Musical chairs in econ journals

Tyler Cowen links to a paper by Bruno Frey on the lack of space for articles in economics journals. Frey writes:

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.)

9 thoughts on “Musical chairs in econ journals

  1. But if many excellent papers don't appear in those five they're bound to appear in a next-tier journal, right? Which would push one or more of them into the same rarefied atmosphere as the five current ones, as far as citations and readership is concerned. The question then is why that isn't happening?

  2. As for the last part, I think "famous _economist_" is relevant. And Fischer really is quite prominent as an economist: He wrote a well known undergrad text book, he was interviewed in the pretty widely watched "Commanding Height" movie etc. So for an economist he was famous.
    I'll refer to people who are superstars in political science as "famous" political scientists, even though by a strict definition of famous probably Fareed Zakaria is the only living person that label applies to (and he's not famous for his political science).

  3. There was an interesting discussion about this in MR's comments as well.

    My complaint is that Frey's argument fails to consider why prices do not adjust to make the market for journal space clear.

    In the context of the academic publishing world, this means that the "10,000" actively aspiring economists is a straw man. Yes, they would all like to publish in a top journal, but, for the vast majority of those academics, not publishing in a top journal is not such a big deal. It's not like middle tier schools exclusively require top journal publications for tenure. If they did, there would be very few people successfully getting tenure given journal space constraints. Since we see lots of successful tenure at mid-tier schools, we know that standards must be adjusting and that journal space scarcity isn't as worrisome as Frey claims.

  4. Economists are supposed to believe in markets but the moment the market has spoken they start explaining why this is a bad thing. The fact of the matter is that the "product" academic economists are providing is not particularly appealing to anyone outside of the economics profession. The obvious reason is that people who were told by their undergraduate advisors not to bother applying to mathematics graduate schools ended up in economics, where they proceeded to mathmatecize that profession but began producing results which were further and further from the real world. The current economic collapse and the inability of almost all economists to fit it into their theories (read through the Krugman columns for the last two years for manifold examples) gives a clear indication of the worth of these individuals in this profession.

    Why, then, are there so many economists? Usually when supply and demand are not in equilibrium there is government intervention, and that is what one is seeing here. The university system, which is a form of credentialing (read Friedman for his opinions about this), require a collection of teachers, who, by our insane combination of teaching and research, are many more than necessary and provide an unsaleable product. The same is true of political science–there are many more than necessary because someone has to teach all the future lawyers. If the government ceased subsidizing colleges the number of economists would drop tremendously. Incidentally, a natural experiment on this matter was run in the 1980's, when Bell Labs was cut off the government teat when AT&T was broken up. They kept their scientific and technical people and fired all of the economists.

  5. David:

    If you go by impact factor, we should all be biologists. I once published a paper in the Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow and Metabolism, which lists itself as the #29 out of 230 journals in Neuroscience, 14/105 in Endocrinology & Metabolism, and 10/61 in Hematology. It has an impact factor of 5 (or, as they quaintly put it, "5.457"), which is quite a bit higher than any journal in statistics.

  6. Yes, apparently not a lot of citing that goes on in statistics. But I was really wondering what you would name in the statistical "top 5" maybe JASA, Annals of Applied Stat, Annals of Stat, JRSSB? Add in stat sci, biostats and econometrica, and you have the top journals as rated by impact factor.

  7. You really can't compare impact factors across disciplines. If you did, no mathematician would ever receive tenure.

    The problem is of course when people like our host break the mould and publish in a journal outside their field. How do you fairly evaluate such contributions? My gut reaction – as a complete non-statistician – is to convert it using the journal rank: those three ranks are similar, and average to about 15% from bottom. So set the effective impact factor for a statistician to be the IF of whatever statistics journal is similarly ranked.

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