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Economics Publishing and Perishing I

Boris
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Economics Publishing and Perishing I
Wed, Nov 03, 2010, 9:32 am CDT

Publish and Perish I. How did we get there?


Speaking one’s mind


When two academic economists meet nowadays, what do they talk about? There were times when they talked about problems of their discipline (am deliberately not using the word science, see later). I still remember listening,as a student, to prominent economists of the old generation sitting at lunch and discussing incomplete contracts, search costs, liquidity trap, surpriseinflation … you know the score if you ever got a whiff of that occupation.


Economists of my generation and younger do not do this any more. The only topic they are able to talk endlessly about is who published or tried to publishwhat paper in which journal, what kind of dumb and incompetent referees’ comments they received, what mob controls which publication outlet, what tricksand devices they suspect the editorial boards are using to prevent their work from appearing in print (and, presumably, help someone else’s work to bepublished instead).


As a beginner listening to this never-ending litany I was plagued by two dumb questions that I was ashamed of asking in view of the apparent unanimousuncritical acceptance of the peer-review system by everyone around me at the time.


First, why people who claimed to be scientists apparently accepted reasoning based on supernatural phenomena? Indeed, a young economic researcher was(and still is) urged by superiors to submit papers that would be positively reviewed by ex ante unknown referees according to equally ex ante unknown (sincesubjective, extremely fuzzily defined and unenforceable) criteria. In other words, forget about becoming a good researcher and try to be a clairvoyant and amind-reader. Shall we take this seriously and infer that economists with successful academic careers are deranged Rasputin-like mystics? Some of the advice they impart on the public sounds like it, anyway. But don’t worry, they are nothing of the kind, it’s just that their secure privileged life in the shadow of politicalclass has somewhat estranged them from many everyday realities. As I was to learn soon, successfully publishing economists are simply peoplebelonging to the right crowd.


The second question was caused by everyone’s obsession with the views and whimsies of the referees. In long-bygone times, when scientists were researchingto obtain new knowledge, they wrote papers to inform their colleagues about attained results and future intents. A publication certainly wasn’t a goal, just ameans of communication. The present day linchpins of academia would claim scientific papers still should be, and are, written for that very same reason.However, published versions of accepted papers owe not just the mere fact of publication, but also much of their outside and inside, to tastes, preferences,judgments and prejudices of the referees. That is, to get PUBLISHED, one has to forget about the PUBLIC (other professionals in the field as the final usersof the paper) and write so as to satisfy the referee(s). But then, after the referees have already read and agreed, does it make sense to publish now for thesake of some anonymous mass of fellow scholars? Of course, as the less naïve part of economic professionals has realized long ago, modern peer-reviewed publications are no longer communication devices buta valued commodity. As if it were not enough that they were not conceived for the benefit of the scientific community, in truth they are not even written for thereferees’ satisfaction.


Sometimes you have every reason to sympathize with the complaints about a paper rejection. In other cases, knowing who is complaining, you realize that if you were the editor, you would not ever let their writings into your journal unless your life depended on it. But this is not the point. The point is that in theacademic world of today, economists and financial scientists are evaluated solely according to their publication record in a given finite – no matter howlarge – number of refereed journals. These publications mean tenure, prestige, perks, well-earning sidekicks, quite often, a promising switch into politics orbusiness. Which means the journal space is not just scarce today. It will stay that way, no matter how many new journals are being started by disgruntledclients of the old ones. As long as publication equals benefits, there will be more and more economics graduates, all dreaming of putting their hands on them.For an economically educated person, this should not come as a big surprise. After all, short supply, excess demand and the consequences for the price iswhat one learns about during the first semester at school. In the same course, one is usually told that if the price is not allowed to adjust to a demandoverhang, the most probable outcome is rationing.


Who told you it was for free?


