How Can Evaluation Avoid Lemons?

I recently stumbled across a blog post by Dr. Simine Vazire, an associate professor in psychology at UC Davis, which discussed an economics article by Akerlof, “The market for “lemons”: Quality uncertainty and the market mechanism.” Here’s what he wrote:

In this article, Akerlof employs the used car market to illustrate how a lack of transparency (which he calls “information asymmetry”) destroys markets.  when a seller knows a lot more about a product than buyers do, there is little incentive for the seller to sell good products, because she can pass off shoddy products as good ones, and buyers can’t tell the difference.  the buyer eventually figures out that he can’t tell the difference between good and bad products (“quality uncertainty”), but that the average product is shoddy (because the cars fall apart soon after they’re sold). therefore, buyers come to lose trust in the entire market, refuse to buy any products, and the market falls apart. (Vazire, 2017, “looking under the hood”)

This is much similar to the replication crisis in psychology, and I worry that evaluation may come to many of these same issues. This worry was also expressed by Scriven (2015).1 He writes, “Also depressing was the discovery that the great classic disciplines, although they thought they had a quality control system, in fact the procedure that everyone immediately put forward as performing that function–peer review–turned out to have been hardly ever studied for simple but essential virtues like reliability and validity…” (p. 18).

What peer review system does evaluation have? Scriven put forth meta-evaluation, but the practice is rarely, if ever, done. Scriven says:

This is because our real world practice is largely in the role of consultant, and consultants’ work does not normally undergo peer review. We need to tighten up the trashy way peer review is done in other disciplines and use serious meta-evaluation to fill the gap in our own emerging discipline with respect to that job that we say (and can prove) taht peer review ought to be done in the other disciplines. (p. 19)

Scriven goes on to argue that evaluation has a duty to study how evaluation is conducted in other disciplines, leading evaluation to be the “alpha discipline.” But before we can consider evaluation as the alpha discipline, we have to do a “full analysis of the pragmatics” of evaluation, meaning we need to more clearly define evaluation so that evaluation is considered a key methodology of social science

“that must be mastered in order to do all applied (and some pure) social science. In that way, good evaluation research designs will be the exemplar for much of social science, instead of social science treating personnel or program evaluation as something they can do with their current resources, albeit conceding that there are some specialists in these sub-areas.” (p. 20)

Scriven’s solution of serious meta-evaluation done publicly aligns with the solution promoted by Akerlof: transparency. I further argue that there need to be more serious regulations applied to ensure this transparency, and one way to do this is through professionalization. Unfortunately, professionalization within the American Evaluation Association has met with serious resistance, but work by our colleagues up north (the Canadian Evaluation Society) and work on standards and competencies within AEA are steps forward. I think professionalization will help evaluators more clearly define who evaluators are and what evaluation is so that the field can move forward as the alpha discipline Scriven describes.



  1. Scriven, M. (2015). Evaluation revolutions. Journal of MultiDisciplinary Evaluation, 11(25), pp. 15-21.

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