Simulation as Experiment: An Empirical Critique of Simulation Research on Recommender Systems

by   Amy A. Winecoff, et al.

Simulation can enable the study of recommender system (RS) evolution while circumventing many of the issues of empirical longitudinal studies; simulations are comparatively easier to implement, are highly controlled, and pose no ethical risk to human participants. How simulation can best contribute to scientific insight about RS alongside qualitative and quantitative empirical approaches is an open question. Philosophers and researchers have long debated the epistemological nature of simulation compared to wholly theoretical or empirical methods. Simulation is often implicitly or explicitly conceptualized as occupying a middle ground between empirical and theoretical approaches, allowing researchers to realize the benefits of both. However, what is often ignored in such arguments is that without firm grounding in any single methodological tradition, simulation studies have no agreed upon scientific norms or standards, resulting in a patchwork of theoretical motivations, approaches, and implementations that are difficult to reconcile. In this position paper, we argue that simulation studies of RS are conceptually similar to empirical experimental approaches and therefore can be evaluated using the standards of empirical research methods. Using this empirical lens, we argue that the combination of high heterogeneity in approaches and low transparency in methods in simulation studies of RS has limited their interpretability, generalizability, and replicability. We contend that by adopting standards and practices common in empirical disciplines, simulation researchers can mitigate many of these weaknesses.


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