U.S. PIRG Publication Misrepresents Substance of Show-Me Institute Article
While looking for some academic papers on Google Scholar, I took a moment, as an afterthought, to see whether the search engine was picking up work produced by Show-Me Institute scholars (it is). To my surprise, a brief article that I cowrote with intern Abhi Sivasailam was the first delivered result in a search for “Show-Me Institute” on Google Scholar.
Normally, I would be thrilled. But, sadly, the study wildly misrepresents Abhi’s and my work.
We were cited in a study published by U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), an organization that initially began as a public interest law firm founded by perennial presidential candidate Ralph Nader. There are now many state-based PIRGs, who, according to the organization’s mission statement, stand up to powerful special interest groups in order to advocate for the American public.
In February 2010, U.S. PIRG published “The Right Track: Building a 21st Century High-Speed Rail System for America,” about the benefits of intercity high-speed rail. In 2009, President Barack Obama invited states to apply for federal funds that would be devoted either to updating railroads or to building entirely new rail systems. Authors Tony Dutzik, Siena Kaplan, and Phineas Baxandall argue in the paper that additional funding is necessary to bring America up to speed, as it were.
“The worst, most costly mistake America can make going into the 21st century is to not invest adequate resources in upgrading and expanding our passenger rail network,” write Dutzik, Kaplan, and Baxandrall (emphasis theirs).
This blog post is not to argue with PIRG’s conclusion — I believe others can, and have, argued persuasively that government-provided, high-speed rail is costly and usually doesn’t deliver what’s promised. Instead, this post is about academic integrity.
U.S. PIRG cites Abhi and me as the source for the following:
Missouri has applied for funding to pave the way for future 90 or 110 mph service continuing from St. Louis to Kansas City. The projects would reduce delays on this corridor by 48 percent, increasing the number of trains arriving on time from 19 percent to over 80 percent.
The cited source is an article we wrote titled, “High-speed rail predicted to travel much slower than advertised.” I re-read the article, hoping to find where Dutzik, Kaplan, and Baxandrall could have interpreted our work to indicate that “Missouri has applied for funding to pave the way for future 90 or 110 mph service continuing from St. Louis to Kansas City.”
I can’t find specific text that backs up the 90 or 110 mph service to which the PIRG authors refer. I did find the following in our article:
[…] trains traveling the route between Kansas City and Saint Louis would travel much slower. According to the state’s preliminary application for federal funding, those trains would travel an average of 55 mph after improvements, a 5-mph increase from the current average speed.
In order for passenger trains to reach a maximum speed of 110 mph on the route between Kansas City and Saint Louis, a large portion of the track would need to be rebuilt as a double track, Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said.
“I don’t think anyone is seriously thinking of higher than 90 between Kansas City and Saint Louis,” said Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, who studies transportation issues.
In fact, a takeaway point of our article was that there is a difference between maximum speed and average speed. Just because some state governors say that a high-speed rail train will hit speeds of 100 miles per hour doesn’t mean that your travel will remain at that constant speed. More than likely, your average speed will be much slower, with the train hitting that maximum speed for a short duration of time.
PIRG also notes, in the sentence attributed to us, that “The projects would reduce delays on this corridor by 48 percent, increasing the number of trains arriving on time from 19 percent to over 80 percent.”
According to the state’s application, we wrote in our article, trains were rarely arriving on time in Missouri:
According to the preliminary application, only 18.6 percent of trains running between Kansas City and Saint Louis arrived on time during the federal fiscal year of 2008.
So, I suppose that’s how the authors arrived at the figure of 19 percent. And we did write that the Missouri Department of Transporation (MoDOT) had estimated that, with improvements, the percentage of trains arriving on time would increase to 80 percent (we wrote that the estimated figure was 80 percent, not over 80 percent, as written in the PIRG paper). But Abhi and I also noted that trains had been arriving on time more than 90 percent of the time in recent months. And, to my dismay, I cannot find in our own work the 48-percent delay reduction figure that PIRG attributes to us.
Furthermore, it is strange that the PIRG authors attributed these figures to a brief article written by Abhi and me, rather than to the entities and published reports that are the direct source of the estimates we used. We simply reported what the transit improvement claims were; we did not verify them.
Finally, we represent merely one citation of 238 in this particular U.S. PIRG publication. If our work was misrepresented, it is certainly possible that other authors or facts were misrepresented, as well.
I will let Abhi have the last word, via this statement that he sent to me:
That researchers affiliated with the Show-Me Institute have been critical of high-speed rail projects in the state is readily apparent. In fact, pieces of published scholarship and blog content can be read as direct critiques of fundamental arguments that lie at the core of the paper released by PIRG. It is important to stress, however, that these disagreements are not on trial in this post.
This post was motivated not by an inclination to re-engage debate on high speed rail, but rather to offer a clarification of prior work and expound on a teachable moment: misrepresentation of this nature, however slight, damages the academic enterprise. Though the transgression was minor, such acts of misrepresentation represent a deficiency in either academic integrity or academic rigor that can damage the credibility of all parties involved. Scholarship with such errors invites not just skepticism on the quality of sources, but on the quality of the contentions they support.