Treading a difficult path

In a recent Economic Journal article, Pranab Bardhan lamented the difficulty that researchers in specialist fields have in getting their work published in general journals. Mike Wickens, for eight years a managing editor of the Economic Journal, gives his personal view of how editors work.

Are economics journals failing economists? This is the clear implication of Pranab Bardhan’s article (Economic Journal, Features, June 2003). His main argument is that those who work in ‘somewhat peripheral fields’ are not being treated fairly by general journals. A common criticism of economics journals is that they take too long to make decisions. In a careful analysis of the evidence, Glenn Ellison (Journal of Political Economy, 2002), finds that the time between submission and acceptance has increased since the early 1970’s from 6 -12 months to 24-30 months. He concludes that longer papers, more co-authored papers and greater competition for space are important factors. The editor of the Newsletter has asked me to respond to these two papers in the light of my experience of eight years as Co-ordinating Managing Editor of Economic Journal.

Bardhan is probably right that it is harder to publish papers on peripheral topics in mainline journals than field journals, and this may, as he says, have harmful effects on promotion. And there is no reason to doubt Ellison’s findings, or his conclusions. My response is not, therefore, to disagree with their evidence, but to argue that it reflects the logical outcome of market forces on economic journals rather than market failure. To see this we must consider the role of general journals (what they are for and in what respects they should differ from field journals), and the effects of instant electronic access to new research.

I have observed that much of the criticism of economics journals is about supply-side issues. Essentially, how can journals serve authors better? This is a very important question for journal editors and for the profession. The quality of a journal depends on its authors. But it is not the only type of question that an editor must address. Markets have a demand as well as a supply side. Arguably, this is just as important. In particular, how best can a journal act in the interest of its readers? In my experience, members of the Royal Economic Society are at times as vocal in their criticism of papers the Economic Journal does publish, as authors are of those it doesn’t publish. The criticisms of readers — as well as authors seeking a more level playing field — were two of the main reasons why the editors made changes in the structure of the Journal seven years ago. Without doubt, there is a clear trade-off involved between the interests of authors and of readers. One of the tasks of an editor is to strike the balance. I would, therefore, include higher expectations by readers to Ellison’s list of reasons for longer processing times for papers.

Improving the quality of published papers in the Economic Journal has been high on the agenda of the current editors. This has often entailed an extra revision, sometimes, to improve access by non-specialists to technical papers.

The role of journals is being transformed by easy, quick, and for the most part, cheap, electronic access to current research via the internet. As a result, increasingly, journals are not the main access points for the latest research. Instead, their role is becoming more that of a signaling device, providing a quality assessment for new research. Seen in this light, it is not surprising that processing times have been increasing.

The strongest guardians of quality and resistors of premature publication are referees. As a key arbiter of quality, and hence the type of signal sent, they are in some ways the nearest there is to a representative reader. Having probably given up our own precious research time to referee a paper, we are understandably annoyed when our advice appears to have been ignored. As a result of feeling snubbed in this way, a few referees have gone so far as to tell me that in future they will refuse to referee for the Economic Journal. Editors therefore set aside the advice of referees at their peril. Occasionally, of course, this must be done in the interests of the author and readability.

If journals are increasingly a signaling device, what implications does this have for general journals, and how they might differ from a field journal? I would say that historically field journals have been more repositories of knowledge than general journals. General journals look especially for originality rather than for extensions, for results that might have a profound effect on a particular field, or might be valuable for researchers in several fields. Extensions tend more to fill in the gaps in the literature. This is not to decry extensions; they may have great value in a field. Nor is this to say that field journals do not prize originality as much as general journals. It is just that the functions of general and field journals are slightly different. At the margin, of course, it is difficult to make such a distinction between having originality and being an extension. Fortunately, economists well understand analysis at the margin.

All of this relates directly to Bardhan’s chief complaint. This is the usual reason why authors whose papers are rejected by a general journal — even though there may be nothing technically incorrect in the paper, and the analysis may be conducted painstakingly and meticulously — are advised to submit theirpaper to a field journal. Understandably, authors are often baffled, disappointed and very annoyed to be told this. It may also help explain why general journals tend to get higher citations than field journals, especially when self-citations are excluded.

