Archive for July, 2013

In a recent Bloomberg view story, Duncan Watts discusses the revelation that struggling author Robert Galbraith is actually J. K. Rowling (of Harry Potter fame and fortune). The positive reviews of Galbraith’s book are widely interpreted as proof of Rowling’s writing talent, but Watts argues that the book’s lack of commercial success actually means that the success of the Harry Potter books is a fluke. (Some of the comments claim that even before Rowling was exposed the book was more successful than Watts says.)

Watts uses one of his famous experiments, conducted with colleagues in Columbia, to support his thesis. They recruited almost 30,000 participants to download and rate songs. Some groups of participants were able to see how many times each song was downloaded by other members of the group. This created a snowball effect that made a song’s success totally unpredictable: One song was rated first of 48 by one group and 40th by another. In Watts’ words:

… market success is driven less by intrinsic talent than by “cumulative advantage,” a rich-get-richer process in which early, possibly even random events are amplified by social feedback and produce large differences in future outcomes.

I’m wondering to what degree this statement is true with respect to the scientific success of papers. In math and “hardcore” theoretical computer science (e.g., complexity theory), many of the most celebrated papers are those that solve a long-standing open problem. But when it comes to papers that suggest new models and/or make a conceptual contribution, it is quite hard to predict which papers are destined to become hits (especially in economics), and in many cases chance plays a pivotal role. (Just to be clear, I am not talking about serendipity, but rather about cases where the same paper can have very different outcomes in different “worlds”.)

As a case in point, take the elegant 1989 paper “The computational difficulty of manipulating an election“, by three prominent operations researchers: Bartholdi (Georgia Tech), Tovey (Georgia Tech), and Trick (CMU). The paper makes the case that computational complexity can serve as a barrier against manipulation in elections. With the exception of a couple of related papers by the authors in the early 1990s, the paper was all but forgotten for more than a decade, until Tuomas Sandholm happened to mention a similar idea to Rakesh Vohra and Mark Satterthwaite (of Gibbard-Satterthwaite fame, albeit not fortune) over dinner and was referred to the 1989 paper. The AAAI’02 paper on the complexity of manipulation by Conitzer and Sandholm found the right audience and fueled a continued interest in this topic. Today Bartholdi, Tovey, and Trick are seen as the founders of the field of computational social choice, which has grown dramatically (complexity of manipulation is just one of 19 chapters in an upcoming book); and, despite many other important contributions, the 1989 paper is their most highly cited according to Google Scholar (well, right now Trick has one more highly cited paper but the small gap will probably close in the next few months).

Of course, a successful paper needs to be outstanding in some way; but many outstanding papers — even those that do get published — just don’t get lucky. So I’m afraid the conclusion is not very exciting: Scientific success is a mix of luck and talent, just like everything else in life. In particular, in a slightly different world computational social choice would not exist and elections would still be manipulable… oh wait.


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Congratulations to Aviv Zohar, to Nina Narodystka, and to (co-blogger) Ariel Procaccia, who have been named among IEEE Intelligent Systems “AI’s 10 to Watch”.

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The 6th International Symposium on Algorithmic Game Theory (SAGT) will take place in Aachen, Germany, from October 21 to October 23.

Here is the list of accepted papers.

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A short announcement from our sponsor:

The WINE 2013 paper submission deadline of August 1st is fast approaching, and in anticipation of this deadline, we have several exciting new developments to share.

  1.  Top Papers: WINE 2013 will invite top papers to a special section of an ACM Transactions on Economics and Computation (TEAC) issue (see CFP for details).
  2. Invited Speakers: We anticipate an excellent program of invited speakers.  Confirmed speakers include Ehud Kalai and Eva Tardos, and 2-3 more will follow.
  3. Tutorials: We are recruiting top instructors to offer tutorials on hot research areas.  Confirmed tutorials include Price of Anarchy by Jason Hartline, and Online Behavioral Experiments by Sid Suri and Andrew Mao.  If you’d like to contribute a tutorial as well, please submit a tutorial proposal by August 15.

For more information, please check the conference website, http://wine13.seas.harvard.edu/.

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If my previous two posts on the usefulness of game theory [ 1 , 2 ] were not sufficient to satisfy your craving for biased information on this topic, you can find a longer version in the inaugural issue of Symposium Magazine, which went live today.

Symposium is actually a very interesting experiment:

An innovative digital magazine and blog, Symposium Magazine offers a common address for academics and non-academics alike to engage in debates on politics, culture and society. As the recent proliferation of academic blogs shows, more and more professors are looking to share their research with a broader audience. Our monthly edition of essays feeds the public’s appetite for deep coverage of debates within the academe and how they relate to the outside world, while the daily blog lets readers engage with authors. Above all, we promote rich journalism that is increasingly in peril in today’s media landscape.

The editor, Helen Fessenden, invited a bunch of academic bloggers to write articles, and the result is quite impressive in my opinion. Helen tells me that she was inspired by a magazine called Lingua Franca, which was apparently rather successful in the 1990s. Amazingly, people seem to be interested in what professors have to say!

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