When studios shoot movies or TV shows in Canada, they stick US licence plates on the cars and pretend Toronto is New York (the Rudy Giuliani biopic Rudy), Alberta is Wyoming (Brokeback Mountain), and BC is Kansas (Smallville).
Studios do it because anything explicitly Canadian tanks in the ratings. The same rule applies to blogging. Our Palgrave Econolog ranking is determined by how often other economics blogs link to WCI. Recently, a thoughtful Stephen Gordon Canadian-themed post on the federal budget generated just one link. But when Nick Rowe took Stephen's graphs, put slightly different words around them and called the post US Productivity Exceptionalism, the links poured in.
The hide-the-Canadian content rule applies to conventional academic research as well. Recently a co-author said to me, "don't mention that we're using Canadian data until towards the end of the introduction." Our probability of publishing in an American economics journal was higher, he suggested, if we could spark people's interest before we mentioned that we were using Canadian data.
Indeed, a quick survey of a tiny fraction of the research produced by Canadian economists suggests that empirical studies using Canadian data are in the minority. Of the first 26 working papers produced by the University of Toronto economics department in 2010, I counted just two using Canadian data. (The papers using Canadian data don't mention the word Canada. Instead, they employ the strategy that my co-author and I used - say "Toronto" or "Ontario" and hope for a referee with a lousy knowledge of geography). Three focus on China, two use international data, eight use US data and the remainder are theoretical papers using no data. UBC's economics department showed a similar pattern, though I found a few Canadian-oriented research papers in the UBC's Canadian Labour Market and Skills Researcher Network working paper series, and in Carleton University's working paper series about one third of the 2010 papers use Canadian data.
Almost two decades ago, Anthony Scott documented a similar phenomenon. He attributed it to the fact that many academic economists working in Canada were not born, raised or trained here, so have few ties to this country. People will want to keep their employment options in the international academic marketplace open, and so, Scott argued, will do research on topics of international interest, such as trade, as opposed to topics where specific knowledge of Canadian institutions is required, such as public finance. Scott found evidence supporting his hypothesis by looking at the reported research interests of Canadian Economics Association and American Economics Association members, and also articles published in each association's journal.
While I suspect Scott is correct about people wishing to keep employment options open, there are other equally compelling explanations for his findings.
First, it is much easier to find US than Canadian data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau provide interactive menus that make it possible to download years of data into an Excel spreadsheet. If similar data is available on the Statistics Canada website, usually at most 10 years of data will be available for free and downloading is difficult, although more data is often available for those with access to university libraries. US data sets may also be bigger, which is handy for studying low frequency phenomena, such as inter-racial marriages or same-sex couples.
Second, academic survival requires getting tenure, and getting tenure requires having research published in economics journals. The majority of economics journals are US based, with American editors and editorial boards. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found some evidence that American reviewers favour American authors: "Reviewers from the United States and outside the United States evaluate non-US papers similarly and evaluate papers submitted by US authors more favorably, with US reviewers having a significant preference for US papers." However this could reflect the effect of English competence - a study in the European Journal of Epidemiology found which country's authors published in the leading medical journals could mostly be explained by the level of medical research funding and average levels language competence, as measured by country-average TOEFL scores (explaining why, for example, Northern European researchers published more than Asian ones). Yet, while suggestive, these studies do not touch directly on the issue of whether studies using American data are more likely to be published than studies using non-US data. Update: in the comments, himaginary links to this paper reporting that papers written about the US are much more likely to be published in top five journals.
Finally, academics want fame and fortune. Citations are the academic equivalent of ratings. Canadian experiences are seen, in the international marketplace of ideas, as particular, specific. American experiences are seen as general. (A particularly absurd manifestation of this occurs in international relations, where people will write "A superpower like the United States..." There is no superpower like the US. But underlying this statement is a presumption that American experience is generalizable, other experience is not.)
Again, it is hard to find hard supporting evidence. A recent paper by Cardoso, Guimaraes and Zimmermann found that the average number of citations per article published is higher for articles written by North Americans than for those written by Europeans, but again this says nothing about the content of the articles in question.
It's sad. I had a really punchy post arguing that the rest of the world subsidized research on the American economy because Canadian and European researchers used US data and wrote about the US. It was backed by anecdotes about blogs, movies and my own personal experience. But I couldn't find any data to support these anecdotes. And when I look at the most recent issue of the B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy, and see as many articles about Sweden as about the US, I wonder if it's even true.
But trying to salvage something in terms of policy relevance:
In medical research, it probably doesn't matter whether Canadian or American data is used. A medical treatment that works south of the border will generally work north of the border as well. Indeed, drug trials are not-uncommonly carried out in low-income countries to save costs.
The generalizability of studies based on US economic data to Canada is less well-established. If I was a government person paying for economic research at Canadian universities, I would be interested in knowing how much was relevant to Canadian economic issues.
And that's the question: "Should the Canadian taxpayer subsidize research on the US and other economies?" But I didn't use that as the title of my post, because I figured that emphasizing the US angle was likely to generate more hits.