How does this rationing look like in the journal space case? Ask anyone who has ever submitted a paper for publication in a refereed journal. In a small number of cases, one succeeds (maybe not at first, but at the second, third, etc. attempt). There is a price, though. The farther the paper ventures intounchartered territory, the less an average referee is able to understand what is going on in it. A tiny minority of them are magnanimous and constructive,trusting the authors to know best what and how to write about the research they spent long months on. But in the typical case, the authors have to goalong with the referee recommendations against their best judgment (it is not the right time to be principled over details and antagonize the refereeswho decided not to reject the paper right away: they can change their minds any time). The quality of the message is sacrificed in the interest of gettingat least some record of one’s work out. At last, your paper is in print, but it has taken so long that neither you remember clearly what it was about or whyyou did what you did, nor your potential readers are any longer interested in a problem they would have liked to read about some 2-3 years earlier.


Much more often, the paper is rejected because it is oh so bad, as the editor informs, attaching critical (mind you, not always outright-rejecting!) referee reports. Of course, this can be true, but note one thing: journals love to brag about their prohibitively high rejection rates, suggesting that just a smallpercentage of submitted papers attain a quality level sufficient to deserve publication with them. From this, one is tempted to infer that the schools set up to produce able professionals produce dorks instead, with just a minority of the graduates capable of valuable academic output (but: although thereferees are recruited from the same set of schools and once were in the role of rejected authors themselves, the editor would brand bad manners any attempt by the author to question what stands in referee reports). Informing the public about high rejection rates always struck me as a truly remarkableact of self-incrimination: a logical implication would be a desperately low productivity in economic (and even lower in financial, since rejections rates thereare even higher) research compared to the majority of other areas of intellectual activity. One would expect simple rules of evolution to ensure that thebulk of academic production is of acceptable quality, failures remaining in statistical minority: although trash happens, it does not dominate. Instancesof divine geniality do not dominate, either, but that is not a problem. A science does not need everyone to be a genius in order to advance. On thecontrary, mass solid quality is essential to prepare ground for an occasional major breakthrough. So, is economics so exceptional that it can afford tobasket over 2/3 of what economists produce and be happy with what the current system allows into refereed journals as its realm of received wisdom? Doubts start the moment one sees this received wisdom close-up. That is, instead of searching for faults in rejected papers (which are, by definition,hard to access in their totality), it is both easy and useful to take a good look at those accepted.


Regularly, you discover that, essentially, the same research with which one author was turned down has been published under someone else’s name.Actually, if one abstracts from the rejected author’s violated right to recognition for being there first, this is the least unfavorable outcome from the public good perspective. Unfortunately, more often than not, what the journal publishes on a given topic is much worse than some of the submissionsit has previously rejected. When one compares the reasons officially leading to a paper rejection with the papers the journal has accepted in its stead,one sees red. Can corruption be involved? No doubt. The mechanisms are not so hard to figure out.


Wise guys


The editor has virtually unlimited freedom to bend referee process in the desired direction. You want the paper in? Request a report from someone you know and hint in the letter that you consider the manuscript “very interesting” or “important.” With the paper you want to get rid off, ask the referee not to hesitate “to be as critical as possible.” (You, too, may have received such requests. I have.) After the reports have arrived, write a decision letter duly citing from them. Since every report contains some critique, you can use any instance of such to justify a rejection. If you intend to accept, cite the same critique as a suggested revision. The review process is (nowadays in many journals double-) blind, therefore no one, least of all the author, has ahard proof of anything. And the publication decision is up to the editor anyway, in case someone wanted to contest.


After having watched this hypocritical farce for years, and for lack of polite alternatives, I choose to call the described system PRPR (Peer-Reviewed Publication Racket). I have no intention to castigate anyone, though. Mankind does not know rationing without corruption, not in a communist prison camp, not in Western academia, not anywhere. Instead of engaging in futile laments over the baseness of human nature, let us try to find one party whom the system suits. Actually, there is more than one. All can be found in and around editorial boards of academic journals, and include administration of privileged universities, academics with political connections and the part of public sector bureaucracies dealing with schooling and science. My impression is that none of the above seriously cares about the actual quality of published research or the advancement of economics as a science. Not because they are evil, just because they do not have either the incentive or the means to distinguish high quality from low. What they want is a system they can fully understand and control. PRPR meets the requirements, so why change anything?


