Let the Reader Decide!

May 27, 2014

I just learned about  a new journal with a new concept that sounds interesting: Royal Society Open Science. It has a review process and will publish all articles which are scientifically sound, leaving judgement of importance and impact to the reader.

This seems apposite because printing costs and distribution costs are practically absent in the Internet age. So there is no big point in rationing publication space (that is not scarce anymore) by  “importance” or “impact”.

Unfortunately this  journal does not cover economics.


BEPress Journals Are Not Open Access Anymore

March 16, 2013

This is the usual story:  Once a free or reasonably priced journal is successful, it is bought, prices are raised, and access restricted. The lure of money is too tempting.

The most recent case concerns the BEPress journals that had pioneered open access in economics (well, actually quasi-open access, but this was acceptable). Aaron Edlin has sold them to DeGruyter, and quasi open access turned into gated access. The author’s rights are disregarded, of course.

We see here that well-defined property rights might bring about economic inefficiency: If a journal can be sold, it will be sold and turned into a goldmine, even if this is inefficient from an economic point of view. This can never happen to RePEc, as it is not owned by anybody. Under the presumption that open access is economically more efficient than gated access, ill defined property rights contribute to efficiency.

As an author make sure that you publish in a journal that cannot be sold, or is unlikely to be sold. Perhaps the existing free journal software should carry a clause that free use is permitted only for open access journals, and other uses are permitted only on paying a stiff fee. This would make credible to the authors that their work remains accessible and would solve the problem even with well-defined property rights, but this is unlikely to happen.


The Purpose of Journals

February 14, 2013

The editor of the Economics Bulletin, John Conley, has noted that many things go wrong with economic journals. Here is the abstract of his letter:

This letter calls attention a recent trend in economics publishing that seems to have slipped under the radar: large increases in submissions rates across a wide range of economics journals and steeply declining acceptance rates as a consequence. It is argued that this is bad for scholarly communication, bad for economics as a science, and imposes significant and wasteful costs on editors, referees. authors. and especially young people trying to establish themselves in the profession. It is further argued that the new “Big Deal” business model used by commercial publishers is primarily responsible for this situation. Finally it is argued that this presents a compelling reason to take advantage of new technologies to take control of certifying and distributing research away from commercial publishers and return it to scholarly community.

According to Conley,

The purpose of academic journals is to facilitate scholarly communication, filter for errors, and maintain the record of scientific advance.

This is, in my opinion, an idealized conception that does not reflect  the purpose of economic journals anymore. For economic research, the current economic journals are largely redundant. Conley himself notes this:

I seldom actually read journals  any more. I research topics using Google Scholar, RePEc, SSRN, and so on. It is inconvenient to sign up  with publishers to get tables of contents emailed to me or to login to my university’s library web portal to  search a journal issue by issue. I find it adds very little value over a more general search in any event. In  short, certification remains important to help people gain tenure and promotion and to get a sense of the  quality and centrality of individual scholars. However, neither certification by a journal, nor the collection  of similar papers within the bound or even electronic pages of a specific journal has very much meaning to  me when I am trying to understand where the debate in a subfield is at any given moment. As a result, I  was beginning to come to the conclusion that while they are irritating, commercial publishers are “mostly  harmless” to the research enterprise itself as publishing itself is becoming mostly irrelevant.

This coincides with my own observation: researchers don’t need journals. The main purpose of the journals is currently to ease the work of hiring committees. People publish in order to get a job. The wish to communicate new findings appears secondary in most cases.

Journals could serve worthier aims, however: they are needed by students, college teachers, and others who would like to obtain reliable information but can not as easily  separate the wheat from the chaff as active researchers can.

The important point Conley is making is, however, that the current journal system, although largely irrelevant for research, is nevertheless

bad for scholarly communication, bad for economics as a science, and imposes significant and wasteful costs on editors, referees. authors. and especially young people trying to establish themselves in the profession.

I fear, however, that John Conley’s suggestion to increase the number of journals would not improve the situation very much. As long as hiring committees use the reputation of journals, rather than the reputation of individuals,  a useful system of  “communication, filter for errors, and maintain the record of scientific advance” is practically blocked.

