By Edmund Chattoe-Brown
In an important article, Squazzoni and Casnici (2013) raise the issue of how social simulation (as manifested in the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation – hereafter JASSS – the journal that has probably published the most of this kind of research for longest) cites and is cited in the wider scientific community. They discuss this in terms of social simulation being a potential “outstation” of social science (but better integrated into physical science and computing). This short note considers the same argument in reverse. As an important site of social simulation research, is it the case that JASSS is effectively representing research done more widely across the sciences?
The method used to investigate this was extremely simple (and could thus easily be extended and replicated). On 28.08.21, using the search term “opinion dynamics” in “all fields”, all sources from Web of Science (www.webofknowledge.com, hereafter WOS) that were flagged as “highly cited” were selected as a sample. For each article (only articles turned out to be highly cited), the title was searched in JASSS and the number of hits recorded. Common sense was applied in this search process to maximise the chances of success. So if a title had two sub clauses, these were searched jointly as quotations (to avoid the “hits” being very sensitive to the reproduction of punctuation linking clauses.) In addition, the title of the journal in which the article appeared was searched to give a wider sense of how well the relevant journal is known is JASSS.
However, now we come to the issue of the creaky search engine (as well as other limitations of quick and dirty searches). Obviously searching for the exact title will not find variants of that title with spelling mistakes or attempts to standardise spelling (i. e. changing behavior to behaviour). Further, it turns out that the Google search engine (which JASSS uses) does not promise the consistency that often seems to be assumed for it (http://jdebp.uk/FGA/google-result-counts-are-a-meaningless-metric.html). For example, when I searched for “SIAM Review” I mostly got 77 hits, rather often 37 hits and very rarely 0 or 1 hits. (PDFs are available for three of these outcomes from the author but the fourth could not be reproduced to be recorded in the time available.) This result occurred when another search took place seconds after the first so it is not, for example, a result of substantive changes to the content of JASSS. To deal with this problem I tried to confirm the presence of a particular article by searching jointly for all its co-authors. Mostly this approach gave a similar result (but where it does not it is noted in the table below). In addition, wherever there were a relatively large number of hits for a specific search, some of these were usually not the ones intended. (For example no hit on the term “global challenges” actually turned out to be for the journal Global Challenges.) In addition, JASSS often gives an oddly inconsistent number of hits for a specific article: It may appear as PDF and HTML as well as in multiple indices or may occur just once. (This discouraged attempts to go from hits to the specific number of unique articles citing these WOS sources. As it turns out, this additional detail would have added little to the headline result.)
The term “opinion dynamics” was chosen somewhat arbitrarily (for reasons connected with other research) and it is not claimed that this term is even close to a definitive way of capturing any models connected with opinion/attitude change. Nonetheless, it is clear that the number of hits and the type of articles reported on WOS (which is curated and quality controlled) are sufficient (and sufficiently relevant) for this to be a serviceable search term to identify a solid field of research in JASSS (and elsewhere). I shall return to this issue.
The results, shown in the table below are striking on several counts. (All these sources are fully cited in the references at the end of this article.) Most noticeably, JASSS is barely citing a significant number of articles that are very widely cited elsewhere. Because these are highly cited in WOS this cannot be because they are too new or too inaccessible. The second point is the huge discrepancy in citation for the one article on the WOS list that appears in JASSS itself (Flache et al. 2017). Thirdly, although some of these articles appear in journals that JASSS otherwise does not cite (like Global Challenges and Dynamic Games and Applications) others appear in journals that are known to JASSS and generally cited (like SIAM Review).
|Reference||WOS Citations||Article Title Hits in JASSS||Journal Title Hits in JASSS|
|Acemoglu and Ozdaglar (2011)||301||0 (1 based on joint authors)||2|
|Motsch and Tadmor (2014)||214||0||77|
|Van Der Linden et al. (2017)||191||0||6 (but none for the journal)|
|Acemoğlu et al. (2013)||186||1||2 (but 1 article)|
|Proskurnikov et al. (2016)||165||0||9|
|Dong et al. (2017)||147||0||48 (but rather few for the journal)|
|Jia et al. (2015)||118||0||77|
|Dong et al. (2018)||117||0 (1 based on joint authors)||48 (but rather few for the journal)|
|Flache et al. (2017)||86||58 (17 based on joint authors)||N/A|
|Urena et al. (2019)||72||0||6|
|Bu et al. (2020)||56||0||5|
|Zhang et al. (2020)||55||0||33 (but only some of these are for the journal)|
|Xiong et al. (2020)||28||0||1|
|Carrillo et al. (2020)||13||0||0|
One possible interpretation of this result is simply that none of the most highly cited articles in WOS featuring the term “opinion dynamics” happen to be more than incidentally relevant to the scientific interests of JASSS. On consideration, however, this seems a rather improbable coincidence. Firstly, these articles were chosen exactly because they are highly cited so we would have to explain how they could be perceived as so useful generally but specifically not in JASSS. Secondly, the same term (“opinion dynamics”) consistently generates 254 hits in JASSS, suggesting that the problem isn’t a lack of overlap in terminology or research interests.
