Nepotism study proves life really is unfair

Many of us have wondered how the slacker bureaucrat who made our lives difficult, in the government or corporate office, successfully got through the hiring process…and whether it was a fair occurrence or a result of inside connections, wheelings and dealings.

Now, a new tool developed by Stefano Allesina makes it easier to detect nepotism and quantify its effect in the public sector, and all that is needed is a laptop, a name database and a penchant for statistics. The Italian researcher at the University of Chicago has created a series of scripts using surnames and geographic origins to spot nepotism amongst Italy’s 60,000 tenured university faculty. His PLoS ONE study published in August confirms suspicions that nepotism is extensive in Italy, and he now says this tool might be more broadly used.

Allesina’s process, which he likens to “extracting balls from an urn”, looks at how likely one is to draw the same name from a subset of academia – such as a specific discipline like medicine – from randomly selecting names from the entire pool of all disciplines (all of Italian academia).

He then asked, “Would there be a lower number of names than you would expect by chance?” For three disciplines in particular, the answer was resoundingly yes: industrial engineering, law, and the medical sciences. Each had between 68-312 more last name duplicates than expected if every academic in Italy was equally likely to be situated in every individual discipline, which Allesina notes is potentially a lot of nepotistic hires!

A publicly accessible database downloaded from an Italian government website provided the names along with department and university affiliations. To ensure that same last name pairs were nepotistic in nature, and not coincidentally identical, Allesina showed that Italian academia consists of uncommon, infrequent last names.

Yet part of the occurrence of same last names could be due to what is termed ‘occupational following.’ “If your parents are academics, you’re more likely to be an academic. That’s indisputable and that is one thing. But the other thing is that the hiring in Italy is strongly regulated by law. You typically have to do something big to hire someone you like.”

The hiring system in place, explained Allesina, is extremely rigid. Each part of the process is partitioned into points, and the candidate with the greatest cumulative sum is given the job. “They have to say, we gave this many points for the CV, this many for the written examination, that many for the oral examination.” All positions are extremely competitive, sometimes with hundreds of candidates competing for a spot.

In order to game the system, says Allesina, you have to get creative. Some universities are alleged to have what he calls a “magician approach for the CV. You published 16 papers, but they’re not quite relevant. Yeah, you’re doing biology, but you’re doing it differently than what we’re looking for.” In other cases, an agreement is allegedly made with another faculty member where each person hires each other’s relatives at their respective universities (and Allesina notes that this form of nepotism won’t be detected by last name analysis!)

Nepotism, derived from the Latin word for nephew, has been around since Roman times; we are quite familiar with it. And though it is unclear whether nepotism has been a problem for that long in Italian universities, Allesina is sure it has been a while; “Strategies have been developed for over 100 years. They’re very clever.” In fact, the term came into popular use during the Medieval Ages when popes, unable to officially have children of their own, would appoint their nephews to Cardinal or other prestigious papal positions.

The reaction to Allesina’s research, aided in part by the response from Italian ex-pats, has uncovered new areas where nepotism could be uncovered, such as Greece or Spain, so long as the “naming network” – whether you carry the last name of only your father, or some combination – is properly accounted for. But Allesina acknowledges nepotism is only part of the problem plaguing academics, a field whose mantra is not one of money or malfeasance but of merit. He notes replacing family members with equally unqualified friends is equally unmeritorious. “I don’t know if I’ll do more about nepotism…I’m very interested in the way people, papers and proposals are evaluated in science,” he said. Allesina is hoping to use his framework for more general purposes. His ultimate goal: “to have a system where if you hire good people, you benefit, and if you hire bad people, you don’t.”

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2 Responses to Nepotism study proves life really is unfair

  1. VonMalcolm says:

    I didn’t realize nepotism could be so sneaky!

    It’s really dangerous: we don’t want a bunch of incompetents in positions of power making incompetent decisions, all the while adding more incompetents to their numbers.

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  2. Giuseppe says:

    Allesina is notoriously a buffoon, he tried to demonstrate something about nepotism adding the numbers of persons with a same surname….that research is simply absurd, nonsensal and ridiculous.

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