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Count as a contribution to science?

Or as part of the system of guild competition?

These aren't at all the same thing.

The most important thing about the internet phenomena is that the general public (the people inflicted by the output of the economists) benefits by exposing the professional economists to public scrutiny -- much of it consisting in people pointing out or discovering that the Emperors of the Academy wear no clothes, e.g. most of their math "models" having next to nothing to do with the actual world, a world of heterogeneous production goods, limited knowledge, genuine uncertainty, fat tails, and heterogeneous entrepreneurial learners, (e.g. "agents").

There is a reason Mankiw bans comments and De Long blackballs & edits criticism of his work, etc.

The product stands up better when it isn't exposed to the sunshine of open critical analysis.

Greg - the one valuable insight economists have is that people aren't stupid.

If the emperor indeed has no clothes, then people - including students, including academic economists - will stop reading journal articles, and instead turn their eyeballs to places where they can find original insight, commentary, ideas, and analysis, perhaps blogs, perhaps working papers, perhaps something not yet invented.

I had an interesting course as an undergrad in economic history, about how economic research changed from the 19th century to today. Basically the peer-reviewed journal only became prominent in the early 20th century. Before that, salon & café culture, public lectures and books were the way to go. Then came prominent think tanks before WWII (Cowles commission, RAND, etc.). I don't see why blogging (or some form of Web 4.0 widget) couldn't take research to prominence in the same way that these forms once did.

Guillaume, that's really fascinating. It's now pretty much accepted wisdom that live performance is how musicians make money these days, and record sales are less important than they used to be (Susan Boyle albums sold to people too old to own i-pods being a notable exception).

I hadn't thought that a parallel dynamic could apply to researchers.

Even the employment and education of economists has changed. Early treaties in economics tended to be written by public servants or financiers, not academics (except for one very notable exception). Many Austrian economists like Menger and Schumpeter were trained in law. Walras had no formal training, he was introduced to math and economics by Cournot; that didn't prevent him from training Pareto. The PhD was a German particularity for most of the 19th century, until it was introduced to the US. The list goes on... It's so easy to take the world as it is and forget how relatively recent everything is.

Along these lines, I wonder when there are going to be formal alternatives to teaching and learning academic subjects through universities. By formal, I mean money changing hands and both sides committing.

Well, just to take one example of the economics of blogging. I have not given a dime to Nick Rowe's employers, and nor have I paid him. But I've learned an awful lot from his posts. On one hand I don't see a problem with this -- I know the exchange is working out in my favor and may be working out in his favor as well, as I'd guess that like all great teachers he considers himself "paid" by the amount his students - formal and informal - learn from him. On the other hand, though, I do see problems with it. A few on his side first. One is that we are bypassing the intermediary. He might not be suitably rewarded at his institution, because the institution isn't suitably rewarded by people like me. Another is that he might be sacrificing prestige in his field by blogging instead of doing published research. The institution might not care for him doing that either. On my end, there is a clear problem as well. I don't much mind not getting college credits, but because I haven't paid, I don't feel the level of commitment that I would have if I had paid. Structure and availability is another issue -- he blogs and responds to comments at his option.

In some ways I would like a traditional educational exchange here: I pay money, he receives money, we commit to a set schedule of lessons on a topic, we have discussions in a group or in seminar, etc. Perhaps the university gets a cut and could get more of a cut if it's giving credit to someone who wants it. Why isn't that happening?

Surely it is significant that it is Harvard researchers bypassing the journal world. If journal publication gives a stamp of approval, then it is those with established reputations who can afford to bypass them and still have their work taken seriously. Those without such reputations still need the stamp to get others to pay attention.

A few interesting developments:

1. Non-economists are also joining the debate (Interfluidity is the most prominent example): It would most probably be next to impossible to publish in prestigious journals without proper credentials, whereas a determined amateur can argue with the world's most prominent economists.

2. The interplay of various specialities and schools of thought, which might develop in a more segregated way in journals, eg financial economists arguing with macroeconomists arguing with monetary economists. But you also see the interplay between Wall Street economists and academics, two formerly segregated universes as I understand it.

3. The importance of the written word and clarity: if you're not clear in the original post, you will need to clarify in the comments or in a new post.

I'm far from convinced that blogging is the best way to propagate thought or that it is suitable for everybody (it does take a thick skin), but it is definitely a tool that will stay with the economics profession.

A comment on my original post: does anything other than a top general journal "count" at Harvard? If not, then it's not surprising people only publish in these outlets.

Adjacent - if you're a Canadian citizen, your tax dollars are supporting Nick Rowe's salary - and you're getting just as good value for money, I'd argue, as you would from Nick publishing his ideas in the Journal of Obscure Research Findings.

Just like to second Frances' point to adjacent/q. I say I get pretty good value for money on any taxes that go to pay WCI blogger salaries.

Pre-internet, how many 30-something computer geeks in AB could say that about pointy headed ivory tower dwellers in Ottawa and Quebec!?

By hiding behind subscriber walls, most academic journals are making themselves irrelevant in the digital age, anyway. Bring it on, especially since 95% of economics journal articles are utterly useless in advancing knowledge or having relevance to real-world policy debates. Vive les blogs!


