Covid and economics publishing

John Cochrane 16 May 2020



The pandemic is dramatically illustrating one area in which the epidemiologists are beating the economists about 100-1: publishing. Scientific publications are reviewed and posted in days, contributing in real time to the policy debate.

Economists are writing papers in a similar flurry. They are writing really good, thoughtful, well done papers that are useful to the policy debate. See the NBER website for example, or SSRN. See my last post and previous one for several great examples.

But when will these papers be peer reviewed? Where will they be published?

Not every new paper is right, and the review and comment process improves economic papers a lot.

Economics publishing is stuck in a leisurely 19th century process. It typically takes several years from completing a project to its online publication, and often another year to print. And "completing" already includes  pre-submission vetting through conferences, correspondence, seminars and working papers. I often wait a year to hear the first review of my papers. Even the best journals try for 6 weeks.  Several rounds of revisions are almost universal. It is typical to be rejected, shop the paper to several journals who reject it (after 6 moths to a year), hear the same comments from different referees, until you find an editor who likes the paper. (Almost all of my papers have been rejected at least once. My record is 7 times.)

As a result, academic journals long ago ceased to be avenues for communication. They are archives, and certifiers for tenure committees that don't trust themselves to read papers. Individual websites, and working paper series such as NBER and SSRN have taken over the communication function. But not every paper is right, and that means little of our communication takes place after any peer review.

This state of affairs has a supply effect. I cheer my colleagues writing these papers. But where in heaven's name are they going to publish the papers? When, a year from now, the first reviews come back, will the editors still find the papers  interesting and relevant? How will you fill in the increasingly mandatory section on "why this is important" and "policy implications" a year, or two years from now? The referees will demand a literature review. How will you cover the hundreds of papers sure to come out in the next few months? (Economics does not demand review only up to the date the working paper is first posted.)

For example,  my last post could well become a paper. It needs a lot of work -- refining the model, exploring economic costs and benefits, modeling the externality or heterogeneity helps, (surely yes), comparing it with data, and so forth. But should I put in that work, at least a month off of doing everything else, and then a further two to three months of revisions, submissions, resubmissions, and so forth for a period of years? No thank you.

My model, like most of these papers, is not a deep methodological improvement. It is a where-are-we-now paper, and a quantified attempt to peer through the mist of the next few months. Where-are-we-now papers are useful! They are 99% of academic research really. If there was a chance of publishing it the way scientists do, I might well do so. But submit it in July and still be waiting in May 2021 to hear a first review? Face a good bet that the editor thinks this is interesting economic history, but not a methodological or factual development of enduring interest? No thanks.

This is not news. There is a lot of soul-searching going on in our journals about how to become more relevant. Economics articles are quantitative essays more than scientific reports, so they often need a bit more digestion. Peer review itself is imperfect -- there is lots of nitpicking but often basic mistakes go unnoticed. (I've long been a fan of open reviewing to broaden the base of input on papers. Often a conference discussant or other reader will know a lot about a paper, but the journal editor and selected referees don't know about it. Universally, editors ask for new referees thus wasting the efforts of the often dozens of people who have reviewed the paper before. The idea is going nowhere.) Economists believe in markets, but not for papers. Why do we not figure out a market for submissions so that papers can get better matched to journals to start with, rather than one by one embark on a 6 month process and move from rejection to rejection. Why not simultaneous submissions?

But the I hope the model of the scientists inspires our journal editors to action.


Three hours after posting, I find the market has worked. CEPR is launching a real-time journal on Covid EconomicsTim Taylor coverage. (HT marginal revolution.) From Tim,

The first issue of the journal, with six papers, appeared April 5. The 14th issue (not a typo) of the journal appeared today (6 May) with these eight papers:  

Fernando Alvarez, David Argente and Francesco Lippi 

Roberto Chang and Andrés Velasco 

Jorge Alé-Chilet, Juan Pablo Atal and Patricio Domínguez 

Peter Zhixian Lin and Christopher M. Meissner 

Mariano Massimiliano Croce, Paolo Farroni and Isabella Wolfskeil 

Sangmin Aum, Sang Yoon (Tim) Lee and Yongseok Shin 

Gonzalo Castex, Evgenia Dechter and Miguel Lorca 

Isaure Delaporte and Werner Peña

Academic incentives remain though. The online journals seem to have largely failed. Will hiring, tenure and salary review committees, deans and provosts, view these as publications or as op-eds and blogs?

Even in economics, barriers slowness and inefficiency that we tolerate in normal times is unconscionable in a crisis.

Update 2: Thanks to a comment below, here is the first published paper on Covid-19. Maybe I will be wrong. That would be great. Can journals increase speed and not decrease quality? Yes, but how? In WWII the P-51 was produced in 102 days. But a lot of terrible planes and other projects got built too.

Update 3: A thoughtful twitter stream from Greg Kaplan JPE editor on how to handle Covid-19 papers



Topics:  Covid-19 Frontiers of economic research

Tags:  COVID-19, coronavirus, publishing

Rose-Marie and Jack Anderson Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University

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