This situation, however, creates a problem for more conclusive explanation. The state of affairs here is not that these articles are being cited and then rejected on scientific grounds given the interests of JASSS (thus providing arguments I could examine). It is that they are barely being cited at all. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to establish why something is not happening. Perhaps JASSS authors are not aware of these articles to begin with. Perhaps they are aware but do not see the wider scientific value of critiquing them or attempting to engage with their irrelevance in print.
But, given that the problem is non citation, my concern can be made more persuasive (perhaps as persuasive as it can be given problems of convincingly explaining an absence) by investigating the articles themselves. (My thanks are due to Bruce Edmonds for encouraging me to strengthen the argument in this way.) There are definitely some recurring patterns in this sample. Firstly, a significant proportion of the articles are highly mathematical and, therefore (as Agent-Based Modelling often criticises) rely on extreme simplifying assumptions and toy examples. Even here, however, it is not self-evident that such articles should not be cited in JASSS merely because they are mathematical. JASSS has itself published relatively mathematical articles and, if an article contains a mathematical model that could be “agentised” (thus relaxing its extreme assumptions) which is no less empirical than similar models in JASSS (or has particularly interesting behaviours) then it is hard to see why this should not be discussed by at least a few JASSS authors. A clear example of this is provided by Acemoğlu et al. (2013) which argues that existing opinion dynamics models fail to produce the ongoing fluctuations of opinion observed in real data (see, for example, Figures 1-3 in Chattoe-Brown 2014 which also raises concerns about the face validity of popular social simulations of opinion dynamics). In fact, the assumptions of this model could easily be questioned (and real data involves turning points and not just fluctuations) but the point is that JASSS articles are not citing it and rejecting it based on argument but simply not citing it. A model capable of generating ongoing opinion fluctuations (however imperfect) is simply too important to the current state of opinion dynamics research in social simulation not to be considered at all. Another (though less conclusive) example is Motsch and Tadmor (2014) which presents a model suggesting (counter intuitively) that interaction based on heterophily can better achieve consensus than interaction based on homophily. Of course one can reject such an assumption on empirical grounds but JASSS is not currently doing that (and in fact the term heterophily is unknown in the journal except for the title of a cited article.)
Secondly, there are also a number of articles which, while not providing important results seem no less plausible or novel than typical OD articles that are published in JASSS. For example, Jia et al. (2015) add self-appraisal and social power to a standard OD model. Between debates, agents amend the efficacy they believe that they and others have in terms of swaying the outcome and take that into account going forward. Proskurnikov et al. (2016) present the results of a model in which agents can have negative ties with each other (as well as the more usual positive ones) and thus consider the coevolution of positive/negative sentiments and influence (describing what they call hostile camps i. e. groups with positive ties to each other and negative ties to other groups). This is distinct from the common repulsive effect in OD models where agents do not like the opinions of others (rather than disliking the others themselves.)
Finally, both Dong et al. (2017) and Zhang et al. (2020) reach for the idea (through modelling) that experts and leaders in OD models may not just be randomly scattered through the population as types but may exist because of formal organisations or accidents of social structure: This particular agent is either deliberately appointed to have more influence or happens to have it because of their network position.
On a completely different tack, two articles (Dong et al. 2018 and Acemoglu and Ozdaglar 2011) are literature reviews or syntheses on relevant topics and it is hard to see how such broad ranging articles could have so little value to OD research in JASSS.
