If you want to be cited, calibrate your agent-based model: A Reply to Chattoe-Brown

By Marijn A. Keijzer

This is a reply to a previous comment, (Chattoe-Brown 2022).

The social simulation literature has called on its proponents to enhance the quality and realism of their contributions through systematic validation and calibration (Flache et al., 2017). Model validation typically refers to assessments of how well the predictions of their agent-based models (ABMs) map onto empirically observed patterns or relationships. Calibration, on the other hand, is the process of enhancing the realism of the model by parametrizing it based on empirical data (Boero & Squazzoni, 2005). We would expect that presenting a validated or calibrated model serves as a signal of model quality, and would thus be a desirable characteristic of a paper describing an ABM.

In a recent contribution to RofASSS, Edmund Chattoe-Brown provocatively argued that model validation does not bear fruit for researchers interested in boosting their citations. In a sample of articles from JASSS published on opinion dynamics he observed that “the sample clearly divides into non-validated research with more citations and validated research with fewer” (Chattoe-Brown, 2022). Well-aware of the bias and limitations of the sample at hand, Chattoe-Brown calls on refutation of his hypothesis. An analysis of the corpus of articles in Web of Science, presented here, could serve that goal.

To test whether there exists an effect of model calibration and/or validation on the citation counts of papers, I compare citation counts of a larger number of original research articles on agent-based models published in the literature. I extracted 11,807 entries from Web of Science by searching for items that contained the phrases “agent-based model”, “agent-based simulation” or “agent-based computational model” in its abstract.[1] I then labeled all items that mention “validate” in its abstract as validated ABMs and those that mention “calibrate” as calibrated ABMs. This measure if rather crude, of course, as descriptions containing phrases like “we calibrated our model” or “others should calibrate our model” are both labeled as calibrated models. However, if mentioning that future research should calibrate or validate the model is not related to citations counts (which I would argue it indeed is not), then this inaccuracy does not introduce bias.

The shares of entries that mention calibration or validation are somewhat small. Overall, just 5.62% of entries mention validation, 3.21% report a calibrated model and 0.65% fall in both categories. The large sample size, however, will still enable the execution of proper statistical analysis and hypothesis testing.

How are mentions of calibration and validation in the abstract related to citation counts at face value? Bivariate analyses show only minor differences, as revealed in Figure 1. In fact, the distribution of citations for validated and non-validated ABMs (panel A) is remarkably similar. Wilcoxon tests with continuity correction—the nonparametric version of the simple t test—corroborate their similarity (W = 3,749,512, p = 0.555). The differences in citations between calibrated and non-calibrated models appear, albeit still small, more pronounced. Calibrated ABMs are cited slightly more often (panel B), as also supported by a bivariate test (W = 1,910,772, p < 0.001).

Picture 1

Figure 1. Distributions of number of citations of all the entries in the dataset for validated (panel A) and calibrated (panel B) ABMs and their averages with standard errors over years (panels C and D)

Age of the paper might be a more important determinant of citation counts, as panels C and D of Figure 1 suggest. Clearly, the age of a paper should be important here, because older papers have had much more opportunity to get cited. In particular, papers younger than 10 years seem to not have matured enough for its citation rates to catch up to older articles. When comparing the citation counts of purely theoretical models with calibrated and validated versions, this covariate should not be missed, because the latter two are typically much younger. In other words, the positive relationship between model calibration/validation and citation counts could be hidden in the bivariate analysis, as model calibration and validation are recent trends in ABM research.

I run a Poisson regression on the number of citations as explained by whether they are validated and calibrated (simultaneously) and whether they are both. The age of the paper is taken into account, as well as the number of references that the paper uses itself (controlling for reciprocity and literature embeddedness, one might say). Finally, the fields in which the papers have been published, as registered by Web of Science, have been added to account for potential differences between fields that explains both citation counts and conventions about model calibration and validation.

Table 1 presents the results from the four models with just the main effects of validation and calibration (model 1), the interaction of validation and calibration (model 2) and the full model with control variables (model 3).

Table 1. Poisson regression on the number of citations

# Citations
(1) (2) (3)
Validated -0.217*** -0.298*** -0.094***
(0.012) (0.014) (0.014)
Calibrated 0.171*** 0.064*** 0.076***
(0.014) (0.016) (0.016)
Validated x Calibrated 0.575*** 0.244***
(0.034) (0.034)
Age 0.154***
Cited references 0.013***
Field included No No Yes
Constant 2.553*** 2.556*** 0.337**
(0.003) (0.003) (0.164)
Observations 11,807 11,807 11,807
AIC 451,560 451,291 301,639
Note: *p<0.1; **p<0.05; ***p<0.01

