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


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.


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.


Professor Venkatesh,

That NY Times article is a journalistic hit piece and a disgrace. The author claims to have interviewed three dozen critics and was only able to cobble together a handful of lukewarm criticisms on the record.

The work you have done and your association with Columbia and there other organizations have undoubtedly enriched them by tens of millions of dollars in raised profile value. And you have opened the eyes of untold young people to the incredibly important study of...well, whatever you want to call this thing of ours, but it is an inspiring and revolutionary way of looking at our planet's problems (props to the Freaks as well, of course).

In terms of the audit -- are they kidding? That is worth launching a NY Times hit piece? Please. And as always with the NY Times, you have to wonder what piddling socialist sensibility was tweaked in the heart of the approving editor.

The bottomline is, the second to last paragraph should have been the first:
"“The criticism can be jealousy,” says Shamus Khan, a friend and a fellow Columbia sociologist who writes about status hierarchies. It can also reflect a feeling among more traditional scholars that for someone like Professor Venkatesh, academia is just “a steppingstone on the pathway to real success. It devalues what they do.” And the greater the success that person achieves, the greater the resentment he may attract.

Look forward to your future work, professor. And don't forget that academic jealousy and sniping has been suffered through by every great game-changer.



Again, outrageous system. My one dissenting voice defending the Professor is hidden due to a negative comment rating of 8-12. Isn't Freakonomics all about minority voices being heard?

John Smith

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.


Tall poppy syndrome. Stick your head up when an institution is trying to clean up its act, do the right thing, and there's even greater chance your ethics /morals /standards of work will be called into question.


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.



As someone who does a lot of grant and study work, I can tell you, it would be nice if these operations has enough resources to send green eyeshades around with every researchers, and it would be nice if the thought leader had a degree in bookkeeping, but it is rarely the case. they are usually focused pell-mell on the mission and the grants never include an office manager budget.

Should he have saved every parking ticket and got every car service passenger approved in advance and notarized with photographic evidence signed by a nun? Of course, in retrospect you can always put ridiculous documentation demands on any project, anyone that has been auditted by the IRS knows that.

At the end of the day, his work was revolutionary in the very least in terms of being thought provoking. This nickel/dime stuff is academic jealousy. Half of the important biologists from 1700-1850 could have been hung for grave robbing, groundbreaking science sometimes leaves an untidey wake.


John Smith


The readers are onto your tricks...

John Smith

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?

Janet Cooke

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.


Enter your name...

You only need to get approval for research if you are doing certain types of formal, systematic research on individual humans.

You don't need to get approval for research that uses existing public data (e.g., published baseball scores and salaries), talking to people, taping life stories, or things like that. Most things that an ethnographer does do not require IRB approval.


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.

Claude Veerhoeven

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

cmon Sudhir

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