It will be admitted that some of the articles in the sample are hard to evaluate with certainty. Mathematical approaches often seem to be more interested in generating mathematics than in justifying its likely value. This is particularly problematic when combined with a suggestion that the product of the research may be instrumental algorithms (designed to get things done) rather than descriptive ones (designed to understand social behaviour). An example of this is several articles which talk about achieving consensus without really explaining whether this is a technical goal (for example in a neural network) or a social phenomenon and, if the latter, whether this places constraints on what it legitimate: You can reach consensus by debate but not by shooting dissenters!
But as well as specific ideas in specific models, this sample of articles also suggest a different emphasis from those currently found within JASSS OD research. For example, there is much more interest in deliberately achieving consensus (and the corresponding hazards of manipulation or misinformation impeding that.) Reading these articles collectively gives a sense that JASSS OD models are very much liberal democratic: Agents honestly express their views (or at most are somewhat reticent to protect themselves.) They decently expect the will of the people to prevail. They do not lie strategically to sway the influential, spread rumours to discredit the opinions of opponents or flood the debate with bots. Again, this darker vision is no more right a priori than the liberal democratic one but JASSS should at least be engaging with articles modelling (or providing data on – see Van Der Linden et al. 2017) such phenomena in an OD context. (Although misinformation is mentioned in some OD articles in JASSS it does not seem to be modelled. There also seems to be another surprising glitch in the search engine which considers the term “fake news” to be a hit for misinformation!) This also puts a new slant on an ongoing challenge in OD research, identifying a plausible relationship between fact and opinion. Is misinformation a different field of research (on the grounds that opinions can never be factually wrong) or is it possible for the misinformed to develop mis-opinions? (Those that they would change if what they knew changed.) Is it really the case that Brexiteers, for example, are completely indifferent to the economic consequences which will reveal themselves or did they simply have mistaken beliefs about how high those costs might turn out to be which will cause them to regret their decision at some later stage?
Thus to sum up, while some of the articles in the sample can be dismissed as either irrelevant to JASSS or having a potential relevance that is hard to establish, the majority cannot reasonably be regarded in this way (and a few are clearly important to the existing state of OD research.) While we cannot explain why these articles are not in fact cited, we can thus call into question one possible (Panglossian) explanation for the observed pattern (that they are not cited because they have nothing to contribute).
Apart from the striking nature of the result and its obvious implication (if social simulators want to be cited more widely they need to make sure they are also citing the work of others appropriately) this study has two wider (related) implications for practice.
Firstly, systematic literature reviewing (see, for example, Hansen et al. 2019 – not published in JASSS) needs to be better enforced in social simulation: “Systematic literature review” gets just 7 hits in JASSS. It is not enough to cite just what you happen to have read or models that resemble your own, you need to be citing what the community might otherwise not be aware of or what challenges your own model assumptions. (Although, in my judgement, key assumptions of Acemoğlu et al. 2013 are implausible I don’t think that I could justify non subjectively that they are any more implausible than those of those of the Zaller-Deffuant model – Malarz et al. 2011 – given the huge awareness discrepancy which the two models manifest in social simulation.)
Secondly, we need to rethink the nature of literature reviewing as part of progressive research. I have used “opinion dynamics” here not because it is the perfect term to identify all models of opinion and attitude change but because it throws up enough hits to show that this term is widely used in social simulation. Because I have clearly stated my search term, others can critique it and extend my analysis using other relevant terms like “opinion change” or “consensus formation”. A literature review that is just a bunch of arbitrary stuff cannot be critiqued or improved systematically (rather than nit-picked for specific omissions – as reviewers often do – and even then the critique can’t tell what should have been included if there are no clearly stated search criteria.) It should not be possible for JASSS (and the social simulation community it represents) simply to disregard articles as potentially important in their implications for OD as Acemoğlu et al. (2013). Even if this article turned out to be completely wrong-headed, we need to have enough awareness of it to be able to say why before setting it aside. (Interestingly, the one citation it does receive in JASSS can be summarised as “there are some other model broadly like this” with no detailed discussion at all – and thus no clear statement of how the model presented in the citing article adds to previous models – but uninformative citation is a separate problem.)
This article as part of “Towards Realistic Computational Models of Social Influence Dynamics” a project funded through ESRC (ES/S015159/1) by ORA Round 5.
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Chattoe-Brown, E. (2021) Does It Take Two (And A Creaky Search Engine) To Make An Outstation? Hunting Highly Cited Opinion Dynamics Articles in the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation (JASSS). Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 19th August 2021. https://rofasss.org/2021/08/19/outstation/