To further their careers, [academic economists] are required to publish in A-journals, but for the vast majority this is impossible because there are few slots open in such journals. Such academic competition maybe useful to generate hard work, however, there may be serious negative consequences: the wrong output may be produced in an inefficient way, the wrong people may be selected, and losers may react in a harmful way.
According to Frey, the consensus is that there are only five top economics journals–and one of those five is Econometrica, which is so specialized that I’d say that, for most academic economists, there are only four top places they can publish. The difficulty is that demand for these slots outpaces supply: for example, in 2007 there were only 275 articles in all these journals combined (or 224 if you exclude Econometrica), while “a rough estimate is that there are around 10,000 academics actively aspiring to publish in A-journals.”
I agree completely with Frey’s assessment of the problem, and I’ve long said that statistics has a better system: there are a lot fewer academic statisticians than academic economists, and we have many more top journals we can publish in (all the probability and statistics journals, plus the econ journals, plus the poli sci journals, plus the psych journals, etc), so there’s a lot less pressure.
I wonder if part of the problem with the econ journals is that economists enjoy competition. If there were not such a restricted space in top journals, they wouldn’t have a good way to keep score.
Just by comparison, I’ve published in most of the top statistics journals, but my most cited articles have appeared in Statistical Science, Statistica Sinica, Journal of Computational and Graphical Statistics, and Bayesian Analysis. Not a single “top 5 journal” in the bunch.
But now let’s take the perspective of a consumer of economics journals, rather than thinking about the producers of the articles. From my consumer’s perspective, it’s ok that the top five journals are largely an insider’s club (with the occasional exceptional article from an outsider). These insiders have a lot to say, and it seems perfectly reasonable for them to have their own journal. The problem is not the exclusivity of the journals but rather the presumption that outsiders and new entrants should be judged based on their ability to conform to the standards of these journals. The tenured faculty at the top 5 econ depts are great, I’m sure–but does the world really need 10,000 other people trying to become just like them??? Again, based on my own experience, some of our most important work is the stuff that does not conform to conventional expectations.
P.S. I met Frey once. He said, “Gelman . . . you wrote the zombies paper!” So, you see, you don’t need to publish in the AER for your papers to get noticed. Arxiv is enough. I don’t know whether this would work with more serious research, though.
P.P.S. On an unrelated note, if you have to describe someone as “famous,” he’s not. (Unless you’re using “famous” to distinguish two different people with the same name (for example, “Michael Jordan–not the famous one”), but it doesn’t look like that’s what’s going on here.)