What can be done besides increasing the number of journals? Here some further suggestions.

1. Hiring committees can restrict the number of papers to be considered for judging an applicant to, say, three and disregard all other writings. This may help to reduce the number of publications and thereby reduce the need for further journals; it would also tilt the quality-quantity trade-off in favor of quality. (I think this has been a practice in Berkeley.)

2. Hiring committees that feel incompetent to judge the substantive quality of a contribution and have to resort to statistics of some sort may turn to citation counts of individual authors, as obtainable through  Google Scholar, Web of Science, or RePEc). This is a better solution than the the current practice of relying on the prestige of journals and would take account of the fact that  many papers in top journals are not so good, and medium-quality journals publish excellent articles.


Why discussion paper archives should not allow the removal of items

August 20, 2011

The archives listed in RePEc differ in their policies regarding withdrawal of items, or replacement of an old item by a newer one. Some archives, like NBER, permit withdrawals and replacements, while others, like  IZA  or MPRA do permit neither withdrawals nor replacements. (ArXiv, the leading archive for physics, has adopted a no withdrawal policy as well.)

I am managing MPRA, which publishes unrefereed discussion papers in economics. In the following, I detail the reasoning underlying MPRA’s policy choice.  As the case for prohibiting withdrawals seems to be strong, it is hoped that other RePEc archives adopt a similar policy if they have not done so already.

Discussion papers are preliminary versions of articles that may appear in their final form in the future. Discussion of these preliminary versions serves to improve them.

Discussion of a discussion paper requires that it can be cited. Citation requires that you can find the cited item, and even the cited phrase at the page given in the citation. In short: The cited item must remain reliably unchanged and retrievable.

In the old days, you mailed typed manuscripts to colleagues, and successively revised your papers in response to their suggestions and criticism. This entailed the problem that your colleagues would refer to different versions. In order to correctly grasp their points, you had to keep track of the different versions you had mailed around. (I never managed.) With a stable Internet address for each version, this tracking can be done over the Internet with ease. Permitting substitution of old versions by new version under the same Internet address would invide confusion and would make citations unreliable.

So the alternative seems to be: Either you keep your papers private and have your discussion in form of private correspondence, or you put them on the Net for public discussion. The second alternative is implied by placing the paper in a discussion paper archive, and this seems to require that identifiable versions remain accessible concurrently.

In addition, there are further reasons for favoring a “no withdrawal” policy by archive maintainers.

– If the final version of a paper ends up in a toll-gated journal, this excludes the majority of economists from reading the final version. The presence of a preliminary version mitigates the problem.

– If the preliminary version is referred to by a hyperlink, the reference becomes largely useless. NEP reports will, for instance, show dead links in such cases. This is a nuisance.

– If problems about priority of findings arise, these may be settled more easily if all versions are available on the Net.

– For archive maintainers, the manual handling of withdrawals requires considerable work. This speaks against the possibility of withdrawals as well. (For large archives, this reason is overwhelming. At MPRA we initially permitted withdrawals, but this proved impracticable and provided the proximate cause for adopting the no-withdrawal policy.)

– Further, the fight against plagiarism is eased by adopting a non-withdrawal policy. Typically, plagiarizers ask for removal of their contribution if detection is imminent. This tends to shade the case. If a plagiary remains in the archive, the case remains transparent. If an item is identified as a plagiary, it is to be marked as such, and the original source indicated. This has additional advantages:

– the interested reader is referred to the original source

– the plagiarizer cannot make his plagiary undone, thereby hiding the offense from scrutiny by potential future employers

– because of that threat, plagiarism becomes more risky and is discouraged.

– problems with plagiarism may be settled more easily and be handled more transparently if all versions are available on the Net. Otherwise, a paper may be plagiarized, the original paper substituted by a revised  version, and priority will go to the plagiary, while the revised version will be counted as a result of plagiarism! This ought to be avoided.

The common objection against a no withdrawal policy is that authors would prefer readers to read the newest version. Yet RePEc provides information about all versions, and the metadata at IDEAS or EconPapers provide alerts about other existing versions. So the readers may choose the most recent one. (Such problems occur all the time, but it would be impractical to introduce the possibility of withdrawing everything, including published papers. For example, I have recently updated a paper published in a journal in 2008 and would like to refer the reader to the new version in the format of a discussion paper which contains important improvements and new material, but there is no way to do that, other than hoping that the reader searches through RePEc or sees the different versions in Google.)

