The authors looked at how the order that NBER Working Papers appear in the Monday "New This Week" email update affects the number of downloads, and subsequently the number of citations, that each paper receives. Now, since the papers are listed in numerical order, which papers appear at the top of the list is essentially random. If all readers of "New This Week" were rational, the order that papers appear in the list would make no difference to which ones they chose to read.
However, it appears the order does matter. The authors write:
Our findings are striking: despite the effectively random allocation of papers to the NTW ranking, we find much higher hits, downloads and citations of papers presented earlier in the list. The effects are particularly meaningful for the first paper listed, with a 33% increase in views, a 29% increase in downloads, and a 27% increase in citations from being listed first. For measures of downloads and hits, although not for citations, there are further declines as papers slide down the list. However, the very last position is associated with a boost in views and downloads.On top of that, it isn't just all readers of the NBER email that are affected. The framing effects are significant when the authors restrict the sample just to 'experts', being those in academia.
Why would these framing effects occur? A rational reader would weigh up the costs and benefits of reading the email (or the rest of the email) to identify papers that interest them. Given that the order of papers is essentially random, the first paper has the same chance of being of interest as the tenth paper (i.e. the costs and benefits are the same for every link in the NTW email). So, if a rational person reads the first link, they should read every link.
However, people are not purely rational. Framing can make a difference. I can think of two reasons why framing might be important in the case of NTW emails. First, perhaps we suffer from a short attention span. So, when reading through the NTW email, the early papers have our close attention but by the time we get towards the end of the email, we are mainly skimming the titles very quickly. I sometimes catch myself doing this when reading eTOCs sent by journals, especially if I get a lot of them on the same day. However, the authors test the effect of the length of the list, and the effects are not significant.
Second, perhaps we only have limited time available to read NBER Working Papers each week. Think of it as a time budget, which is exhausted once we've read one or two (or n) papers. So, we stop paying attention once we have opened the first one or two (or n) links because we know we won't have enough time to read them. Clearly I wish I had this problem. Instead I print them out and they sit in an ever-increasing pile of "gee-that-would-be-interesting-to-read" papers (which is why I occasionally blog about some paper that is quite dated - you can tell I picked a random paper from the middle of my pile). The authors actually test the opposite - whether having a first paper that has a 'star' author encourages people to read more papers that appear later in the list (i.e. that people decide whether the whole list is worth perusing based on the quality of the first link). They find some fairly weak evidence that having a star author on the first paper reduces the favouritism of the last paper. So maybe the latter of my two explanations alternatives explains the framing effect here.
So, knowing that this is a problem, what to do about it? I guess it depends on what your goal is. If you're an author of an NBER Working Paper, you want to ensure your paper gets to the top of the list so it will be downloaded and cited more. So, maybe there's an incentive for side-payments to whoever puts the NTW list together, or whoever assigns the working paper numbers? More seriously, the authors suggest that randomising the order of papers in the list would improve things, from the authors standpoint. It wouldn't solve the framing problem, but at least it would ensure that authors couldn't game the system.
[HT: Marginal Revolution]