How to Predict a Nobel Economist

Analyzing the number of academic citations a researcher garners is a way of crowdsourcing a list of frontrunners.

The Nobel medals of Nobel Prize 1976. (AP)

On Monday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences will announce the recipient (or possibly recipients) of the 2015 Nobel Prize in economics. And although predicting the future is extremely difficult, a group of analysts at Thomson Reuters have come up with a list of frontrunners using a methodology that has correctly shortlisted nine Nobel winners since it was first employed in 1990.

Thomson Reuters’s list of “Nobel caliber” economists is compiled using data about all of the footnotes and citations in academic papers. “The methodology is pretty simple. We look at a ranked list of papers published in economics by citation and we go down that list from most cited to least cited and then we make adjustments,” explains David Pendlebury, a citation analyst for Thomson Reuters. “Generally in economics we're looking for those cited a thousand times or more. They are extremely exceptional.”

Pendlebury says that analyzing citation data is a way of crowdsourcing the answer to who the academic community judges to be important. The tradition was started by Eugene Garfield, who developed citation indexing at Thomson Reuters and has been nicknamed the “grandfather of Google.” Garfield made a list of the 50 most-cited economists in 1990, and the methodology used to compile the original list yielded 15 economists who had already won the prize.

This year, the frontrunners on the Thomson Reuters list for the Nobel in economics are Richard Blundell, John List, and Charles Manski. Blundell’s research focuses on labor markets and consumer behavior; List uses field experiments to explore economic questions; and Manski does empirical research on social interactions and how to use survey data.

The Wall Street Journal has compiled a list of favorites that includes notable economists whose names come up during Nobel season. Some of their favorites include growth-theory economists Paul Romer and Robert Barro. Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University who made a prediction last year on his blog, Marginal Revolution, has not yet posted on the matter.

Pendlebury says that the particulars of what an economist researches matters when it comes to Nobel predictions. “If you were going to try to pick a prize for a particular year, you'd want to look a little bit at the sequence of prizes given recently by the Nobel economics committee. Whether this is intentional or not, they seem to cycle through different kinds of sub-fields,” he says.

This year, Pendlebury thinks it’s possible that the committee will home in on public economics. In that category, he sees Anthony Atkinson and Angus Deaton—both economists who have extensively researched inequality and poverty—as having a good shot.

But predictions are hard. This year, Thomson Reuters’s citation-based lists for the Nobel Prizes announced so far contained only one winner, Arthur B. McDonald, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Takaaki Kajita. (Kajita wasn’t on the list either.)

The Nobel committee will announce the winner(s) on Monday afternoon, local time. At the end of the day, though, "It's all a guessing game, even for economists," says Pendlebury. "Those wonderful Swedes could surprise everybody."