Not the best distribution method for papers.

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Economists Profit by Giving Things Away

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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Economics is the most influential social science, and has been for a long time. Why is that? A decade-and-a-half ago, Stanford University economist Edward Lazear offered a famous answer:

Economics is not only a social science, it is a genuine science. Like the physical sciences, economics uses a methodology that produces refutable implications and tests these implications using solid statistical techniques.

Maybe so (there are those who differ!). I can think of at least one other reason for economists’ outsize influence, though. It’s that anyone can get their hands on economists’ research.

Consider the Lazear essay that I quote from above. It’s called “Economic Imperialism,” and was published in 2000 in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, one of the field’s most prestigious publications. If you don’t subscribe or work at a university, it costs $40 to download the article. But don’t fret! It’s easy to find an almost identical 1999 working-paper version online for free.

This is totally legit -- no piracy involved -- and it’s standard practice in economics and related disciplines such as finance and accounting. Papers are almost always distributed widely and freely long before they are published in journals. This is not standard practice in most other social sciences, or in related fields such as history and philosophy.  As a result, when journalists and others go looking online for research on matters of economics, business or even politics, they are more likely to find and be able to read work by economists than that of historians, sociologists, political scientists, management professors, you name it.

So when my Bloomberg View colleague Noah Smith (an economist) argues that we ought to be paying more attention to research by sociologists, or when Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson argue in the Atlantic that the president should have a Council of Historical Advisers alongside the Council of Economic Advisers, a lot of this is really up to the sociologists and historians. If their research were easier for people to get their hands on, maybe more attention would be paid to it.

The sociologists are working on this, as Smith mentioned, with a new repository for working papers and preprints (papers that are almost ready for publication) called SocArXiv (and pronounced “sosh archive”) launching this summer with help from the Center for Open Science.

For historians it’s going to be harder, because the way they go about conducting and publishing research doesn’t really square with passing it around on the internet beforehand. Research monographs (books published by academic presses and bought mainly by university libraries) are more important for tenure and promotion than papers, and being first to publish new archival material matters a lot, too. In the words of Georgetown University historian Michael David-Fox,  “if one were to broadly circulate unpublished historical research there would be a danger of people just following your footnotes and, without actually plagiarizing the writing, using your archival research for their own purposes.”  

Lots of academic disciplines have quirks like this. Physicists have been sharing papers since the early 1990s through a repository known since 1999 as arXiv; biologists only got their bioRxiv in 2013, and tend to hold off on sharing papers on it until they’re quite close to being published in a journal. Similarly to the historians, biologists want to be first to publish new experimental results. If the details of your experiment begin making the rounds in a working paper long before publication, somebody might scoop you.

Research papers in the hard sciences do seem inexorably headed toward all being freely available online at some point before or after publication, because the foundations and government agencies that fund the research now insist on it. The social sciences and humanities get less such funding, and scholars in those fields are less enthusiastic about open access to their research.

So why is it that economists are OK with putting their work online? When I asked this of Brown University sociologist Daniel Hirschman, a member of the SocArXiv steering committee who happens to know a lot about the history of economics, he credited the working paper series introduced in the 1970s by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The NBER is a nonprofit group, founded in 1920, that was best known for big research projects such as Simon Kuznets’s work on gross national product and Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s “A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960.” In 1972, a young research associate named Bob Michael (now an emeritus professor at the University of Chicago), proposed that the NBER start issuing working papers to share research findings in a more timely fashion, without extensive pre-publication review.

Some university economics departments and research institutes already did this, but the NBER was an organization with a national footprint, a footprint that got much bigger after Martin Feldstein took over as director in 1978 and vastly expanded the ranks of NBER research associates. The number of working papers published each year exploded, and they and their trademark yellow covers found their way into more and more places. Feldstein also commissioned nontechnical summaries of key papers to spread the word further.

The NBER working papers aren’t exactly free: They cost $5 each unless you work for a subscribing institution, the federal government or a media outlet, or live in a developing country. But with the arrival of the internet in the 1990s, other means of sharing papers at no charge at all -- most notably the Social Science Research Network -- arose and thrived.

E-mailed Hirschman:

Once a critical mass of high profile actors in the field were circulating working papers, it became normative. It probably helped that economists have a somewhat macho culture (see the typical econ seminar, with pre-circulated papers and instant rapid-fire, harsh questions as soon as the speaker begins talking -- though notably, our economic sociology seminar  had the exact same norms).

No similar institution existed for sociology. Some sociologists took advantage of other outlets (SSRN, for example, even though it did not have a sociology network). But most sociologists came to think of working papers as something we didn't do. I don't think there's any strong articulation of reasons not to circulate, and I've heard very few in my outreach work for SocArXiv.

So maybe now we’ll start hearing more from the sociologists! I imagine it will take a while, though. Economists have effectively been doing their work in public for decades now. The formal peer review required for publication in an academic journal now often comes long after a paper has been critiqued by other economists, discussed in the news media and even started to influence government policy.

There are downsides to this. Journal publication still plays a big role in tenure and promotion decisions, and the review process at economics journals has become so slow that it can be hard for young scholars to assemble a long enough list of publications. And scholars from other fields surely must cringe at the idea of research findings showing up on the front page of the New York Times before they have been peer reviewed. Still, on the whole, sharing research in public seems to have worked out pretty well for the economists.

  1. Disclosure: We were roommates in college.

  2. I used to write some of these in the late 1990s. I got $100 a paper, if I remember correctly.

  3. Hirschman got his doctorate this year at the University of Michigan.

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Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

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