Sudhir Venkatesh Responds to the Freakonomics Community

Dear Freakonomics readers,

A profile of me and my work appeared in the N.Y. Times yesterday. There were two story angles: how I conduct my research and allegations of questionable financial dealings in which I was involved. I wrote a formal statement to the Columbia University student paper and online blog, but you are also my community, so let me address you directly.

Three years ago, at my request, I began working with Columbia University on an internal initiative to develop greater clarity and transparency of an institute that they had asked me to direct. Together, we systematically reviewed grants management and research procedures as we sought to establish new, higher standards of reporting and accountability. Part of that review included the grants managed by my position. An audit was conducted, it was completed, and ethically I felt it was my responsibility to pay back $13,000 in previously reimbursed expenses for which my own recordkeeping did not meet these new standards. That matter is closed, and has been for over two years.

I have subsequently worked extensively with the FBI — which, as you might imagine, conducted a comprehensive financial background check on me before my work with them began.  Next semester, I will be returning to Columbia University to resume my duties full-time. It is troubling to me that old documents are being leaked now.  My life and my work has been about transparency and I have absolutely nothing to hide.

The other storyline speaks to the core of academic knowledge. When you live with people, or spend years with them, as the means of obtaining your data, what are the evidentiary standards that you should follow? “Ethnographic” work is fuzzy. I’ve never lied, made up characters, or otherwise misrepresented facts. The struggle arises in ensuring that your memory adequately recorded the events, and then validating them before you go to print. Neither are very straightforward or easy to accomplish, particularly when you study crime and marginal social groups. The University prohibits me from using real names, so third-party validation is difficult to achieve. So, in practice, I work in teams, where many people can discuss what we all saw. I’ve collaborated with students and faculty in all of my research — with gangs, sex workers, public housing residents, etc.

In general, I think there is a healthy and vigorous debate among ethnographers about how our work should be conducted. This includes how we should write for the public, and I think we could all do a better job of making our work more accessible and enjoyable to read.

I look forward to doing just that in these pages for many years to come.


Sudhir Venkatesh

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  1. Allen says:

    Shorter version:
    1. You might have read this bad NYTimes article

    2. Sure, I was audited and I voluntarily wrote a check for $13K because I’m such a nice guy (who keeps terrible records)

    3. These confidential documents shouldn’t have been leaked because I am transparent and have nothing to hide.

    4. At least my stuff is fun to read.

    I’m afraid nowhere does the professor clarify what is or is not true with #1 above. Which is okay – one doesn’t have to respond to every hit job by the NYT. I have enjoyed Sudhir’s research and book, and hope there’s nothing to this whole episode. But if you are going to respond, don’t wave your hands and try to blow smoke up everyone’s butts. Either answer the accusations, or lawyer up.

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    • Roger says:

      Nicely summarized. Hypocrisy is a dish that often leaves a bad after taste. Sadly though, Prof. Venketash will continue to write (fabricate / sensationalize) books and the public will continue to eat it up. Columbia University, not a paragon of ethical excellence by any stretch, will stand by and support this charlatan as he brings in a lot of money for the university. In fact, it is more likely Prof. Venketash will end up teaching a course on ethics and integrity to the students; such is the state of our so-called elite academic institutions that value money above all else.

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    • mannyv says:

      Well, there’s around $250k that’s missing/undocumented. Is that normal for academia? Who knows?

      The article sounds like there are colleagues at Columbia who would like to invite Professor Ventakesh not to return, but lack the wherewithal to extend their invitation personally. Too bad for them.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        More than 90% of the disputed money is “insufficient documentation”, like not recording the legal names of the drug dealers being interviewed, which his colleagues say in the article is normal practice (to prevent the police from subpoenaing the list of self-confessed drug dealers).

        What the article is really missing is context. Is that $240K out of millions? Making mistakes on only 1% of your grant money would be a miracle. Making mistakes on, say, half of it, would be a disaster. The reporter leaves out that critical contextual fact, just like poor reporters usually leave out the absolute risks for rare medical issues when they want you to be excited about something having a big relative risk.

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      • GM says:

        Several thoughts in response to the 10:56am post.

        (1) Your logic may be sound in the corporate sector (though private cars for one’s girlfriend aren’t acceptable there either). But it’s not sound in the public sector. Research money is legally restricted to the specific project it is funding. Funders – especially gov’t funders – can and will take money back if it lacks appropriate documentation. The standard for such grants isn’t as loose as you suggest.

        (2) It is entirely possible to maintain the confidential identity of research subjects while meeting the requirements of a financial audit. Think, for example, of the hundreds of millions of federal grant dollars spent on medical research, which is governed by the extremely stringent confidentiality requirements of HIPAA. The auditors wouldn’t need the names of the subjects – they would just need an accounting of what money went where and when. Pretty basic, actually. According to the article, a whopping $30k in CASH is unaccounted for, and confidentiality simply doesn’t provide justification for that.

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    • GM says:

      The audit was dated 8/4/11. That’s not “over two years” ago by a long shot.

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    • dealio says:

      richard bradley of worth magazine has a great dissection of venkatesh’s response, some of which is excerpted here:

      “Venkatesh is clearly no fool, and that’s a fascinating sentence. Does the FBI really conduct a “comprehensive financial background check” on every academic whom it hires as a consultant? I have no idea. In any event, would a hushed-up university audit, which surely never involved criminal charges, be turned up by the FBI in such a background check? I don’t know that either. But the implication of the statement is clear: Imagine that there was a “comprehensive” background check. Would the FBI have hired me if I wasn’t clean as a whistle?

