Ideas on reforming academic journals.

What would you do with an academic economic journal if you were given control over it? What innovations would you enforce designed to make the journal more to your liking? Below I list some ideas talked about in the corridors of academia and ask you to give your opinion on them.

A. Publish the name of the referee if the article is accepted. This is designed to reduce cronyism and gives an additional signal to the outside world, i.e. the quality of the referees.
B. Publish a set of short comments from authors and/or editors with each accepted paper designed to explain the main contribution to an outside audience.
C. Have a too hot to handle section where one publishes papers that have been rejected by at least 3 other major journals because they were interesting. Youd ask people who submit a paper that was rejected at other journals to send the referee reports and editorial decisions on that paper and if its clear that the paper was not deemed to be wrong, but just offensively interesting, then you publish it. Key phrases you could look for are both referees think this is interesting and important, but not quite right for this journal; or the referees all agree you have a major point but want to see more evidence before they are convinced.
D. Allow simultaneous submission to other journals, coupled with a short window in which the offer to publish stands if the paper is accepted. This is a pre-commitment devise to ensure fast decisions (you want to offer publication before the other journals), and you then do away with the nonsense of lengthy revisions.
E. Have an online voting system whereby members of the journal can vote on the articles published in each issue. You can then draw up a ranking of articles, whilst explicitly publishing the names of those who voted for an article so as to avoid cronyism. This gives outsiders a much stronger signal as to what peers really think of an article.
F. Have a policy section wherein individuals are invited to expand on their ideas for reforming a particular aspect of the economy. Just as an example, one could invite Clive Hamilton to explain in 15 pages how hed try to overcome the growth fetish if he was in charge of Australia.
G. (more fundamental). In stead of publishing papers that chip away at some minor aspect of some minor problem, one could alternatively each 6 months or so publish a complete vision document whereby one gives as complete an overall vision on how the economy (or society as a whole) functions. Each edition then of course highlights the new bits in this overall vision. Contributors are then allowed to work on the entire vision, but are required to expand that overall vision whilst retaining internal consistency. This is designed to overcome the problem of having endless streams of minor contributions that are essentially about casting doubt on others and that ask others to take another particular factor into account without working out how it all fits together. Journals then become schools of thought.

Any other ideas?

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hc
hc
14 years ago

I like the AER idea of including a non-technical introduction that enables a non-specialist to gain a glimpse of where an article is going. It is a development on the idea of an abstract but goes further than this.

I hate the Review of Economic Studies/Econometrica style where I often cannot even determine what a paper is on about even in general terms.

Generally I am in favour of technical pieces of economics presenting themsdelves to non-technical audiences.

I like your idea (G). These days I read mainly journals that inform using good language, the AEA, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Journal of Political Economy, Quarterly Journal of Economics. Among local journals I like Agenda.

Reading an argument in economics should not be an act of self-mutilating torture. Often unfortunately it is.

cs
cs
14 years ago

The single best thing any academic journal could do is to work out some way in which it could pay referees for their assessments, thereby enabling the editors to place deadlines of a week on turnaround times.

Cam
Cam(@cam)
14 years ago

one could invite Clive Hamilton to explain in 15 pages how hed try to overcome the growth fetish if he was in charge of Australia

The other benefit is that it would give Andrew Norton a month’s worth of material for his blog. I suspect something like that would give the academic journal a wider audience outside of academia for that reason.

IANAA.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
14 years ago

A: Publish the name of the referee if the article is accepted. Several journals in my field publish the name of the accepting associate editor. It is usually pretty obvious who this will be anyway, since the field for AEs for a journal is often small and subject specific.

B: That would be the abstract wouldn’t it?

E: Have an online voting system whereby members of the journal can vote on the articles published in each issue. I think that various impact factors serve the same purpose. They are obviously delayed by a year or so but what is the urgency in deciding which papers are the best. Also, smart editors will order the articles within an issue in order of interest and quality. At least in my field they do and that is what I did when I was an editor.

G: The idea of economics journals publishing a complete vision of the economy is pretty irritating. Economists need to get to grips with the idea that they are a small, specialised discipline who should properly spend their time chipping away at minor aspects of minor problems. There are some who want to subsume all human thought into their discipline. Negotiation and strategy..that would be game theory, a branch of micro economics. Finance..economics again. Statistics..that would be econometrics.

I think paying referees is a good idea, and can be financed through compulsory page charges,

Ardem
Ardem
14 years ago

“A. Publish the name of the referee if the article is accepted. This is designed to reduce cronyism and gives an additional signal to the outside world, i.e. the quality of the referees.”

Completely agree with that. Transparency and accountability of the review are the most critical requirements of peer-review, and the ones most sorely lacking.

Also, the cost of the review process, and subsequent publication, should be built into the initial grants for the work producing the paper, and once the paper is published it should be public domain information. Peer-review papers are not intellectual property in anything like the same sense as a novel or film or invention, and it is utterly ridiculous and highly restrictive to intellectual work generally to have to pay for the basic information. In my field (a tiny corner of medical science), the cost of obtaining the full peer-review database is several tens of thousands of dollars, and it is a very small database relative to the average one in med sci. These levels of cost are prohibitive to all but the largest institutions.

Damien Eldridge
Damien Eldridge
14 years ago

I think the following are the major reforms worth pursuing:

1. Quicker turnaround times.

2. Allowing simultaneous submission to multiple journals.

3. Leaving copyright with the author(s) of the article and not the journal’s publisher.

4. Reducing the cost of journal subscriptions for both libraries and individuals.

I don’t think it is necessary to add another aspect to each publication to explain it to a wider audience. Surely this is the role of review articles and textbooks?

