading is. Is it the investor who trades stock with the insider, or the company for whom the insider works? Further, it’s not as if the British and New Zealanders only recently cottoned on to some universal human moral right to be free of insider stock trading. There’s no deep moral principle at stake here. As illustrated by the fact that insider trading isn’t a crime in most other markets besides the stock market. As Davies points out, nobody complains about the fact that Calvin Klein has inside information about the underwear market that its customers don’t have, which Calvin Klein uses to vary the price of underwear among stores and over time so as to maximize its profits.
In contrast to crimes like theft or murder, insider stock trading isn’t a crime because it’s contrary to some deep moral principle. Rather, it’s a crime because it’s contrary to the expectations of small stock investors. Small stock investors expect that they’ll be able to invest on a ‘level playing field’ with professional investors, and that they’ll have some reasonable chance to make a profit. They want to invest in the stock market, but they won’t do so if they feel like they’re being ripped off.* Insider stock trading is a crime only because many of the participants in the stock market want it to be. If they didn’t want it to be, it wouldn’t be a crime, and that would be fine too.
Another example of a market crime (which Davies gave in a talk I saw): performance-enhancing drug use by Olympic athletes. It’s morally bad to try to gain an advantage over your fellow Olympians by taking performance-enhancing drugs. But it’s not against the rules because it’s morally bad–it’s morally bad because it’s against the rules. After all, it’s perfectly within the rules for some athletes to gain an advantage over others in all sorts of other ways! Say, by eating healthier foods, or hiring personal trainers, or training at high altitude, or using better equipment. (Well, until that better equipment is banned.) Performance-enhancing drugs are a market crime–a crime against the expectations of most participants in (and most of the audience for) the Olympics. Those expectations are legitimate even though they have no basis in market-independent morality. Participants in any activity governed by rules are entitled to expect that everyone will play by the same rules. Even if those rules are a matter of arbitrary convention, like the US convention to drive on the right-hand side of the road.
So, are there scientific “market crimes”? Scientific practices that are bad only because they are against the “rules” of science (written or unwritten)? And are there scientific practices that aren’t currently considered “market crimes”, but might come to be treated as such in future, as the rules of the “scientific market” change?
What about self-plagiarism–republishing your own peer-reviewed paper in a different journal? After all, nobody complains about self-plagiarism when, say, a politician gives the same speech to different audiences, or a band plays the same song to different crowds, or a scientist gives the same talk at different conferences. There are plenty of contexts in which repeating yourself is totally fine, even desirable–or at least, not against the rules. Heck, I’ve be reposting a lot of my old blog posts lately, and many readers seem to like it. But peer-reviewed scientific publishing is a context in which there’s widespread agreement that repeating yourself in print is inappropriate–an illegitimate attempt to pad your cv. So I think self-plagiarism of scientific papers is a market crime.
Another example: failure to put make your data available for free download from a public website. I’m old enough to remember a time when there was no expectation that you’d ever share your raw data with anyone else. Now, for various reasons, there is such an expectation, enforced by explicit rules adopted by many journals and funding agencies. The rules of the “scientific market” have changed, so that failure to make your data freely available for download now breaks the rules of the market. It’s a newly-minted market crime.
Can you think of any other examples? Looking forward to your comments.
*Professional investors also want them to invest, because without small investors there’d be much less liquidity in the stock market. National governments want small investors to invest in the stock market too, because it’s considered socially desirable for various reasons.