      It’s also worth noting that this chronology flatly contradicts what Venkatesh told Columbia’s BWOG; in that statement, he said that any financial mishaps were due to the fact that he was so busy working for both Columbia and the FBI.

      Was I a good bookkeeper? Not by any stretch. I was overwhelmed, I was working both at Columbia and at the FBI, and I struggled to keep up. So ethically, I felt it important to return approximately $13,000 for which there was inadequate documentation. I then took a partial leave to deepen my work at the FBI.

      (Again with the bookkeeping…..)

      The contradiction suggests that Venkatesh was already working for the FBI when issues about his finances arose, and so any financial background check that was conducted likely occurred before Columbia’s audit. Which, if true, would make his statement to Freakonomics not only meaningless, but dishonest.

      So go back and read that original sentence as a lawyer might—because it sounds like a lawyer wrote it:

      “I have subsequently worked extensively with the FBI — which, as you might imagine, conducted a comprehensive financial background check on me before my work with them began.”

      Which means that before he was working “extensively” with the FBI, Venkatesh was working a little bit with the agency, and before he was working with them a little bit, they did a background check.

      In other words, if you read the sentence incredibly carefully, it’s literally correct—but carefully crafted to convey the impression that that background check occurred only when Venkatesh began his “extensive” work with the FBI.

      That’s not really so transparent, is it?””

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  2. RGJ says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • RGJ says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • John Smith says:

        No, it is not. Apparently, you read through the entire book without understanding what it is about.

        It is supposed to be about understanding the world, not about promoting minority views independently of whether they are sensible or not.

        The readers have deemed you insensible. And quite rightfully.

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  3. MM says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  4. gpd209 says:

    The biggest thing I took away from reading Freakonomics (the book) was to think seriously about incentives. In this situation, it appears that Columbia University has established an extremely poor regime of incentives.

    The Times, citing an audit report, asserts that Prof. Venkatesh failed to substantiate more than $240,000 in expenses. He repaid only $13,000. That leaves well over $200k insufficiently accounted for. No one – not even Prof. Venkatesh – disputes this.

    It would be reasonable for Columbia to require one or the other – repayment or documentation. And in either case, it would be reasonable for Columbia to take disciplinary action. Columbia appears to have done none of these things.

    Which takes me back to incentives. Columbia should not be surprised if there is a repeat performance. Apparently, it provides inadequate incentives to document expenses, and inadequate disincentives to curb the failure to do so.

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    • RGJ says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  5. John Smith says:

    Come on, guys. Let’s not jump to conclusions here. Just because the man is friendly with a bunch of drug dealers and apparently “misplaced” hundreds of thousands of dollars without being able to account for it doesn’t mean that he is guilty of any misconduct.

    I am sure this will all blow over. Heck, it is probably stuck inside the couch side-cushion in his office. After all, he promised he didn’t steal all that money from the taxpayers, right?

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  6. Janet Cooke says:

    One of the questions that the NYT story raised should be of particular interest to this community. Professor Venkatesh had some of his work featured here:

    And, assuming it’s the same baseball study, the NYT story reads:

    But Columbia’s auditors said that the baseball study, for example, was “apparently unsuccessfully submitted” for approval “after the research had been completed.”

    I think this would seem to indicate that Professor Venkatesh conducted research – with an undergraduate student – without any attempt to get approval from the university board that governs research (IRB or some such body) until *after* the research has been conducted. That is a serious violation of research ethics – regardless of any money spent on the project. If the study that is described above is the same as the basis of the report here on freakonomics.

    If that is the case, that’s a HUGE violation of research protocol – and probably merits explanation to this community.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • GM says:

        In Prof. Venkatesh’s case,this was a “finding” by the auditors – meaning they found a violation of some protocol/procedure/requirement. If IRB approval wasn’t a requirement of the project, it wouldn’t have been cited in the audit report.

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      • anon says:

        Are you kidding me? Talking to people, taping life stories all fall under human subjects research. Ethnographer absolutely needs IRB approval.

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    • iii says:

      ethical treatment of research subjects is an immensely important issue, but i agree that IRB is not the be all and end all arbiter what that line between “ethical” and “unethical” research might be.

      but running around in the media saying that you consult for the FBI is flat out inexcusable under any circumstance. and it qualifies as narcissistic self-promotion of the highest degree given that it impacts the research efforts of other (current or future) ethnographers that might also need to gain trust of marginalized individuals or groups engaged in illicit activities.

      and even more problematic is why the FBI asked him to consult. as SV himself puts it:

      “I’ve got to say, I was pretty surprised to get a call from the FBI director and some of his senior staff. And they called because they’d heard a little bit about the work that I’ve done, for much of my life, on street gangs. And the way they explained it was that I was not (and never have been) a gang member, but I went into a community and learned a little bit about a group that was very different from the group that I had spent time with as a kid where I had grown up. And they said, you know, our officers; our staff, we do a lot of that. We try to go into places, we don’t know a lot about it, help us kind of figure out how to do it better.”

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  7. Claude Veerhoeven says:

    Dubner, Levitt: will Sudhir continue to be involved with Freakonomics?

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  8. cmon Sudhir says:

    never lied? Your mentor seems to disagree about whether or not a certain survey you criticize was his. Sounds like a lie to me

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