PRPR-proponents are particularly strongly represented in economic departments of major universities. In any discipline, being a prestigious school means a lot of nice things in both pecuniary and non-pecuniary terms. But in economics and business administration (matched only by law), a high ranking is much more. For graduates, it is a direct ticket to the highest strata of society, with the corresponding power and status projected on professors and managers. How does one become prestigious? Officially, the school needs to prove excellence in teaching and research. The latter is certified by publication records; not just individuals, also schools have them. The difference is that, whereas, say, in natural sciences publications are derivative of discoveries, inventions, patents and new products, in economics and finance they are not the means but the (only) end. Natural scientists have to innovate constantly to stay on top. That is why, in certain fields the progress is so fast that a graduate would have difficulty recognizing the state of the art that had prevailed in his freshman year. Therefore, it is almost impossible to learn the things needed to become a good natural scientist unless you study at one of the right places. In economics, concepts evolve at snail’s speed, and the tools in the toolbox are hardly replaced at all. As a result, economic education is much less esoteric and exclusive than many believe and can be acquired in a lot of places outside top-rated universities. Of course, learning in an environment of highly motivated classmates and professors versed in the latest academic fashions makes it quicker and easier. Nonetheless, with some extra effort,an able and inquisitive mind with a decent mathematical background can nowadays learn the same limited drill of modern economics while sitting anywhere on this planet. At the same time, although there are still students seeking education, most come to get a degree; it is not the former but the latter that will decide about their earnings. Those students buy the label and not the contents, and the label is all the more expensive the more peer-reviewed publications the school generates (WHAT it publishes doesn’t matter, it can be a phone directory reprint, but the journal has to behigh-rated). Under these circumstances, how can an economic department or a business school maintain its reputation of excellence? Make sure


(1) it has sufficient clout in editorial boards of the right journals and


(2) your people publish a lot of papers in them (whereas others do not publish so many papers).


Is there anything better – for an incumbent - than PRPR to serve this purpose? Barely.


OK, publication as a commodity shall be priced somehow, but the PRPR cult prefers to be reticent about the pricing process.


When supply meets demand


It is not to say that attempts to find a “market-clearing price” for a publication are not made. Some journals offer a “fast-track submission option” at a multiple of the usual fee. That is, by paying outrageous money, one is entitled to surrender to the same murky practices, but at least one loses money quickly and can move on (naturally, no one can explain why a quick review process is more credible than the slow one as long as the incentives of everyone involved remain unchanged). Some time ago, there was an initiative to introduce a simplified “yes-no” type review in which the referee is not allowed to require revisions. Again, with old incentives in place I do not believe there is a promise of progress along that line. From time to time, one runs across obscure undertakings that implicitly promise you a secure and quick publication in a cyberspace journal no one knows about or reads, for A LOT of cash. Still, the named attempts of innovation show that the universal faith in the virtues of PRPR is no longer as firm as its high priests currently keep pretending.


If it is difficult to adjust price (upwards), one can try to adjust quality (downwards). Let us not forget that with a lot of submissions one needs a lot ofreferees. They cannot all be brilliantly educated sages. And a mediocre mind would hardly react with a praising review to a paper it knows it would never be able to produce itself (there are also outright-sick individuals who bad-mouth any paper they see out of pure spite; a crafty editor reserves them for times when the journal really has TOO MANY submissions). Upon recognition of this reality, the best ex ante chance has a submission to which a median referee can slightly condescend. Accordingly, signs of quality evolution – guess which way? – are salient. Some journals go as far as candidly advice prospective authors not to be too inventive or path breaking in what they submit, secure publication and tenure with something ordinary and leave ambitious research endeavors for later. Many naïve enthusiasts of genuine pursuit of knowledge frontiers in economics do not even need to bereminded, they have made their own bitter experience.


What emerges is a desperate waste of human capital. The most talented researchers, instead of developing their scholarly skills and putting them to work in promising projects, try to scrap whatever skills they can come up with for marketing and lobbying, just to allow their research results to reach the eye of the colleagues and the public. And, since no one is equally brilliant as a researcher and a lobbyist, better academic politicians win and better scholars lose, with dire consequences for the whole discipline.