Well-known academics not just at Harvard but at a handful of top US schools have also had alternatives to tedious journal publication, especially if already tenured and/or celebrities or both. Notoriously, Jeffrey Sachs was tenured at Harvard (youngest ever I believe) on the strength of one refereed publication: the rest were in NBER and Brookings volumes, etc. Blogging now provides an alternative route I believe, since the platform is provided by the prestige of the institution and/or the celebrity of the individual scholar.

Take newspaper blogs as another example. Blogs on the New York Times and Wall Street Journal generate lots of traffic, even though they aren't necessarily more insightful or interesting than similar pieces on eg self-published blogs.

People are clearly using prestige of the institution or person as a filtering device. With so much to read, it's simpler to just read NBER working papers and NYT blogs, on the premise, right or wrong, that it's generally going to be of good quality.

Depressing if you're not at those places though.

Marc: "especially since 95% of economics journal articles are utterly useless in advancing knowledge or having relevance to real-world policy debates."

Which may explain why 95% of journals (made up number) are being abandoned by scholars at the top schools?

But, along the lines of Vivek's comment, where does this leave the 99% of the profession who are not working at top schools?

As Greg says, is it just a system of guild competition?

It seems to me that there is a new order emerging. The impression I get (and these are just trends):

The economic blog debates seem to increasingly drive the research done in working papers. I also get the impression that academic papers are increasingly aimed at the blogosphere. Between the hyper-specialization and slow pace of academic journals, and the trite soundbites in the mainstream media, blogs seem to strike a good balance. Commenters also help to provide immediate feedback. The pattern seems to be that an argument erupts in the blogosphere, goes on for a while, and then a month or two later after all the points have been made on either side, someone brings out the heavy artillery in the form of a working paper, and, to mix metaphors, ups the ante. One example I have in mind here is Krugman's most recent one with Eggertsson:


The same thing hasn't happened in other disciplines, though. My theory is that economics is particularly suited to the blog medium, where you apply long running, competing theoretical arguments to the constant stream of events. To me, it just feels like the way economics ought to be done. I don't understand economists who (assuming that they don't have professional constraints) don't blog, or at the very least read the economic blogs.

Guillame's first comment was a real-eye-opener to me. (I expect I already knew what he said, but I just hadn't seen it that way.) The way we have been doing research isn't the way it's always been done, and so won't necessarily be the way it's done in future. Blogs as salons.

We're still going to need some mechanism that rewards producing research papers, and which provides a certain quality control. Formal modeling and econometric analyses are both essential and hard to do in a blog.

Rob: "slow pace of academic journals"

I am surprised that it took so long for this point to be raised. Having a paper as a working paper freely available to anyone is great from a researchers perspective if it is a good paper. For example Brock and Taylor's "The green Solow model" was first a NBER working paper since 2004, and was just finally published in the Journal of Economic Growth this year, but by having it as a working paper for so many years, the paper already has over 100 citations according to Google Scholar. I know my former phd advisor has a dept working paper that he's been trying to publish in an academic journal since 2005 (he started by submitting to the AER and has been working his way down from there). Working papers make sense as a solution to the publication lags, I know people who have waited a year and a half to receive desk rejections from Economics Letters! Letters journals are supposed to be fast!

JDUB, Rob - Glen Ellison's articles does talk about the slow pace of academic publication, which happens because it's hard to find people to undertake peer review. The institutional incentives are for free-riding, that is, publishing and not refereeing.

The point raised by Vivek Dehejia ("People are clearly using prestige of the institution or person as a filtering device") and myself above is supported by Matthew Hindman's recent "The Myth of Digital Democracy" which shows that voices listened to online have a similar, and maybe even more narrow, profile to the previous non-digital world. Blogging has failed to break down the barriers of authority and credentials.

Tomslee - Scott Sumner?

If economic bloggers wish to have their output considered on an equivalent level as published peer reviewed papers, then they should avoid what appears to be politically partisan public commentary on other social media, including especially twitter comments.

This bothers me more than any other thing. I have raised the issue in the past.

I think it is best to see blogging as a modern substitute for such output as policy briefs, op-eds, letters to the editor, and other short, applied and widely readable writings. All of these are the *extensions* of research, not research itself. One cannot equate a blog post or an op-ed, which could require up to a day of work, with a published research article, which could require half a decade of work (not full time of course, but certainly many hundreds of hours of hard work).

Both are essential, however, and should receive some weight in the reward system. First, research discoveries are refereed and published. Then, their implications are presented to a wider audience (formerly, op-eds or policy briefs; today, increasingly, blogs).

Last, there is the open journal format that shows great promise. In the case of the open journal e-conomics, it appears refereeing is ''open''. It's not clear it's a better way, but it certainly deserves more room in the marketplace of ideas.

Jack, thanks for the comments (on this and the other research post). There must be some research equivalent to the philosophical puzzle "If a tree falls in a forest with no one to hear it, does it make a sound?" "If an article is published and no one ever reads it, does it count as research?"

I agree with your point that blogging is not equivalent to sustained analysis, especially empirical analysis (with theory, oddly enough, one can get closer - 'these are the key ideas and assumptions, these are the major results, go and work out the math yourself').

The question is about the sequencing of events - these days I think the research implications get presented in blogs, op-eds, etc first, and then (a few years later) will eventually be published...

The e-conomics format is interesting - I'd worry about incentives to game the system however - when Stephen Gordon's or other colleagues' articles are posted on the Globe and Mail website, sometimes I go in, write a glowing comment, and then click 'like' a few times to make sure that this is the first comment people see.

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