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.


MyIDEAS: your personal space on IDEAS

January 25, 2013

We are proud to introduce an important new feature to the IDEAS website. MyIDEAS is a personal space for the IDEAS user where she can save the papers and articles found on the site and organize them into folders. Think of it like navigating an online store and selecting items for purchase. The difference is that your “cart” is a list of references that you can sort at will into categories you can name.

In addition, MyIDEAS allows you to follow additions to JEL codes, series and journals, as well as what authors may have added to their RePEc profiles.

To use this new service, authentication is necessary, which happens like for others services through an account in the RePEc Author Service, Once cleared, the user finds on all relevant IDEAS pages the option to “add” or “follow” the displayed person or item. This works thanks to a cookie whose sole purpose is to identify the user as he navigates the site. It does, however, not track the user. Contents of the MyIDEAS accounts remain entirely private.

We hope users will find this service useful and welcome comments for improvements or new features.

Update (January 26): Following several requests, two features have been added: one can put annotations on one’s bibliographics listings, and the latter can be exported in various formats.


My citation count just went down!

May 26, 2012

We sometimes get angry emails from authors pointing out that their citation count decreased. And this is quite understandable, as no one likes to see decreasing citation numbers. But it can happen, and most of the time it is for very legitimate reasons, not some conspiracy. Here is a rundown.


  1. A citing or cited item has been removed from RePEc. This is rare but does happen on occasion. We recommend against removing item in general, as discussed in a previous blog post. Hint: the fact that a working paper got published in a journal is very rarely a reason to remove its link to full text, let alone its entire entry.
  2. A RePEc archive renumbers its handles. A handle is the identifier of every item in RePEc. It is supposed to be unique and permanent, yet every month some archive has the bright idea to renumber its material. The consequence: the citation analysis needs to be completely redone, and all the other links as well. This leads to a temporary decrease in citation numbers.
  3. When different versions of some work are linked, citations are consolidated. Thus what counted as separate citations now only counts as one. And this version consolidation can happen for the citing or the cited work.
  4. The author removed some work from the author profile, for example when a paper got published. Citations to the working paper version are then temporarily lost until the article is indexed in the citation service.
  5. An error with RePEc. This can happen despite our best efforts, and it always has been temporary.

And lastly, the citation count in the statistics sent to authors is different from what you see on the web at IDEAS or the RePEc Author Services: this is because multiple versions of the same work are aggregated, and because self-citations do not count.


RePEc now covers 5000 journals and series

January 22, 2012

With the continuous additions of new participating archives, RePEc’s coverage of the literature in Economics and connex sciences has become quite impressive. We now catalog over 5000 series, about 3300 of which are working paper series (pre-prints) and about 1400 journals. The remainder comes from books, book chapters and software collections. All these series add up to a total of 1.15 million research pieces.


1 million works available online through RePEc

November 26, 2011

RePEc is about the facilitation of the diffusion of research in Economics. It does this through an open bibliography, which allows anyone to have its works listed, and anyone to use the bibliography. But of course, this is more powerful when the works are not just listed, but also available online with a direct link.

RePEc has now links to over a million works covering Economics and Finance, about half of which are in open access. While a majority are from journals (61%), online working papers are much more popular. While an article is download on average once every two months, working papers are downloaded close to once a month.

PS: RePEc volunteer and NEP-OPM editor Martin Berka is about to start a month-long rowing expedition from Sydney (Australia) to Auckland (New Zealand). You can follow the progress of his team here.


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.


Little known features on RePEc sites

July 28, 2010

Various sites display information collected by RePEc, and they do so in ways that are not always similar. In particular, there are features that may not be noticeable to the casual user. Here are some featured on EconPapers, EconomistsOnline and IDEAS.


  1. EconPapers and IDEAS allow users to download bibliographic records in various formats, such as BibTeX, RIS (used by EndNote, ProCite and RefMan), plain text or HTML. IDEAS also provides this for all works of a registered author.
  2. RePEc services link different versions of a paper and article, as long as at least one of the authors has them listed in his/her profile and the titles are close. Contact RePEc for cases where titles differ.
  3. URLs on RePEc services are permanent, and can thus safely be used for referencing.
  4. EconomistsOnline allows to dynamically refine search results.
  5. Some services have advanced search features: EconPapers, IDEAS.
  6. One can navigate EconomistsOnline in four languages.
  7. IDEAS has tools to create reading lists and publication compilations of a group of people.
  8. EDIRC lists all publications of authors affiliated with an indexed institution.
  9. EconPapers provides a syntax and URL checker for the metadata submitted to RePEc.
  10. Both EconPapers and IDEAS provide links to citing and cited papers on each abstract page.
  11. Download statistics for series, journals, papers and authors are available at LogEc.


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