Monday 29 June 2009

Of PageRank and International Standards

One nice feature of Google's Page Rank calculations is that it works to prevent circles of self-referencing. I can't boost my site's Page Rank by having a buddy or two build their own sites, then have each of us link to each other. While Google uses links to help to determine Page Rank, an incestuous circle like this would be self-contained -- no Page Rank flows in. And, Google actively works to penalize link farms.

BERL has made much of how its estimate of the costs of alcohol use in New Zealand is peer reviewed and follows international standards. Let's peel back the sheet a little.

Eric Single, in "Why we should still estimate the costs of substance abuse even if we needn't pay undue attention to the bottom line", Drug and Alcohol Review (March 2009), pp. 117-121, writes:
In May 1994 the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA) organised an international symposium in Banff, Canada, to discuss the issues involved in estimating the social and economic costs of substance abuse, and to seek a consensus on the most appropriate model. The purpose of the meeting was to explore the feasibility of establishing an internationally acceptable common method for estimating the costs of substance abuse. A working group was formed to explore the potential for developing guidelines on estimating the economic costs of substance abuse, consisting of [Eric Single], David Collins, Brian Easton, Rick Harwood, Helen Lapsley and Alan Maynard. These guidelines were finalised at a second International Symposium held in Montebello, Quebec, in 1996.

In June 2000, the Third International Symposium on Estimating the Social and Economic Costs of Substance Abuse was held in Banff. This meeting focused on ongoing methodological issues and the expansion of cost estimation methods to developing economies.This led to a second edition of the guidelines, authored by myself, David Collins, Brian Easton, Rick Harwood, Helen Lapsley, Pierre Kopp (France) and Ernesto Wilson (Colombia) and published by the World Health Organisation after extensive review in 2004 [2]. A new set of guidelines for estimating the avoidable costs of substance abuse has since been developed by yet another working group led by David Collins and Helen Lapsley [3]. These guidelines are now available from Health Canada.
So the basic method was devised by Single, Collins, Easton, Harwood, Lapsley, Kopp, Wilson and Maynard, and we shouldn't then view these as independent of each other in assessing the appropriateness of their devised method.

What are the most cited sources in the BERL report?
  • Easton 1997 (Wellington School of Medicine, U Otago monograph), which thanks Collins, Lapsley, Harwood, Maynard and Single
  • Single, Collins, Easton, Harwood, Lapsley, Kopp and Wilson 2001
  • Collins and Lapsley 2002, which acknowledges Easton
  • Single, Collins, Easton, Harwood, Lapsley, Kopp and Wilson 2003, World Health Organization
  • Collins, Lapsley, Serge Brochu, Easton, Augusto Perez-Gomez, Jurgen Rehm, and Single, 2006, Health Canada report
  • Collins and Lapsley 2008a, Australian government report, external reviewers Easton and Robin Room (Room coauthored with Single in 1999 on harm reduction)
  • Collins and Lapsley 2008b, Australian government report, which acknowledges Easton, Brochu, Perez-Gomez, Rehm and Single

And of course the external reviewers for the BERL report were David Collins and Helen Lapsley.

There's nothing wrong with using a method devised for a purpose and citing the various refinements of that method. But it wouldn't be right to view the varied iterations as independent of each other. And it would be somewhat misleading to describe the method as "internationally accepted" on the basis of a series of commissioned reports in different countries which all cross-reference one-another. If BERL has some other reason to cite international acceptance, it should say what it is.

So, arguments that the method has been used by folks all over the world only really mean that the same coterie of consultants has been successful in selling their method to a few different government health departments. In other words, BERL's page rank shouldn't be augmented by this kind of appeal to authority.

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