There is, thus, a conflict between the interest of the author to have only his or her favorite version on the Net, and the public that is interested in transparency and unmanipulated documentation. At MPRA, we try to take account for that by indicating if a paper is superseded by a newer version. Further, we offer the possibility to watermark papers as withdrawn by the author, but leave them in the archive.


Why Journals?

December 16, 2009

When I started studying economics in the ‘sixties, there was no Xerox. Journals were printed, and then mailed. Because printing (type-setting by hand, no computer at that time) was expensive, only selected articles were distributed through journals, and journal editors had to select carefully. Researchers and even students subscribed to journals in order to have articles of interest available; otherwise they had to copy them by hand, or excerpt them, or go to the library to have a look. Distribution by print was the cheapest and most economic way of distributing research.

Hence the journals had a dual function: 1.) They selected research articles and 2.) they distributed them. The first function (selection) was necessary because printing–especially printing of mathematical formulae–was quite expensive. So the bundling of selection and distribution had an economic reason.

This reason has vanished. It is possible to distribute practically for free (through MPRA for instance). So the question is: Do we need journals, simply for the purpose of selecting articles, as the function of distributing articles is redundant nowadays. Let me share some thoughts on the issue. I concentrate on research journals, whether open access or not. Survey journals like the Journal of Economic Perspectives or commentary journals like Economists’ Voice are another matter.

Do We Need Quality Stamps?

Some people argue that journals provide a “quality stamp” for scientific contributions, just like rating agencies assess firms or assets. We know that rating agencies may induce unwarranted herding effects, yet the point that journals perform a rating function is true. But is it needed? And if needed, can’t it be provided more cheaply?

As to whether a quality stamp is needed: This may be different for different groups of users. So look at different groups that may benefit from a quality stamp.

Researchers

In my fields of research, I certainly do not use journal names for selecting articles. I search the Web and have my subscription to NEP. Most articles (99%) in top-ranking journals are of no concern to me because they discuss issues I don’t work on and seem too specialized, technical and boring as to make it worthwhile to read more than the abstract. But I get the abstract much earlier through NEP and other services. And further, I obtain the articles I am really interested in much earlier (one or two years earlier) over the net than through the journals. (Note that the articles in good journals are typically available on the Net at the time of publication.) If I find an article on the net that I like, typically a pre-print, and see it later published in a good journal, I feel a kind of satisfaction about the journal, but this does not seem to justify the existence of journals.

Further, I am not interested in seeing only the good papers that some referees approve of. As I know my field, I do not think that referees know better. Actually many papers in top journals are not so good, and mediocre journals publish excellent papers. Further, many rejected papers are rejected for reasons such as being badly written, ill organized, or employing faulty reasoning, but they often do contain useful references and interesting ideas, and therefore they interest me as much as a superbly crafted paper elaborating on rather sterile detail.

Yet there may be the benefit coming with having an article revised during the refereeing process. The probability that the mathematics are correct is slightly increased. Typically, the exposition is improved, too. Further, the references are enlarged by adding some quite relevant stuff, but also by adding things suggested by the referees for sundry reasons that hurt overall consistency. But this does not hurt much.

The benefits going with having an article refereed carry side-effects, however: Sometimes the editors’ and referees’ demands make papers worse. In the same vein, have a look at Bruno Frey’s amusing paper, and especially at what he reports about Robert Frank.

Regarding the publishing of my own research I see that publishing in a journal does not affect citations, but making a paper available on the net does so. Hence journal publication is of very limited value to me (but I don’t have to care about the journals I am publishing in because I am close to retirement).

So, overall, I think that researchers do not benefit significantly from journals that publish research papers.

