Kindness in the economics profession

I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.

Economics Twitter spent some of the past week reacting to a new paper reporting survey results on how economists evaluate peers’ publication lists. Here’s a description of the results from the authors:

highlights

I’m not here to stop anyone from evaluating publication lists however they see fit. There have definitely been some snotty responses on Twitter that of course this is the right way to judge the publications of others, and that wouldn’t it be good if other disciplines did the same. I find that a little tactless and bratty, but fair enough. If you feel like you want a mechanism to sort your peers and you feel like this is the right one, knock yourself out. Maybe be a little more tactful about it, but okay.

Another class of response has been much gentler: not all strands of research pan out or are super groundbreaking, but they may still be worth publishing somewhere rather than being trashed. This is arguing against the attitude in the survey and against the kind of incentives those attitudes might generate. In a similar spirit lots of folks have been making good sport out of pointing out examples of ultra-influential papers outside of the “top” journals.

These seem a lot kinder in spirit than the “yeah, so?”, but they still make me a bit uncomfortable. The problem here isn’t merely that some not-so-brilliant research is buried or that some not-immediately-influential research upends the conclusion. To my ears the problem here is the erasure of vast numbers of hard-working economists.

The majority of professional economists don’t publish regularly or at all in “top” journals. There are countless reasons why some economists may not be willing or able to conduct research that will be accepted there. And being willing and able is in any case not enough to guarantee that it will happen. (For one thing, let’s recall another paper that had Economics Twitter buzzing recently on the importance of social ties in the publication process.)

Are the people who happily brag about their distaste for research outside of “top” journals ignorant or cruel? I take for granted that they do not consider someone a true colleague if they are not “good enough”, but what I do not easily understand is whether they don’t comprehend what they are implying or if they don’t care.

Pages in “top” journals are finite and the number of Ph.D. economists grows. How can you ask for nothing but “top” publications and sustain the industry as it is now? You cannot. If economists whose job requires research output refuse to publish outside of the “top” journals, they will lose their jobs. If instead they continue to publish outside of the “top” journals, then not one of their colleagues should treat them unkindly for it. Naturally there is a role for systems to identify great, broadly interesting research, and naturally such a system tends towards elitism, with all the pros and cons that implies. But it needn’t be toxic.

Once again: I’m not the thought police, and it is your right to look down on others if you want. But my advice, if you want it, is to shut up about it. I’ve argued before that economics is structurally not very good at supporting the average economist, and this is another manifestation of that.

If all economists who were not willing, not able, or not lucky enough to place research in a “top” journal were to leave the profession, what would you have? The graduate students you rely on, the citations you covet, the undergraduate enrollments you are enriched by, and the textbook royalties you enjoy would disappear with them. May you get what you wish for.

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