Wednesday, August 22, 2012


A collaborator of mine recently made a very astute observation. "You are trying to do for scholarly writing," he said, "what Billy Beane did for baseball." Writing Process Reengineering, he said, is the "moneyball" of writing. There are two senses in which this comparison is apt.

First, Michael Lewis's Moneyball tells the story of how the Oakland Athletics put together a competitive team while spending only one third what the New York Yankees spent on salaries. That means they had to make do essentially without "stars". Beane understood that stars are overpaid from the point of view of actual on-field performance. (They may of course do their job in terms of selling tickets and merchandise.)

Second, the basic idea was to find players who didn't have obviously spectacular stats that were directly related to runs, but who produced other results consistently. These players were simply undervalued by the recruiting system, and therefore less expensive. Simplifying somewhat, the idea was to shift the focus from hitting the ball out of the park to getting players on base.

In today's university culture, there are wealthy departments who can spend a great deal of money on hiring "star" faculty. And they compete with much less wealthy departments in the same system of rankings. A star is usually someone who has produced a significant number of influential journal articles. But maybe the way to a successful department is not to hire people who will "win games" for you. You have to put together a team that will consistently get men on base.

Ideally, the effect of my work will be to reorient hiring practices so that departments that can't afford stars will start looking for other qualities in their prospective hires. What is needed, for example, is not someone who publishes consistently in "quality journals", but someone who consistently submits work for review. At a deeper level, though there's no official statistic for this, hiring committees need to find people who write paragraphs every day. A "team" that has writers like this will "get men on base", and then the rest will follow.

As Brad Pitt says to one of the players in the movie version, trying to get him not to swing at every ball he's pitched out of concern for his batting average, "it's a process".

Finally, I like the comparison because it gives me such a great range of role models. Am I really the Billy Beane of academic writing? Or am I perhaps its Bill James? Or, if I manage to write a book about it, maybe I'm Michael Lewis. I could even be the endearing, if fictional, Peter Brand. Each in their own way, these are nice options. This morning, I'm going to settle on the humble proposition that I am, of course, the Brad Pitt of academic writing. Wouldn't you?


Andrew Shields said...

One problem with the comparison, at least for some people: "Moneyball" makes a good story, but the A's have only been competitive, not successful ...


I wonder if the comparison would have come up if your name were Thomas Sokker ...

Thomas said...

The departments I'm thinking of will probably have to accept that they never become "top" departments in their field. They just need to hire in a way that doesn't deny that fact, making the best of their situation. And then they need to manage the writing process in a way that understands the new hiring practice. (This was something the movie did a good job of showing. Art Howe essentially had to be forced to play his team in the -- to him strange -- positions for which they had been hired.)

Sebastian said...

I am not into baseball. I don't even understand the game - same as many other Europeans, African, South-Americanos. Some may take is as Jytte Hilden

I hope you proof your settlement being the "Brad Pitt of academic writing". There can be no doubt. We need more sex in academic writing. What will your contribution be?

Andrew Shields said...

Are there really "minor-league" departments that do job searches as if they were "major leaguers"? The search committees I've been on were very realistic about what Basel had to offer and what kind of candidates would be appropriate.

Thomas said...

(Quick caveat. I'm basing all this on the movie, more than the book, or real life, which apparently is less neat.)

In the movie, Beane starts with a team that has been put together on the old scouting intuitions, which essentially looks for up and coming stars. Beane knows he can't afford the people who actually performs well on those parameters, so (with Peter Brand's help) he begins to find people who have other virtues that his competitors can't see. These players are cheaper, so he can hire three players that are good at various off-beat things rather than one player who is good at something traditional. The three players add up to more wins in the long run.

What I'm saying is not that middle-range departments think they can hire stars. I'm saying they almost consciously hire "non stars", i.e., people they know won't perform well in top journals. (This is what you call being "realistic".) Instead, they should hire on a completely different set of criteria.

My proposal is imperfect because there isn't a good set of "stats" to work with beyond the publication lists. But I'm saying something like this: hire people who get a lot of rejections, even if they have no notable publications, over those who get a few publications and no rejections, which suggests they don't cold-submit very often. (In the movie, for example, Beane hires people who tend to get "walks" rather than striking out.) Look at how often people get a "revise and resubmit", and perhaps even look (if they'll let you) at what reviewers say. This will give you a much better sense of what sort of talent you're looking at than how many papers they've published in what journals.

Since these "players" don't have the universally valorized credentials of those who have published in a top journals, they will be easier to hire and to retain long enough to help you improve your department's publication record and writing culture.

That said, I'm sure there are already departments that have this more nuanced approach to finding and developing talent. Yours may be one of them.

Jonathan said...

One thing to think about is on base percentage. You can get on base by walking, base on balls, as well as by a hit. You don't score every time you are on base, but you won't score unless you are. This approach also devalues some baseball wisdom. For example, what is the value of a stolen base? Can you get slower baserunners for cheaper without sacrificing very much.

In academic terms you wouldn't want someone who was rejected a high percentage of the time, but rather someone who was the equivalent of a patient hitter. Maybe you have to look at a lot of pitches before you swing, increasing your chances of walking or getting a hittable pitch, with the added benefit of frustrating and tiring the pitcher. You would want a researcher who had 3 of 5 acceptances in a year, over one who had 2 of 10.

Thomas said...

I think I disagree. You should not hire someone who is 2 pubs for 2 submissions if you could hire someone who has one comparable pub but 5 submissions, of which, say, 3 were revise and resubmits (even if they still haven't been published or have even been rejected by the first target journal).

There was a point about batting averages in the movie. There are lots of unmimportant things that can drive a batting average down. Some players have low B.A.s but are good at getting runs. I think it's something like that I'm after.