Hiring Committees

A benefit from having quality stamps is that this helps hiring committees to select candidates under conditions of ignorance. This may be true, but I would consider this a dysfunction: In the first place, hiring committees should comprise knowledgeable members; otherwise you would not need hiring committees and leave the decision to bureaucrats; and second, citation numbers are much better indicators for the impact of an author’s work than the journals the author has published in. So ignorant hiring committees may better resort to RePEc citation scores, rather than being enthused by journal titles. (But then they will end up with hiring candidates who work in fields many people work in. So they end up with conventional candidates, rather than creative ones. But this will be the case whenever you have incompetent hiring committees.) In any case, hiring committees won’t need journals, as RePEc citation scores are independent of journal names and do not rely on the existence of journals.

However, the reliance of hiring committees on journal rankings may entail strictly negative consequences. I read, for instance, that Notre Dame University intends to dissolve the department of economic history because the economic historians do not publish in mainstream journals.

It seems to me that hiring committees do not benefit from the existence of journals either.

Libraries

It is sometimes said that journals permit journal rankings, and this is a help for librarians for deciding which journal to subscribe to. This is, of course, not an argument for supporting journals. Without journals, there would be no problem of selecting journals, and the librarians could concentrate on selecting books.

So I conclude that libraries would perform better if we had no journals.

Economics Without Journals

Imagine we had no economics journals. What would happen? Presumably people would write more books. I would consider this an advantage, as knowledge is much too fragmented at the moment. Further, institutions would be in demand to channel the flow of information better than possible through journals, such as blogs specializing on some topic or another, and meta-blogs like Econ Academics. I could imagine that collections of papers on certain topics would emerge. The Special Issues feature of the economics E-journal provides an example.

A Suggestion for a Next Step

My impression is that the existence of journals is a feature of the past. Journals will die, and this will be an improvement for academic economics. The process will be sped up if new ways of channeling information are devised. So here is just one idea:

I could think, for RePEc, to devise a feature that lists related papers to any given paper. Google Scholar has a feature like that, but I think that could be improved tremendously for our specific purposes. An easy way would be to look at the citations of any given paper and give all papers with similar citations. This could, theoretically, be achieved by building on the citation data created by the CitEc project. If someone with programming expertise could adopt such a project, this would be a great help for economists world-wide. (As a side effect, such a feature would put pressure on Elsevier to release its citation data.)

There are certainly many more suggestions. I am looking forward to see them, perhaps in comments to this blog. And certainly my general point must be controversial. I must have overlooked some important aspects. The world can not be as inefficient as I portray it. Otherwise we would have no journals right now.

Maybe we can have an exchange of ideas.


MPRA, the Munich Personal RePEc Archive

August 27, 2009

The Munich Personal RePEc Archive (MPRA) has been started three years ago. It has developed into one of the largest archives within the RePEc network, comprising roughly 9000 items at the time of writing. Christian Zimmermann has suggested that I share some toughs about its history and functioning.

The initial idea occurred to me when I heard that the Economics Working Paper Archive (EconWPA), run by Bob Parks, was discontinued in 2005. EconWPA offered the possibility for individual authors to make their contributions accessible to the community through the RePEc network, given that only institutions can set up RePEc archives. Although we have in Munich our discussion paper series integrated into RePEc, not all economists are so fortunate, and the need for a personal archive (as distinct from an institutional archive) was apparent.

Given that we had successfully established our department’s discussion paper series with the EPrints software, it appeared technically feasible to clone the software and use it for a personal RePEc archive. Discussion on the internal RePEc list led to the name “Munich Personal RePEc Archive,” the main concern being to clarify that the archive was intended as a RePEc service, rather something  original, and that the name would not exclude other personal RePEc archives in other locations. (If one of the other Munich universities wants to start another personal archive, we may get into a problem…)

I asked Volker Schallehn from the University Library, who has implemented the EPrints software for our university archives, about the possibility to help with such a project. He agreed to help. The next step was to convince the president of the university as well as the director of the library to agree dedicating some resources to the endeavor that would not serve people from Munich at all. They were in favor, and so we got started on September 19, 2006.

From a technical point of view the main problem was to automatize as much as possible, as we could not supply manpower: The generation of title pages, the  creation of metadate in the ReDif format required by the RePEc harvester, and the linking to the RePEc author service. With the help of  Thomas Krichel, Christian Zimmermann, Kit Baum, Sune Karlsson, Ivan Kurmarov, and others we manged to solve these problems and set up the website. We found editors. They do the main job now. The English editors handle often more than 50 submissions per day.

