Economics has been called the dismal science for decades.  The somewhat newer slight (still decades old) led to the birth of Behavioral Economics whose guardians believe stodgy, old, Econ 101 principles of supply and demand and rational actors making rational cost/benefit choices fails to explain reality.

Some of that’s true though the BE truthers out there have their own crisis of confidence dubbed ‘replication crisis’.   If all you have is a hammer, everything’s a nail, regardless of  hammer type.

Readers should note, I am part of two behavioral science agencies.  Behavioral science does not = behavioral economics.  The latter is a subset of the former.  The former is a multidisciplinary field that provides a more complete set of tools.

Our BS approach (yes, that acronym is rimshot worthy) also doesn’t kick old school Econ 101 to the curb.  And for good reason.  There are three principles so far unbeaten in our fundraising world that I was reminded of while reading a novel analysis of scientific papers.

  • All piles of profit eventually go to zero.  This is a supply/demand 101 truism.  New entrants go into markets/channels/opportunities where money is being made.  Those new entrants compete, commoditize and drive the margin to zero or nearly so.  Costs going up and yields going down.

Sound familiar doesn’t it.  Particularly if you do canvassing in mature European markets or direct mail in the US?   It turns out the same thing happens everywhere, even in the scientific paper publishing business.  It’s all volume, all the time.  The number of journals and publications and submissions grows by leaps and bounds trying to suck up the profit of subscriptions and tenure (for researchers).

  • Diminishing returns always happens.   “Marginal utility” –what a wonky Econ term.  It means increasing volume of anything will coincide with getting less and less return.  If you mail 5 times and make 100k you will not make 200k if you double it to 10 mailings.  In the scientific publishing arms race it turns out volume is also the metric of choice.  The gateway drug there is policy aimed at increasing the quantity of scientists, research funding and scientific output, which is measured, in part, by the number of papers published.  It turns out, the marginal increase to knowledge and innovation is minimal.  Hammer and nail never looked so good.

 

  • Copy-catting rules the day in a volume world.   You won’t find this in the Econ books as such but it still holds because of old-school, economic principles.  The profit maximizer’s best path to profit is copying what has already been done.  This lowers cost and short-term risk, both of which increase short-term profit.  The problem is innovation dies or is really, really slow to be birthed.  How about that nickel package?  Or the faux petition or faux survey or the F2F leave-behind or welcome pack or newsletter?   The scientific journal community behaves similarly.  It turns out the best (maybe only) way to get published is by lots of citations and,  better yet, citing that which has already been cited.  Guess what that produces?  More papers saying essentially the same thing.

I’m closing by sharing the (slightly edited) closing remarks in the paper  i was reading analyzing papers.  I’ve made the obvious replacements to see if folks agree with the striking similarities.

The more-is-better, quantity metric-driven nature of today’s scientific (fundraising) enterprise may ironically retard fundamental progress in the largest scientific (fundraising) fields.

Reducing quantity may be impossible. Proscribing the number of annual publications (solicitations), shuttering journals (redundant organizations) and reducing the number of scientists (fundraisers) are hard-to-swallow policy prescriptions.

Still, some changes in how scholarship (fundraising) is conducted, disseminated, consumed, and rewarded may help accelerate fundamental progress in large fields of science (fundraising).

Reward and promotion systems, especially at the most prestigious institutions (charities), that eschew quantity measures and value fewer, deeper, more novel contributions could reduce the deluge while inspiring more innovative work.

Kevin