PRPR purges economics of inquisitive creative minds and invites more and more career-avid mediocrities, among them plain ass-kissers unable of truly scientific critical thinking. As soon as one realizes that, one is less surprised to see the nearly entire profession having fallen for the cheap pep talk that serves as an ideological cover for PRPR-beneficiaries, and collaborating with them since then on destructing the discipline. The destruction will become official as soon as, one fine day, the relentless law of economic self-interest finds its unhindered way into academic economics. The right quality of the product and the price for its placement in the right journal will be easier for everyone to discover. As we know, this price shall be close to the marginal costs of the author and the marginal benefit of the editorial board. Specifically, for the author this would mean indifference between doing research and submitting the results to a journal on the one hand and engaging in some other gainful activity on the other. There will be fewer complaints and more run-of-the-mill papers written to be published and immediately forgotten (as if there were not enough of them already!). However, this state will not be a long-term stable equilibrium. Why? Because, as soon as it becomes a conventional gainful occupation without an additional aura of intellectual strife and selfless service to “knowledge and truth”, economics will no longer be such an expensively-selling article with either politics or business. Politicians and corporate moguls, up to a small number of exceptions, have insufficient expertise to fully understand and exploit the economists’ academic output. Yet they reward it generously because they subsume some extra motive attached to it, something one cannot fully control by compensation schemes and favors they apply to their other subordinates. They expect there to be some hidden driving force behind the economists’ effort, the same wish to pursue the unknown that attracts scientists in all other areas. For that force at work, they pay in the hope of cheap exclusive access to new findings about human abilities on which they feed, i.e. those to create and exchange values. Once they start to suspect the force is not there anymore, economists can bade their privileged social status farewell. Then, one will be probably surprised to see how easy it has become to publish a piece of conscientious and original economic research, but the reward will be mainly the author’s inner satisfaction, very much like in Adam Smith’s time.


Day of reckoning


If nothing else, then at least the financial crisis of 2007-9 and the subsequent Great Recession are bound to sober up the elite’s view of the economic profession. The crisis did not just reveal inadequate pricing of risk by financials or unsustainable debt-driven growth policies by governments. Academic economics has had its own Bernie Madoffs. Namely, the once revered “leading” economists were caught in a state of blissful inability to expertly react to the problems popping up all around them. When reached by the wave of fresh crisis-inspired research, the keepers of economic wisdom were mostly preoccupied by deliberations as to whether those contributions would be sufficiently loyal to the fetish of Efficient Market Hypothesis, while outside their offices, entire segments of markets were not just becoming “inefficient” but simply shutting down. At the same time, the pundits obviously decided the crisis were the occasion to start “thinking big”: one can hear calls to provide “a new theoretical foundation of capitalism”. As if capitalism were a prescription drug that needed renewed official approval and not a natural self-regenerating condition of human society that surfaces every time two or more individuals produce two or more scarce commodities. The pundits should, of course, stop worrying: capitalism has survived Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao Tse Tong, Pol Pot, Che Guevara and Michael Moore; it will have no difficulty surviving a few shattered egos inside economic departments.


If you meet a viper and an economist in the woods, kill the viper second


Unless it wishes to try out a decline into social irrelevance, the economic profession would do best to lay theoretical foundations of capitalism to rest for a while and try to design a meaningful program for its own future. Right now, economics and finance are on the verge of ceasing to be a science in a proper sense, not even a social science. First thing we learn about science at school is that it works with facts. Economics does not have any, at best it has some stylized facts, binding no one. Other social sciences may not possess laboratory-testable truths, but they do offer credible working hypotheses that are being constantly improved and renewed. Not so in economics. Instead of one paper so convincing that it supports the consensus before an equally convincing new one overturns or modifies it, one usually has dozens in favor and dozens against every candidate consensus hypothesis. Each of the papers is, what else, duly legitimized by publication in a sufficiently high-rated journal. We have all heard the joke about two economists each receiving a Nobel Prize for saying exactly opposite things. The joke can easily develop into a serious argument about the value of modern economics to the society at large. I do not think it can claim such value forever in its current position of a politically well connected parasite on the body of academia.