While Econometrica and REStud do tend to publish more technical articles that the other top tier Economics journals, I don’t think that this is a problem. Surely researchers who are interested in pure economic theory or econometric theory should have outlets where they can share their interest? Econometrica and REStud also publish other work as well.

paul frijters
paul frijters
14 years ago

thanks for the comments. Let me respond to a couple of additional ideas raised:

– paying referees (cs+Chris)? Great idea. Quite a few journals already do this, though you often get ‘paid’ by having a free subscription which you often already had or are not going to use anyway. Many journals are not rich enough to do this though. The small journals are essentially run on goodwill.

– leaving copyright with authors (Damien). I’ve always liked this idea and its talked about a lot. The core problem is that journals do so keep on insisting that work sent there is original even though that word has little meaning in the social sciences. Yet, all journals play that game and that bogus word alone keeps on defeating the copyright idea, quite apart from the publishers who want to make money out of journals and demand copyright at existing journals. I agree in principle though that leaving copyright with the author is the optimal thing to do. That would greatly reduce costs allround.

As to point G (hc is pro, Chris is hell-bent against), it boils down to whether you think economics is and should be about a ‘roughly right’ vision of how society works and thus how it can be improved, or whether economists are bloated arrogant ignoramuses who are vaguely wrong and should stick to things that dont matter. If you’re of the former opinion, then it makes sense to see meaningful research as that which adds to the overall vision. If you’re of the latter, it doesnt make sense to speak about visions. There’s some merit to both sides I think.

Guise
Guise
14 years ago

Three other things, in addition to those proposed:

1. shift immediately to purely on-line publication;

2. make every article available by open access after a stipulated time (this would be a condition of publication – if the authors don’t like it, they can publish somewhere else); and

3. make space for articles from students.

Jeremy
Jeremy
14 years ago

Mandate that articles relying on original quantitative analysis (to any degree) provide the underlying data and calculations so that replication and extension is facilitated. Of course, data provision would be subject to any confidentiality and copyright constraints.

Some journals do this, but generally only in a halh-hearted manner.

Bob
Bob
14 years ago

But what to do about those economists who think that peer-review comes a poor second to ‘publication via media’…?

paul frijters
paul frijters
14 years ago

thanks for the additional points. Some feedback:
1. (Guise) On-line and open-access after a while: of course. Again, something publishing houses are not keen on because it limits the degree of rent they can suck out of a journal. More and more journals are doing this though and you’re right that its desirable.

2. (Guise) Make space for student articles. Now this is an idea you dont hear a lot. I’m in favour of that and it would be a gutsy move because one would certianly be accused of diluting quality.

3. (Jeremy) Mandate data and programs to be available. Some journals do this, but hardly anyone ever checks and virtually no-one publishes the papers that do the checking so it gets forgotten a bit. You’d need to create space i your own journal for replication studies of previous papers in your journal if you do this and that’s where journals falter at the moment because they can only lose (negative replications dont get cited and it makes the journal look bad because it makes it look like they shouldnt have published the original article). Hence journals window dress with rules about data and programs but dont really want replication to happen and hence dont really make it tough for contributors to fudge their data and their programs. I agree with principle, though you can only ask this if you’re a well-established journal in which case you have an incentive not to want it anymore.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
14 years ago

“Allowing simultaneous submission to multiple journals.” I cannot see this as viable. As an author, I bear zero cost of the refereeing process. Why would I not submit the paper to every journal I know? In this electornic age, I do note even incur the dupication and mailing changes. I guess your idea is that a time limitation on accepting a favourable report will have the journals completing for the best papers. but the referees do not have any incentives.

When jourmals finally go electronic then the costs will be much less and it will be possible to pay referees based on turnaround time incentives, I do not really understand why more journals have not gone electronic-only. I tried to convert the jounral I edited for four years but eh institutional subscriers (i.e. libraries) were against it. I do not understand this as within universities most access is electronic.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

Paul,

Thanks for the suggestions all of which seem somewhere between OK and great to me. The huge thing you didn’t mention was easy access at marginal cost – ie zero on the net.

I continue to be amazed at how long this is taking in coming, though a lot of it is here unofficially. One can usually find an article on the author’s or conference webpage even if it’s supposedly locked up in a journal.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
14 years ago

Chris,
simultaneous submissions does raise some organisational issues, though I was told it already happens in some physics corners (but that’s hearsay). The way I envisage it work is that a journal that accepts it can immedaitely proceed with publishing it and notify the other journals. That limits the authors’ incentives to submit everywhere. As to referees’ incentives, these are unaffected by all this so it would fall to the editors to figure out how to give their referees incentives.
On-line access does leave out a small, reducing market, of people who are not on the net. Perhaps libraries worry about these people. More generally though, electronic access is easier to circumvent since one can share access information with many people at once whilst a hard copy can only be shared with a few people close by. Hence I suppose online access does reduce effective property rights, which would make the publishers hesitant.
Why scientists still go via commercial publishers and thus do not put their stuff out there for free? Several reasons. One is that publishers have the ability to advertise in person at conferences and the like. Secondly, running a journal does involve some actual costs (especially if you want to pay referees) which you want to see recouped. If you dont want to set up a business administration yourself, you’re easily goaded into the arms of the corporate publishers.

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