The Next Big Thing?

How can you tell what the next big thing is going to be? Google’s pagerank algorithm will tell you what web pages have been important enough in the past for other people to have linked to.   Google trends will tell you what search terms people have been using recently, again in the past. What about the future?

Some predictions about the future are doomed to failure.   For example, Popper’s Poverty of Historicism is largely about the futility of predicting future society. However, some aspects of the future are largely predictable – science and technology work because they accurately predict the behavior of the physical world.  There’s a large middle ground of futures that aren’t easy to predict.  Prediction markets have been proposed as a way of getting better-than-chance predictions of these events.

Ricky Robinson at NICTA has recently launched citemine – a prediction market for academic papers.  The predictions being made are about how much each paper will be cited by other papers.  Ironically for citemine, one of the poverties of historicism that Popper identifies is a poverty of imagination about the possibilities of the impact of future science and technology! (Still, I imagine that Popper’s criticism only applies to long-term predictions of the impacts of science on society, not the shorter-term predictions of the importance of recently published scientific papers.)

The benefit of citemine is that it can be a leading indicator of the quality of publications, whereas existing citation metrics are very lagging indicators of the quality of publications and researchers.   Ricky’s hope is that academics will care enough to trade in citemine to acquire its “Reals” which may become a widely recognised measure of academic reputation.  Your personal worth in Reals is a measure of two things: your ability to have written highly cited papers, and how much better you have been than others at spotting papers that will be highly cited.  You can tell how much of your worth is due to each different source.  (Interestingly, I think both of these are lagging indicators, despite that the market price of a publication is a leading indicator.)

Even if such a market could work well if universally adopted and in a steady state, it’s a challenge to launch it.   It’s a chicken and egg problem – activity is required to make the market function, but a functioning market is required to generate interest in being active in the market.  The market has to bootstrap Reals into having value in the real world somehow.

citemine is “very beta”, and there are certainly a few issues at the moment:

  • Some matches aren’t being made in the market – there are buyers and sellers at the same price who aren’t doing a deal.   (Looks like a bug?)
  • There’s currently very low market depth, especially among sellers.
  • There’s no sophisticated market overview mechanism – just a list of papers at their current prices.
  • There’s no market metrics for papers – e.g. historical returns, price volatility, etc.

Ricky’s paper explains citemine.  I have two queries, and two observations…

Is citemine a zero-sum game?  In citemine, Reals are given to shareholders as dividends based on citations, but those Reals come from the previously-paid cost of submitting the citing papers.  So it looks like a zero-sum game. In my limited understanding of the economics of real stock markets, value gets created through primary production and through productivity improvements in other sectors.   I don’t see how that happens in citemine. Which leads me to my next query…

Is citemine a pyramid/ponzi scheme?  In citemine, the only source of new Reals is from the registration of new users, whose initial allocation of Reals is used to submit papers to pay dividends for existing users.  This question is more stark because there’s no leverage in citemine (debt, shorts).  Maybe I’m just confusing value with liquidity.

My intuition is manuscripts in citemine will behave more like mining stocks than industrial stocks in real stock markets. (Is that why it’s called citemine? 🙂 )  Mines have a limited finite quantity of ore, and the value of the stocks for that mine decrease as the ore is removed from the mine.   The value of a manuscript in citemine derives from future citations, but for almost all scientific papers, there is a finite time horizon for possible citation.  At some point people lose interest in moderately influential papers and cite later derived works.  Even very influential papers become part of assumed/background knowledge and get cited less.  I think that in citemine, most manuscripts will trend to a near-zero market price.

Finally, there’s a “meta-gaming” anomaly currently at play in the citemine market. If it turns out to be a successful market, then Reals get real value, and Ricky’s citemine paper (and closely related papers by other authors) will also inevitably be highly cited.  If the market turns out to fade into obscurity, then the free Reals you get on joining stay as play money, so it doesn’t matter how you will have spent them.   Ricky’s paper (and related papers) are a safe bet – you can’t lose!  I would have bought some, but no one was selling – and I have no idea about how to pick a good price to offer!

Comments 2

  • Hey Mark, thanks for blogging about Citemine. You’re right, there are bugs, and many important features lacking. We’re working on improving the site, and also formally proving some of the properties of this particular market (e.g., the “truthfulness” of the mechanism, in mechanism design parlance), and answering some of the questions you’ve posed. What’s exciting for us is the excitement that scientists who are familiar with Citemine have expressed about the underlying idea. We’ve got to work a bit harder on the execution side, obviously.

  • I also think citemine is an exciting idea! I’m happy to forgive bugs in a “very beta” site – and I trust that because you’ve released early, that you’ll release often!

    My questions about citemine are just that – questions. I’m not sure if being a zero-sum game is necessarily bad, and I’m not sure if being a pyramid/ponzi scheme is necessarily bad either. (Of course perhaps citemine is neither!) Liming is hoping maybe it is a ponzi scheme and that he can get in early on it. 🙂

    I like playing games, but when I’m learning to play a new game, I want to understand the ramifications of the ruleset.