Although one can point at similar problems with publication records and research value in other scientific disciplines, the gravity of situation in economics is exceptional. In natural sciences, there is something like the “ultimate proof of the pudding”. A nuclear power plant either produces electricity or not, a drug either helps in certain medical conditions or not, a spaceship either delivers modules to the orbit or not, etc. In social sciences, although no rigorous proof is possible, one has to be convincing in what one writes and be able to reach outside the inner circle of one’s colleagues. Economics, which is neither exact nor empirically verifiable in the natural science sense, is, at the same time, too technical to be subject to efficient public scrutiny. Laymen, seeing arcane formulae and long tables of statistical test results, often believe that economists “prove” things. Insiders, of course, know all too well that by setting up the right model and selecting the right data one can prove or disprove whatever one wants, mathematics being just a means of expression, not the essence, of what economics does. I am sure modern economics could use a fresh and strong motivation to ask important and meaningful questions. Such a motivation, as I have tried to argue here, is currently absent.


In addition, there is the issue of credibility. While for decennials lecturing the world about incentives, economists have been simultaneously entrapping their own professional life in the tenets of PRPR, a system of advancement that defies all logic of incentive-based support of quality. PRPR has not only been quite successful at killing the natural progress of economics as a scientific discipline. It is also perfectly capable of discrediting any valuable message economists might come up with in the future.


Can anything be done?


Summing up my findings, I challenge everyone to verify the following claims concerning the role of Peer-Reviewed Publication Racket in the deconstruction of our profession. I contend that valuation of economic research output governed by PRPR


• operates in a blatant disregard of core regularities (such as matching supply with demand, provision of incentives and effort, etc.) that drive the very discipline it claims to serve


• is arbitrary and, by its very nature, unable to ever become objective


• is prohibitively lengthy, thereby preventing timely dissemination of important ideas and results


• is opaque, subject to systematic manipulation and abuse


• precludes competition of ideas and methods


• creates an environment in which intellectual priority recognition due to authors of innovative contributions can be easily denied or falsely attributed


• negatively affects quality of both the conducted research itself and the public record thereof


• wastes a huge amount of economic researchers’ effort and systematically destroys their human capital


• stands in the way of scientific progress in economics and finance.


No matter how destructive and frustrating PRPR may be, one cannot help admiring its resilience to critique. The first line of defense, in the standing newspeak of the trade, is captured by the insincere cliché going like “We know the mechanism is flawed, but is there a better alternative?” However,the truly poisonous bite of its defenders is contained in the message usually delivered in “charitable” hints and undertones: winners publish, losers get rejected and complain. Who would willingly take the losers’ side?


This has worked for many years. But the PRPR watchdogs may have overlooked something. The global economic crisis has suddenly created a situation in which there are no more “winners” among prominent economists: long publication lists can fool the public opinion in good times when the contents of those publications do not really matter. In bad times, many VIPs look and sound irrelevant regardless of how often their names appear in AER, Econometrica, Journal of Finance, etc. Under changed conditions, their activity more and more resembles an obscure impractical theology serving a long-forgotten cult. In this atmosphere, it is much easier than before to question many previously untouchable practices, including PRPR.


Thanks to the crisis, we may be facing a unique opportunity to return economics the status of a genuine living science. I believe there are many economists interested in such a trend reversal, as long as they love economics for the intellectual challenge it provides first, and the social status improvement as only a distant second. And those should better hurry up with finding a remedy.


 



Boris
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Economics Publishing and Perishing II
Wed, Nov 03, 2010, 9:32 am CDT

Publish and Perish II. Where shall we get instead?


In the first part of this essay (Publish and Perish I. How did we get there), I described the blind lane of modern refereed publishing in economics and gave it the acronym of PRPR (Peer-Reviewed Publication Racket), focusing on the means by which PRPR is destructing economics and finance as areas of genuine research and knowledge-acquisition.