Let us turn to some of Bardhan’s other concerns. He makes a case for publishing more articles on development economics in general journals. He says that development economics has undergone a major transformation in recent times but this is not reflected in the proportion of development papers appearing in general journals. The same could be said of other fields. Experimental economics, for example, has emerged in recent years as a new field. Having published a few of the important early papers on experimental economics, The Economic Journal began to receive a large number of other papers in the field. Many of these papers were rejected, largely on the grounds that, given previous work in the area, they lacked sufficient originality. Before long I received a letter from a leading experimentalist accusing the Economic Journal of harbouring a bias against experimental economics and saying that he was going to advise people in the field not to submit their work to the journal. Another area where in the last eight years the Economic Journal has been accused of being prejudiced is labour economics. My response to all of these perceived slights is the same. The Economic Journal will continue to judge all papers in the same way: on their originality, how competent the analysis is, how well a specialist topic is explained to the general reader, and on the likely interest of such a reader. Note the emphasis on the reader, and not the author.

Bardhan criticizes general journals for the quality of their editing. He says that field journals often provide better referees reports than general journals, and that editors of general journals typically have little expertise in particular fields. Ellison offers some casual evidence in support of this. He says that an editor of a general journal has admitted to him that he is less likely to scrutinize a paper as carefully if it is in a field outside his expertise and, as a result, is more likely to accept it for publication.

This raises a very important point. Inevitably, no editor can know as much about all individual fields as a specialist in a field. The only way to correct for this is to have specialist referees to advise an editor. Even then, this is not fool-proof. Much of the problem of editing is solved if the referees are well chosen. Knowing who to ask is key. This is obviously made easier if the editor has some familiarity with the area. Internet search engines are very helpful in finding out who is currently working on what. Many assume that The Economic Journal has a list of referees it selects from for all papers. Several times, programme chairmen of the annual RES conference have asked me for access to such a list, and have difficulty in accepting that there is no such list. We use the internet to find out who is currently working on a topic.

Unfortunately, finding out who is an expert on an issue does not necessarily solve the problem. As Bardhan correctly notes, the same expert is likely to be in high demand by all journals. And this problem is getting worse as the number of research articles written continues to grow exponentially. I would expect that one of the main reasons for the increase in the delay between submission and acceptance are refusals to referee due to being heavily committed already. This is more likely, the more suitable the referee. I should like to add that most referees who do not decline, send in reports and do so fairly promptly. This is a good time to say how grateful I am to our referees for this.

Trying to solve this problem has affected the way that journals are managed. Instead of there being a single editor as in the past, now journals (even field journals) usually have several editors. In 1996 The Economic Journal switched from having a single editor to having a team of editors almost entirely for this reason. Even so, I am still very conscious that I have to make decisions about areas I have never worked in. I am then heavily dependent on the referees.

To judge by the volume and intensity of anger of the correspondence that I receive, perhaps the most controversial thing that the editors of The Economic Journal do is reject papers without first seeking referees reports. Occasionally, this correspondence borders on outright abuse. The main reason we do this is because in our judgement the probability of the paper being accepted for publication is very small. Sometimes this is not because the paper is poor, but because in the editors’ views, it is not suitable for the Journal. We therefore want to avoid authors suffering unnecessary delay in being given a decision, and we want to protect referees by not wasting their time. This is one way to reduce the time from submission to decision, but we recognize that it is not always popular.

A familiar dilemma is that referees advise rejection of a paper that an editor thinks could be made publishable with substantial revisions. This is often the case with inexperienced authors. I have rescued a number of papers in this way. Of course, outright rejection would have improved the journal’s processing-time statistics, and I would have avoided exploiting the goodwill of referees by not asking them to review a paper they have already rejected – another common cause of complaint from referees. My impression is that not many journals do this. This is understandable as to do so causes an editor a lot more work. Despite what Ellison says, I believe that the pressure of work on editors has increased. It is certainly easier to take the view that it is not the role of a journal to do an author’s work, and as there are a lot of journals out there, if the paper has any merit, it will find a home somewhere. I have always taken the, perhaps rather old-fashioned, view that as the Economic Journal is the journal of the Royal Economic Society, it should aim to provide more of a service to its members than an ordinary journal.

I am pleased to say that the Economic Journal is not guilty of one of the criticisms mentioned by Bardhan, namely, publishing articles written by its Managing Editors. Whatever the merits of our papers, it would be virtually impossible to maintain the accountability and credibility of the editing process if we did. The Managing Editors are the one group of authors that we arbitrarily discriminate against. I hope that we give a fair deal to all other authors and, just as important in my view, we have acted in the best interests of our readers.

References:

Bardhan, P. (2003), ‘Journal publication in economics: a view from the periphery’, the Economic Journal, 113, June, F332-F337.

Ellison, G. (2002), ‘The slowdown of the economics publishing process’, Journal of Political Economy, 110(5), 947-993.


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