Should departments own and control journals?

There is some discussion on Twitter of this matter, and overall I say yes, I would like to see more of this at the margin.  In economics, the two best-known department-owned journals are the Journal of Political Economy (Chicago) and Quarterly Journal of Economics (Harvard).  They also have longstanding histories of being “a bit different,” the JPE having had a Chicago school orientation, and the QJE publishing lots of Harvard grad students and graduates, and being more willing to accept papers with “behavioral” results, and perhaps with more speculative empirics as well.  In both cases, I should add those different orientations are much diminished compared to say the 1990s, the JPE in particular these days not seeming especially “Chicago school” to me, and I wonder if a Chicago school still exists amongst younger economists.

I am very glad we have had these two journals standing out as different in orientation, and I strongly believe that has encouraged innovation, even if (and in fact because) the AER would not have accepted all of those papers.  A lot of “shaky” behavioral results, for instance, have in fact turned out to be quite relevant or at the very least interesting and worthy of further investigation.

One risk is that the different general interest journals become too much alike, too subject to the same pressures, and too homogenized.  And the actual “monopoly” danger, to the extent there is one, is that the American Economic Association controls too many top journals.

To be clear, I don’t see anything sinister afoot with all the AEA journals, but here is a simple way to express my worry.  If I had to, standing on one foot, recite all of the names of those journals and their missions or areas, I don’t think I could do it without multiple mistakes.  (And frankly not so many people in the entire world devote so much attention to following published economic articles as I do, noting that Larry Katz may be #1.)  Somehow the identities are too blurred together, and I wish someone else were running one or two of them.

I am hardly “anti-big business,” but I view commercial publishers as the worst alternative for journal ownership and control.  In addition to all of the usual complaints, I think the commercial publishers often (not always) care less about the quality of the editor, as the emphasis is on how well the sales force can market the journal to libraries.

So unless you want the AEA to run everything, and I certainly do not, that is going to mean more department-owned journals.  I am impressed by those departments that have the money and the commitment to see these journals through — it is not easy.

As of late, there has been a squabble on Twitter about removing one particular journal editor for his injudicious tweets on recent public events (I don’t wish to link to this and add fuel to the fire).  Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion about this particular editorship, but I will say this: Twitter is not the right forum for such a debate.  I am very pro-Twitter, as I have written numerous times in the past, but it does have some of the biases of virality, including peer pressure, and it is not always good for reproducing context or considering objections and revisions to viewpoints.  Instead, start by writing out your opinion, and considering objections, in a long, judicious, thoughtful piece.  Spend at least a few days on the piece, have three of your more critical friends “referee” it in advance of on line publication, and let it be debated for weeks.  Is “too much trouble” really a good reason not to do that?  If you think that who controls the rigorous refereeing process at a top journal is so important, the method for making judgments here is no less important.  “The refereed journals aren’t good, fair, and rigorous enough for me, so we need to slug it out and rush to judgment on…Twitter” just doesn’t make any sense.  We can do better.

Addendum: Paul Novosad has some useful suggestions for encouraging decentralization.


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