Who cares, anyway?


The condition of modern economics doesn’t look good. Nevertheless, demand for its products still exists. Institutions like central banks, finance ministries, other government agencies, international organizations and the like often need to formulate an expert opinion on an economic issue not immediately covered by elementary-level textbooks. If, on behalf of this kind of inquiry, one begins a search for relevant literature, one can bet that the best hits will be among working and discussion papers, conference presentations and other types of “unpublished” manuscripts. Most refereed journal stuff with matching keywords is likely to be sterile, impractical and outdated. (Do not forget that members of academia acting as journal referees are notoriously ignorant about institutional realities serving as a backdrop to formal models, and proud of it. Therefore, they are instinctively hostile towards any research that tries to respect those realities. But this is exactly the type of research sought after by practitioners!) So, when one wants to look up research in a given applied topic, one hits the web and finds a couple of useful up to date contributions that are most likely still waiting to be accepted into the hall of fame guarded by PRPR. This recurrent experience should provide a clear guidance as to how to repair the mechanism of ideas’ and results’ dissemination in economics and finance: remove frictions on the supply side by letting as many contributions as possible be available to the professional community.


Are there not enough working papers already?


One might counter that early dissemination is already happening through innumerous working paper series and other similar – mostly electronic - propagation channels. Unfortunately, this is only partially true. As it happens, many institutions issuing working paper series are not driven by the ambition to overcome PRPR but rather, to imitate or even complement it. So strong is the (legitimate) fascination of academic bureaucrats by the system offering perfect control and subordination of economic research “producers”. The problem may be less severe than in the case of journals directly counted as walking tickets to career. Nonetheless, the garden variety PRPR cultivated by means of WP-series is a source of adverse effects similar to its wildlife cousin, most notably publication delays, restrictions on addressed topics and the scope of ideas allowed to be aired through a paper series of a given institution. Even if all this is overcome, authors of a working paper counted only as an “unpublished manuscript” still cannot expect due recognition of their intellectual property rights. PRPR insiders have successfully installed the tradition according to which only contributions in the outlets they control constitute entitlement to recognized priority. You may have said something for years at conferences and distributed the idea through many “unrated” papers, no one is obliged to take notice. But as soon as the same idea has been belatedly rediscovered by a graduate student of an influential PRPR-insider and their joint lame paper has been muscled by the latter into a rated journal does the public suddenly start being lectured about its exceptional merits. Oviously, the contribution receives the student’s and the mentor’ name, not yours. Mind you, such a thing is unheard of in mathematics, physics or other natural sciences: one can write down a valuable argument on a piece of toilet paper, nevertheless the valid ethics of the profession dictates this argument to be unambiguously attributed to the one who wrote first. Afterwards, journal editors are, actually, fighting each other to reprint the inspired toilet paper scribbling on their high-quality sheets.


To summarize, the current model of decentralized working paper editions does not solve the problems created by PRPR because it


is rarely sufficiently quick and flexible


inherits some of the PRPR vices


is influenced by preferences of the issuing institutions as to the supported topics, opinions and authors


does not protect intellectual property rights.


Let everybody in (initially)


To get an improvement, it seems inevitable to sacrifice the exclusive status of the peer review pillar as a – hugely overestimated – guarantor of publication quality. Let us not forget that the most valuable contributions in economics, as in any other science, need time to be properly understood. No referee in the world can be sure that his/her opinion given today is what posterity will think in ten, let alone twenty years. That is why the quest for quality promotion through a peer-review process would be futile even if the latter were entirely fair and professional, which it is not.


In short, there is no way round accepting that no one else but the authors can be made fully accountable for the ultimate contribution their work makes to the overall progress of the discipline. Whatever system of evaluation of fresh contributions one tries, there will always be good and bad research on both the well-accepted and ill-accepted end, and only time will eventually tell which is which. I am convinced there is no better way than let authors publish what they want and bear full consequences.


