Interesting article in the Times about the push for “open science”, bypassing the traditional structure of refereed journals in favor of a sort of fluid, self-policing online community. I can’t and won’t weigh in on this issue with regards to hard science, but I think there are some interesting parallels with what has been happening in economics.
This is also, by the way, a chance for me to maunder on about what it was like when I was younger. You kids get off my lawn!
So, the starting point for me, when thinking about how economics works as a discipline, is to realize that the traditional model of submit, get refereed, publish, and then people will read your work broke down a long time ago. In fact, it had more or less fallen apart by the early 80s.Even then, nobody at a top school learned stuff by reading the journals; it was all working papers, with the journals serving as tombstones.
And how did you know which working papers to read? In the fields I worked in, NBER Working Papers — yellowjackets — became the principal outlet for new research. If you were an associate, you got those papers in the mail, and at least checked out the abstracts — and if you were in the loop, you got to put out your own work the same way.
And who was in the loop? Well, there were groups of people in each subfield that were the real centers of information and reputation. I was part of two such groups, one in real trade, one in international money. I referred at the time to the “floating crap game”, hence the video above — there would be various conferences around the world, but the same 30 or so people would show up at each conference, like Nathan Detroit’s gamblers finding different hideouts each night.
You got provisional entree to such a group through connections — basically, being a student of someone who mattered, and being tagged as having potential. You got permanent membership by doing enough clever stuff; the informal rule was three good papers, one to get noticed, one to show that the first wasn’t a fluke, one to show that you had staying power.
And journal publication? Well, tenure committees needed that, but it was so slow relative to the pace of ongoing work that it no longer acted as an information conduit. I presented my paper on target zones at a 1988 conference; by the time it was formally published, in 1991, I had to add a section on the subsequent literature, because there were around 150 derivative papers already out there.
The whole thing was informal — and also deeply undemocratic, offering very little way for outsiders to enter the debate.
So now we have rapid-fire exchange via blogs and online working papers — and I think it’s all good. Work circulates even faster than it did then, there are quick exchanges that can advance understanding, and while it’s still hard to break in, connections aren’t as important as they once were and the system is much more open.
But, you say, doesn’t this allow a lot of really bad economics to circulate? Yes, but is it really any worse than it used to be? As I’ve tried to explain, the notion of journals as gatekeepers was largely fictional even 25 years ago. And I have a somewhat jaundiced view of how the whole refereeing/publication system has ever worked; all too often, it seems to act as a way for entrenched doctrines to blockade new ideas, or at least to keep people with new ideas from getting tenure at a good school.
The major problem I see now is the disconnect between promotion and the real nature of intellectual discourse in the Internet age. But the quality of the discussion, it seems to me, is if anything higher than it was in the good old days.