As the Eprints software permits to establish series in different languages, we decided to use these feature and to offer the service in all languages for authors who deal with country-specific issues and want to make their research available in their local language. However we require for all submissions English abstracts such that all users can obtain an impression what economists writing in other languages do and, if necessary, contact them. This feature has lead to quite a number of submissions in languages like Spanish or French, and to some smaller sets in Turkish, Arabic, and others. (Some of them look extremely pretty.) Maybe this feature creates a sense that all economists world-wide see themselves as members of a community with the common purpose of helping to improve living conditions around the globe.

A central motivation for establishing a pre-print archive like MPRA was to enable authors to secure the copyrights for their pre-print versions in case the copyright for the final article goes to the publisher. This permits open access to their work, even if publishers try to make the final work inaccessible for the non-paying public. This is a great convenience for academics and, I hope, generates a countervailing power that keeps a check on journal prices. Further, this arrangement provides a means for the authors to make their work accessible to others through the RePEc services.

As an unintended by-product some authors have obtained requests from publishers to publish their contribution in a volume or journal. This may indicate a trend for the future: While authors submitted their works to publishers (and paid for it), in the future simply put your stuff on the net, and publishers approach you in order to create collections that generate value added beyond mere publication, such that people and libraries a willing to pay for it. If MPRA could contribute to such a development, this would be nice.

It is quite astonishing to me how many good papers we obtain, in spite of the fact that we do no refereeing at all. (The editors check only some formal aspects, making sure that the submission is of academic nature, and a certain convention has emerged in this respect.)

MPRA offers a public forum for publishing papers, but not only that: It offers the possibility to publish comments on papers in the archive. This feature is not used. Maybe somebody has a suggestion how to organize discussions around papers such that people actually feel inclined to use such a feature.

So much about MPRA. If you have any suggestions, please feel free to communicate and discuss them on this blog.


Supplementary Open Access

January 23, 2008

Most economic publications do not provide open access. Yet the articles published there may be accompanied with related Internet material that is openly accessible—in particular pre-print, post-print and other versions of the published articles, and including additional material that is unavailable in the published versions. I refer to this as “supplementary open access.”

It is obviously in every author’s best interest to make their works freely available on the Internet, and it is in the interest of all economists to enjoy unhampered access to as many economic research papers as possible. It is also helpful to have open access to other versions of articles in case the original article is not available, too expensive or shortened. This makes it advisable for authors to provide supplementary open access to their published work, in particular access to pre-print versions and post-print versions. (“Pre-print” refers here pre-refereed and “post-print” to post-refereed versions of a published paper).

Supplementary open access has several advantage for authors:

Visibility and citations. In his article “Online or Invisible,” Steve Lawrence has analyzed the effect of online availability of published journal articles in physics on citation. He concludes:

“The results are dramatic. There is a clear correlation between the number of times an article is cited, and the probability that the article is online. More highly cited articles, and more recent articles, are significantly more likely to be online. … When considering articles within each year, and averaging across all years from 1990 to 2000, we find that online articles are cited 4.5 times more often than offline articles. “

There is no reason to assume that economics would be any different, although I do not know a comparable systematic study. My own experience is, though, that those articles I placed online attracted much more attention than comparable articles not available online. The further spreading of Internet publishing since 2000, also witnessed by the growth of the RePEc database, may have further strengthend the effect.

Prestige. Theodore Bergstrom and Rosemarie Lavaty have looked at all articles that appeared 33 economic journals in August 2006 and determined for all papers whether or not an open access version was available on the net. The result:

“… freely available versions of about 90 percent of the articles in the top fifteen listed journals can be found by Google-searching the title and author. [...] the self-archiving norm is less strong among those who publish in the less influential journals. Freely available versions of about 50 percent of the articles in the eighteen lower-ranked journals in our sample could be found on the internet.”

Several top-ranked journals (among them QJE, JPE, and Econometrica) scored 100% free accessibility, while lesser journals scored significantly less. The prestige of the journal thus correlates strongly and positively with supplementary open access.

