November 27th, 2018 by Edward Lopez
A few years ago Paul Krugman argued that the economics blogosphere had become the main forum for debate and discussion of economics. It’s the instant blogs, he said, not the circuitous peer-reviewed journals, where the action is. Actually, Krugman continued, the academic journals “ceased being a means of communication a long time ago – more than 20 years ago for sure.” Instead, scholars began circulating papers in advance of publication, and serious papers started gaining discussion and citations in other research long before coming into peer-reviewed print.
Notice the diffuse academic entrepreneurship that implicitly supports Krugman’s point. As Wayne and I write in Chapter 3 of Madmen:
In the marketplace of economic ideas, scholars are in the business of crafting arguments, techniques, theorems, policy recommendations, and so forth, all in the hope of exchanging their craft for the currency of readership, praise, influence, and ultimately some prominent place in the body of economic scholarship. Economists act like idea entrepreneurs…
If the journals are too slow, entrepreneurial scholars will seek out cost-effective ways to speed things up. Before email, circulating pre-prints meant stuffing a bunch of envelopes, mail merging a bunch of cover letters, and paying lots of postage. But as everyone started using email (roughly “more than 20 years ago”), the cost of circulating pre-prints fell. And it fell a lot. The technology allowed entrepreneurial scholars to speed up pre-publication communications relative to peer-reviewed journals. So if Krugman is right that most of the action left the journals about a generation ago, it’s because of this combination of idea entrepreneurship and new communication technology.
Haven’t the journals tried to keep pace? My sense is that they’ve tried very hard, but have made only modest progress. One important and helpful change has been the near total abandonment of print. The journals are not unique in this trend, which has captured the publishing world, but unlike books and magazines it seems like journals have gone almost all-in with digital. Also, most publishers now make available papers that have been accepted but not yet “published” in a numbered volume or issue. A second important change has been the digitization of submissions, with software such as Editorial Manager. These tools do more than speed up submissions, they also measure how long peer-reviewers take to return their reports and how often they decline requests to review. Naturally, peer reviewers care about their reputations at journals; therefore, knowing that editors have at hand referees’ decline rates and return times is an incentive for those referees to work, and work faster. Still, it seems that neither digital distribution nor digital submission has been a game changer for the speed of peer-reviewed outlets. They’re still slow.
Enter the academic entrepreneurs at SSRN, founded by two financial economists in 1994 (“more than 20 years ago”) as Social Science Research Network. The goal was to facilitate rapid dissemination of scholarly communications. Essentially an academic startup, SSRN is now the world’s largest repository of open-access research, and a couple of years ago it was bought out by Elsevier, one of the largest publishers of academic journals. Its tagline is “Tomorrow’s Research Today”. Well, today I received an email from SSRN announcing their new initiative called First Look.
First Look is a place where journals and other research experts identify content of interest prior to publication. It can include a wide range of early stage content types including working papers, proceedings, preprints, accepted papers, and papers under consideration. First Look is a partnership between SSRN and some of the world’s most influential journals to provide rapid, early and open access to evolving scholarly research.
Okay. So the journals might still be slow, but they’re also still trying to speed things up. Time will tell. For now, a separate but related observation: I’m struck by the contrast between the large-scale, concentrated innovation behind First Look, against the small-scale, diffuse innovation behind blogs and email. The late William Baumol’s work on “routinized” entrepreneurship explains this well. He draws attention to the prevalence and importance of large-scale innovation, such as R&D in large corporations. Sometimes called the “David-Goliath symbiosis
“, Baumol’s theory of innovation combines the startup entrepreneur with the corporate entrepreneur — the breakthrough innovator with the incremental innovator. It’s a rich theory, developed over much of the second half of his career. Overall Baumol argues that people focus too much on small-scale innovation to the neglect of large-scale innovation, when the latter often contributes more to economic growth
than does the former. I think this helps understand the economics trade, and all those idea entrepreneurs out there, large and small. It also illustrates the point that economics applies to ideas as much as it does to goods & services, a point that implicitly supports both Madmen
and this blog. As the late great Bob Tollison wrote in his SEA presidential address
, “An economist cannot take a measure of the world without obeying its postulates.” I think this is so true.
By the way, in the same piece that hooks this post, Krugman also made a normative point about the ascension of blogs. He said it was a good thing that the economics blogosphere had become the main forum for debate and discussion. Using blogs, economists short-circuited the often dysfunctional “gatekeeper” role of peer-review, and this opened debate to “any old Joe”. I don’t think Krugman was as right about the democratizing effect of blogs as he was about the slowness of journals. While the blogosphere certainly flourished
in the early 2000’s, it has become more concentrated since 2008. Sure, any old Joe (say, this one!) can still post any old entry. But if peer-review had become a gatekeeper to journal entry decades ago, today’s clicks and pingbacks can be elusive to all but the “top” bloggers.