I can imagine a space on the web in which everyone is free to stake out a piece of ground and place one’s academic contributions in the field of economics and finance. A sensible fee would be appropriate, and, inevitably, there would have to exist formal requirements on manuscript length, structure and other attributes. That is, although there would be no censorship of contents, there would have to be strict rules concerning the form. Every contribution would get a unique identification, so that authors have a tangible proof of their intellectual property right. Accordingly, the system should have many traits of a patent office, including centralized management and unified rules. A reliable encoding system shall allow quick search of papers contributing to a specific subject. The current JEL classification could be a start, even though it may be too crude in its present form, especially in the coverage of formerly neglected areas and methods.


Of course, this hypothetic new publication mechanism (I would like to call it something like Economics and Finance Academic Self-Service, or EFASS to stress its purpose of catering to economic research producers by facilitating quick professional communication and dissemination of ideas) would have to co-exist with the incumbent ones. As long as bureaucracies prefer to stick to the PRPR-based advancement system, one should let them. EFASS shall be used for work, not career. Although I do believe that a properly functioning EFASS will make PRPR obsolete and irrelevant in the long run, things should be given their natural course.


One would not want to get rid of referees altogether, either. For an additional fee, authors contributing to EFASS should be entitled to get one or more reviews. There is no reason to keep the latter confidential: the reports should be as freely available as the paper itself. I also think that, if both sides wish, EFASS ought to allow the author and the referees to go on in public discussion over the issues of the paper. This element would provide a certification of the presented research, but the certificate would be just as valuable as the arguments presented by the parties and evaluated by the readers. At the same time, reports will have to obey formal rules just like the papers: referees shall not be able to write simply “I like” or “I dislike” as they often do in the PRPR-controlled domain. The report should be required to take a clear stand regarding the novelty (if contested, exact references to earlier work shall be provided for everyone to check), importance of the topic, validity of the arguments, etc.


A dilettante free-for all?


Naturally, it is important to decide what to do with lunatics, graphomaniacs and other creeps seeking self-expression. The peer review process had been originally designed, among other things, to fend those off. If everyone is given a space to publish, it is inevitable that a lot of this space will be soon occupied by crackpots (look around you in the Internet). Let us resign to the reality that a universal quick solution to this problem does not, and cannot, in principle, exist. Publication fees can filter out penurious graphomaniacs, but a wealthy one will always find a way to self-propagate. Formal requirements on manuscripts can put a check on chaotic madmen, but meticulous ones will get in. Controls by experts are bound to evolve into, what else, the Peer-Reviewed Publication Racket encore, and we are back to field one.


No freedom is without price, and by tearing down barriers to innovation and freedom of expression erected by PRPR, one also removes barriers to insanity. So, just as only simpletons believe everything they see on the web, economists should get used to approach with caution what they are going to see on EFASS, be prepared to encounter PLENTY of trash there and sieve through it. Extra effort no doubt, but this is what their professional training is supposed to help them master.


And besides, lunatics in EFASS would not be completely useless. Their written output would provide an invaluable source of research material for psychopathologists, and I think economists should be collegial enough to grant shrinks the favor. Who knows, maybe the study of writings by insane self-appointed economists will be rewarded by important insights into the functioning of a particular kind of twisted mind, and even help catch some serial killers at large?


Resistance


Since PRPR is so advantageous to its insiders, one should not be surprised to see a lot of vexed reactions to any emerging alternative such as EFASS outlined above, from that direction. Even pretty violent attacks may come once the PRPR godfathers realize the full extent of the threat. Authors of EFASS contributions – and the contributions themselves - may very well have to defend themselves against, e.g. discrimination and mobbing in a number of “pillar” PRPR journals, “leading” schools, allocation of grants, etc. Defense is possible, but it might be wise to prepare it in advance of the launch of any seriously meant competitor to PRPR. However, once it becomes an established option with which PRPR is forced to co-exist, EFASS would be able to backlash by gradually rehabilitating the peer-review system itself. Rather than being sidetracked as obsolete, refereed journals will eventually look for a new place as a service to scientific community, even if that place will dramatically differ from the one they assume today.


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


Economics Publishing and Perishing I
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