Career concerns. Many hiring decisions are influenced by citation scores. I have mentioned above that open access improves citations and citation scores. These are usually taken from Thompson (Web of Science). The RePEc citation scores are increasingly used for these purposes as well. They refer not only to published work, but also to pre-prints and all other material available through the RePEc services.

For these reasons, authors should be interested in providing supplementary open access to their works. At the same time they help others.

Now to the publishers. Most publishers make supplementary open access easy, but a few still try to restrict public access, in spite of calling themselves “publishers.” (It would be better to call them “concealers.”) You may want to submit only to those publishers that permit some form of supplementary open access. These publishers are “green,” “blue,” and “yellow”:

Green publishers (most publishers) permit you to archive pre-print and post-print versions of your article.

Blue publishers permit you to archive post-print (i.e. final draft post-refereeing) versions of your article.

Yellow publishers permit you to archive archive pre-print (i.e. pre-refereeing) versions of your article.

All these publishers are fine, as far as supplementary open access is concerned. The publishers that are neither green, blue or yellow are “white”:

White publishers (a few) do not support archiving.

As supplementary open access is blocked only by the white publishers, don’t submit to the corresponding journals if possible–and don’t help them with referee reports. They obstruct the dissemination of knowledge.

You find further details on individual journals at the RoMEO database. The publishers’ websites usually offer additional information.

In order to realize the advantages of supplementary open access it does not suffice, though, to shun white publishers. You need also to make your paper available on the Internet. The usual way is to deposit your pre-refereed manuscript at the working paper series of your institution.

Make sure that all information is supplied to the RePEc database. This will guarantee inclusion in the CitEc citation compilations done by RePEc. At the same time, the paper will become easily available through the RePEc services such as IDEAS or EconPapers, as well as Google Scholar and OAIster. In addition, the paper will be advertised through the NEP mailing lists that target specific subjects. All this will make the paper very easy to find.

If your institution’s working paper series does not supply its data to RePEc, you may suggest that they do. (instructions). Otherwise you may consider depositing your paper with MPRA which provides this service. You can also have it both ways: If your institution’s series is not covered by RePEc, you may publish it in addition in MPRA, but this makes sense only if your institutions series is not covered by RePEc. Otherwise please don’t do it, as it creates confusion.

Once your paper is published, leave your pre-print on the repository—do not remove it. If you remove the open access (pre-print or post-print) versions, you lose all citations to these works, which reduces your citation score. Further you prohibit access to readers who have no subscription for the publisher’s data banks. In short, you lose all the advantages mentioned above.

Some further observations. Yes, it is true, readers can buy articles at the publishers’ data banks (such as IngentaConnect, ScienceDirect, or Blackwell Synergy), or at British Library Direct even without subscription, but prices are excessive: You may be easily required to pay 30$ for a book review of just a few pages! Most readers won’t buy a pig in a poke, though. Open supplementary access versions of the original articles help the reader to gather an impression about whether it is worthwhile to have a closer look at the original article. Publishers may increasingly become aware that supplementary open access effectively helps them to sell stuff through their data banks. Hopefully they pass some of the earnings to the authors.

Let me add a quite important additional benefit of supplementary open access: Authors keep the copyright for all material they put on the Internet. If they do not pre-publish, they may lose all rights for their own works! (The current German legislation will transfer all electronic rights to the publishers, for example, unless the author explicitly states by the end of the current year that he or she wants to keep the rights. German university libraries are very worried.) You avoid all these problems to some extent by pre-publishing on the Internet, as all pre-published versions will remain yours, even if the rights for the published version go to the publisher.

A further point: Keep the electronic manuscript of your final version. Green publishers allow you to deposit the final version, but, as a rule, not the publisher’s final PDF. This restriction, if it applies, may be inconvenient, but it does not pertain to the substance of your work. Given this state of affairs it is advisable that you produce your own PDF right after correcting the galleys (by using the free software PDFCreator or the pricey Adobe Acrobat). So you have a version that you can safely use to enhance the impact of your work by providing supplementary open access. But if this seems too cumbersome to you, just leave the pre-print version on the net! The RePEc listings will show these along with the final versions, so that readers are informed about which versions exist, and which one is the latest.


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