Peer Review in Peril?

New study cites "decline of peer review" as primary factor for decreased representation of top economics departments in major journals.
July 26, 2007

The increasing tendency of high-profile scholars to bypass the traditional peer-review system could ultimately have an “unraveling” effect on the process in economics, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology writes in a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper analyzing various explanations for why economists from top-ranked departments are publishing fewer papers in many top journals.

“So far these changes are fairly small and I don’t think they’ve had a very big impact,” Glenn Ellison, a professor of economics at MIT, said in an interview Wednesday. “What I think is potentially problematic is if more top authors start withdrawing from the peer-reviewed journals, then the peer-reviewed journals become a less impressive signal of the quality of the paper.”

“What I worry about,” Ellison said, “is you get to a point where you can’t make a reputation for yourself by publishing in the peer-reviewed journals. That locks in today’s elite.”

In “Is Peer Review in Decline?,” Ellison argues that the peer-reviewed journals, traditionally relevant for their quality control and dissemination functions, have become less important for well-known economists in the Internet age. When papers can be posted on personal home pages, conference Web sites and online databases, an article written by a professor who has already established a reputation can immediately "be read by thousands."

Professors in the top five economics departments, as ranked by the National Research Council -- Harvard University, the University of Chicago, MIT, Stanford and Princeton Universities – published 86.4 papers in 13 high-profile journals in economics subfields from 1990-93, compared to 71.2 from 2000-3. That 18 percent drop happened even as many journals were “substantially” increasing the number of papers they published, Ellison writes, with the share of papers contributed by scholars in top departments dropping from 4 percent in the early 1990s to 2.7 percent in 2000-3. Meanwhile, Ellison said, scholars in the top departments seem to be writing as much as they ever were, and citations of Harvard scholars are increasing even as their number of peer-reviewed publications has declined.

“The well-known people are going to cut back on their publishing in top journals because they don’t need the peer review anymore. They can get attention to their work without it,” Ellison said. The “slowdown” in the revisions process for peer-reviewed journals also seems to be a contributing factor to the decline in peer-reviewed publications by top department members with less to gain from the effort: It typically takes about three years for a paper to be published after its submission.

Ellison did not find much evidence to support the alternative theory that the trend could be a result of high-profile scholars being "crowded out of the top journals by other researchers," though he acknowledges that may be a factor. A 2006 study by scholars from the Universities of Chicago and Michigan, "Are Elite Universities Losing Their Competitive Edge," found that elite universities have lost their edge when it comes to research productivity -- in part because of changes brought about by the advent of the Internet.

"There’s a question of whether it’s a trend on publication or a trend on the professors. I hate to say that, but if they don’t publish and others do, maybe it says something," said Ehud Kalai, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and editor of Games and Economic Behavior, one of the 13 field journals analyzed by Ellison.

“The other thing that’s a bit puzzling in this whole theory, it seems to me, is that with this explosion of information on the Internet, peer review has become even more needed because there are so many more papers," Kalai said, adding that the number of economics journals has exploded in recent years. "They’re just multiplying like mad. If there is a trend not to publish, why are so many starting them?”

Ellison does find that even as they've shifted their energies away from the 13 specialized journals examined, academics in the top departments are still publishing as much as ever in five of the most prestigious general interest economics journals: the American Economic Review, Econometrica, Journal of Political Economy, Quarterly Journal of Economics and the Review of Economic Studies. But, beyond those publications, Ellison said, “it’s fairly high up that we see people pulling out." He added that there are hundreds of academic economics journals.

Ellison’s working paper is available on his Web site or online through the National Bureau of Economic Research with a subscription or $5 payment. And no, it has not been peer reviewed.


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