Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Evidence of Peer Group Influence on Patent Examiners

Michael Frakes and Melissa Wasserman have gotten a lot of mileage out of their micro data set on patent examiner behavior over time. Prior work includes examination of grant incentives, agency funding, time availability, and user fees.

Their latest paper tackles peer group influence - that is, the effect that both peers at the same level and supervisory examiners have on grant rates. The draft is on SSRN and the abstract is here:
Using application-level data from the Patent Office from 2001 to 2012, merged with personnel data on patent examiners, we explore the extent to which the key decision of examiners — whether to allow a patent — is shaped by the granting styles of her surrounding peers. Taking a number of methodological approaches to dealing with the common obstacles facing peer-effects investigations, we document strong evidence of peer influence. For instance, in the face of a one standard-deviation increase in the grant rate of her peer group, an examiner in her first two years at the Patent Office will experience a 0.15 standard-deviation increase in her own grant rate. Moreover, we document a number of markers suggesting that such influences arise, at least in part, through knowledge spillovers among examiners, as distinct from peer-pressure mechanisms. We even find evidence that some amount of these spillovers may reflect knowledge flows regarding specific pieces of prior art that bear on the patentability of the applications in question, as opposed to just knowledge flows regarding general examination styles. Finally, we find evidence suggesting that the magnitude of these peer examiner influences are just as strong, or stronger, than the influence of the examination styles of supervisors.
I'll admit that I was skeptical upon reading the abstract. After all, I would expect that grant rates would rise and fall together in any given art unit, based on either technology or the trends of the day. Indeed, the effect is not so large as to rule some other influences.

But by the end, I was convinced. Here are a couple of the findings that were most persuasive (in addition to the fact that I think they specified fixed effects nicely):
  1. The effect is more present during the early years, and tends to get "locked in" with experience
  2. The effect is more present with peers than with supervisory examiners
  3. The effect is more present for examiners who do not telecommute - this, to me, was the best robustness check
  4. Examiners who do not telecommute tended to behave similarly in obviousness (v. novelty) and also to cite the same prior art (that was not cited as frequently by those to telecommute)
This paper's framing is interesting. I read it, of course, because it is a patent paper, but Frakes & Wasserman open with a more generalized pitch that this is about employment peer effects. I suppose it is about both, really, and it is worth taking a look at if you are interested in either area.

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