The results from the analyses clearly suggest a negative effect of model validation and a positive effect of model calibration on the likelihood of being cited. The hypothesis that was so “badly in need of refutation” (Chattoe-Brown, 2022) will remain unrefuted for now. The effect does turn positive, however, when the abstract makes mention of calibration as well. In both the controlled (model 3) and uncontrolled (model 2) analyses, combining the effects of validation and calibration yields a positive coefficient overall.[2]

The controls in model 3 substantially affect the estimates from the three main factors of interest, while remaining in expected directions themselves. The age of a paper indeed helps its citation count, and so does the number of papers the item cites itself. The fields, furthermore, take away from the main effects somewhat, too, but not to a problematic degree. In an additional analysis, I have looked at the relationship between the fields and whether they are more likely to publish calibrated or validated models and found no substantial relationships. Citation counts will differ between fields, however. The papers in our sample are more often cited in, for example, hematology, emergency medicine and thermodynamics. The ABMs in the sample coming from toxicology, dermatology and religion are on the unlucky side of the equation, receiving less citations on average. Finally, I have also looked at papers published in JASSS specifically, due to the interest of Chattoe-Brown and the nature of this outlet. Surprisingly, the same analyses run on the subsample of these papers (N=376) showed a negative relationship between citation counts and model calibration/validation. Does the JASSS readership reveal its taste for artificial societies?

In sum, I find support for the hypothesis of Chattoe-Brown (2022) on the negative relationship between model validation and citations counts for papers presenting ABMs. If you want to be cited, you should not validate your ABM. Calibrated ABMs, on the other hand, are more likely to receive citations. What is more, ABMs that were both calibrated and validated are most the most successful papers in the sample. All conclusions were drawn considering (i.e. controlling for) the effects of age of the paper, the number of papers the paper cited itself, and (citation conventions in) the field in which it was published.

While the patterns explored in this and Chattoe-Brown’s recent contribution are interesting, or even puzzling, they should not distract from the goal of moving towards realistic agent-based simulations of social systems. In my opinion, models that combine rigorous theory with strong empirical foundations are instrumental to the creation of meaningful and purposeful agent-based models. Perhaps the results presented here should just be taken as another sign that citation counts are a weak signal of academic merit at best.

Data, code and supplementary analyses

All data and code used for this analysis, as well as the results from the supplementary analyses described in the text, are available here: https://osf.io/x9r7j/


[1] Note that the hyphen between “agent” and “based” does not affect the retrieved corpus. Both contributions that mention “agent based” and “agent-based” were retrieved.

[2] A small caveat to the analysis of the interaction effect is that the marginal improvement of model 2 upon model 1 is rather small (AIC difference of 269). This is likely (partially) due to the small number of papers that mention both calibration and validation (N=77).


Marijn Keijzer acknowledges IAST funding from the French National Research Agency (ANR) under the Investments for the Future (Investissements d’Avenir) program, grant ANR-17-EURE-0010.


Boero, R., & Squazzoni, F. (2005). Does empirical embeddedness matter? Methodological issues on agent-based models for analytical social science. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 8(4), 1–31. https://www.jasss.org/8/4/6.html

Chattoe-Brown, E. (2022) If You Want To Be Cited, Don’t Validate Your Agent-Based Model: A Tentative Hypothesis Badly In Need of Refutation. Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 1st Feb 2022. https://rofasss.org/2022/02/01/citing-od-models

Flache, A., Mäs, M., Feliciani, T., Chattoe-Brown, E., Deffuant, G., Huet, S., & Lorenz, J. (2017). Models of social influence: towards the next frontiers. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 20(4). https://doi.org/10.18564/jasss.3521

Keijzer, M. (2022) If you want to be cited, calibrate your agent-based model: Reply to Chattoe-Brown. Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 9th Mar 2022. https://rofasss.org/2022/03/09/Keijzer-reply-to-Chattoe-Brown


One thought on “If you want to be cited, calibrate your agent-based model: A Reply to Chattoe-Brown”

  1. I am delighted with this response (and human enough to be pleased that I was confirmed not refuted though this confirmation _may_ be a bad sign for ABM). My main additional suggestion is that we are also mindful of the unavoidable limits of quantitative approaches. Another thing I was able to see through a more detailed case study is that the _type_ of citation matters. Validation is not completely ignored but it (and its possible implications) tend not to be acknowledged explicitly. So a validated model will be cited as one of a set of “models with emotion” or “models with networks” but not as if it might have a different status (for example “deserving” more attention/citation than a non validated model). I don’t know if this kind of analysis is necessarily small scale or whether those with skills in “data scraping” or “automated analysis” might be able to support these conclusions on much larger samples. It is unlikely that we will ever access the “motivations” for modelling in certain ways directly but we may be able to get nearer still through a diversity of methods. Now that the result is more than just a conjecture, perhaps there would be ethical justification for suitably designed direct experiments? (See, for example, 10.1017/S0140525X00011213)

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