RePEc and the democratization of research

In the last issue of the American Economic Review, the following article caught my eye: Restructuring Research: Communication Costs and the Democratization of University Innovation by Ajay Agrawal & Avi Goldfarb. In short, it documents who gained in electrical engineering faculties from the reduced cost of collaboration through the introduction of Bitnet, in the early Internet days. The basic result is that the middle-tier universities benefited the most. Indeed, the top ones were already well connected with each other, and the middle ones took advantage of collaborating with the top ones.

The main goal of RePEc is precisely the democratization of research. Given publication delays in Economics, if one wants to stay abreast of developments at the frontier of research, one needs to read working papers. Before the Internet, the only way to get hold of them was either if you were already at a top ranked Economics department, or if you were somehow within a club of well connected researchers. Just being aware of the most current research was a challenge for anybody outside these circles. This is what motivated Thomas Krichel, as a research assistant in 1991, to find ways to learn about new working papers, and share what he found. This initiative evolved into RePEc in 1997.

Are Elite Universities Losing Their Competitive Edge? by E. Han Kim, Adair Morse & Luigi Zingales documents that Economics faculty in elite universities where more productive at least in part due to their location in the 1970s, and that such a location effect has disappeared by the 1990s. While it is open whether RePEc has contributed to such democratization, we have always favored it: everybody should be able to learn about current research, and everybody should be able to contribute to it.

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