History of Economics Playground

Thomas Scheiding: A history of scholarly communication in economics

We invited Thomas Scheiding from Cardinal Stritch University to review what we know about the scholarly communication process in economics. Tom has written forcefully on the history and economics of economic literature (see for instance, his 2009 JEM article). His latest is a study of the scholarly communication process in physics (an article in Studies).

The scholarly communication process is one of those underappreciated aspects within a discipline that determines the discipline’s boundaries, its influence on public policy, and its trajectory. This process also determines which ideas reign supreme, legitimizes certain research methods, and rank-orders the contributions made by scholars. The twentieth century has been a time of intense change in the scholarly communication process - change that has been fueled by the expansion of the academic system. This change was certainly evident in the discipline of economics.

The scholarly communication process in economics today can be characterized as a set of rank-ordered list of specialty research journals and a smaller set of top-ranked general journals. The number of journals in economics is vast with an estimated 600 journals in 2000 (with approximately half of these coming from the United States). To put this number of journals into perspective with the size of the discipline, one scholarly journal in economics exists for every 37 members of the American Economic Association (AEA). The emergence of this type of scholarly communication process in economics isn’t by any means natural.  Rather, when universities halted the establishment of journals that appealed to generalists in the early twentieth century, this had the impact of directing the research of scholars to either small circulation, newly established specialty journals or the few number of large circulation and more established generalist journals. Had there been more generalist journals or had researchers been encouraged to distribute their research via the monograph in the second half of the twentieth century, there would have been a greater need for indexing and abstracting services to organize the widely scattered research articles. Furthermore, had there been more generalists journals, there would have been less of an incentive for specialization by researchers and the formation of specialized research communities in universities.

The three major journals, are the American Economic Review (AER) established in 1911, Journal of Political Economy (JPE) established in 1892, and the Quarterly Journal of Economics (QJE) established in 1886. These are three generalist journals that collectively have published most of the notable economic theories in the twentieth century. Data on the amount published by these three journals and the type of material published indicate that 1970 served as an inflection point. The number of articles published collectively by these journals on an annual basis was 80 - a number that was relatively constant in 1911-1969. After 1970, the AER and JPE published fewer book reviews and a greater number of research articles (such that the AER, JPE, and QJE collectively published on average slightly less than 150 articles). Although the number of articles published annually has changed little within the two eras, the length of the articles has been more volatile on a year-to-year basis. The average length of an article had declined from 23 pages in the late nineteenth century to 17 pages by 1969. From 1970 to 1995 however the average length of articles became less volatile on a year-to-year basis but had steadily increased back to 23 pages. Perhaps the most volatile sections of these journals were the fraction of pages devoted to notes and comments and the number of pages devoted to book reviews. The fraction of pages devoted to notes and comments has changed greatly throughout the twentieth century and has ranged from as high as 50% in the early 1970s to less than 10% in the 1930s and less than 20% in the 1990s with the historical average being 20%. The volatility in pages devoted to notes and comments is due primarily to different editorial policies and the emergence of journals after 1970 that were focused on publishing notes and comments.

Just how the scholarly communication process emerged as it did in economics in the twentieth century is determined by many factors not the least of which is the source and magnitude of research funding. At the beginning of the twentieth century the emphasis on research and the funding for it in economics and every other discipline was low. The role of the scholar at this time was primarily to educate and then supplement their earnings with industrial research contracts that often demanded non-disclosure of findings. In terms of scholarly communication, the few number of journals and the ability of committed researchers to publish monographs was aligned with the small scale of research activity. WW II represented a dramatic shift from this pattern with research emphasized and the government expanding its role in organizing and funding research. As a result, economists published more with greater frequency – a fact that prioritized publishing in journals rather than monographs. The burden placed on journals increased markedly in the late 1950s and early 1960s with challenges emerging due to space and financial constraints. The space constraints were somewhat relieved as more specialized research titles were introduced and existing journals increased the number of issues per volume. The financial challenges in publishing the journals were more difficult to overcome.

In the case of the AER, before the 1970s the journal was financed primarily through fees from members to the AEA. After WW II, this model of funding came under strain as the larger amount of published research became more expensive to produce and distribute. The Committee on Association Deficits in 1959, in the face of rising costs, recommended that expenses be reduced by eliminating the Papers and Proceedings issue, more advertising space being sold, and more revenue earned by encouraging the republication of AER material. Between 1944 and 1958 the AEA had deficits with membership dues not increasing despite the journal’s larger size. The AEA felt pressure to keep dues low as it worked to establish the scholarly society as the premier generalist association in a discipline that was rapidly specializing.  Whereas immediately after the war the income from membership dues and subscriptions covered 90% of publication costs, after 1947 this dropped to 80%. The financial situation became worse in the 1960s as the number of newly trained economists increased dramatically and sought to publish research funded more generously than had been the case in the past.

Although in 1959 the deficit of the AEA had been declared as "…not a matter for serious alarm," the strain of publishing more in the 1960s had taken a toll. The 1970s became a time for conversations about how to resolve these financial problems. The journal came to be modeled as one good produced by a scholarly society alongside a number of other goods and services. The journal was seen as generating significant positive externalities and as a quasi public good, needed to secure a subsidy from the government or research funding agency. The publication of a journal under a cartel arrangement, as done in other disciplines, allows the journal to be produced as inexpensively as possible (with readers paying the marginal costs) and coordinating the collection of subsides from outsiders.

In the early 1970s there was an increase in membership fees upon the realization that reader demand was inelastic. There was also an attempt by the AEA to capture revenue from authors with the imposition of a submission fee and a page charge. Within the AEA there were extensive conversations about the rise of specialized scholarly societies and inefficient pricing policies. The concern was that the scholarly communication process in economics had become too fragmented and inefficient. The financial challenges by 1975 had become so severe that deficits had reduced the net worth of the AEA down to ¼ of annual expenditures.  The attempt to capture revenue from authors failed with both the submission fee and page charge being phased out. Instead, the financial problems of the AEA ended up being resolved as the scholarly society captured license revenue from electronic indexing, abstracting, and distribution, the imposition of progressive membership dues, and especially the rapid increase in non-member (institutional) subscription fees. The subscription fees charged to institutions were able to finance most of the scholarly communication process in economics. Not only do institutions have a highly inelastic demand curve but the institutional purchaser will also provide encouragement and funding to the researchers that are publishing in the journal.

Since the 1960s the AEA has been steadily increasing the number of publication outlets. This was done initially so as to offload some content from the AER to other journals. The first journal other than the AER was the Journal of Economic Abstracts (JEA). The JEA in the mid-1960s published review articles and it was financed with grants from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations (philanthropies that provided the bulk of research funding in the discipline).By 1969 this journal was converted to the Journal of Economic Literature and published review articles, book reviews, and other items previously found in the AER. In the 1970s the AER was able to publish more and compete more effectively with the specialized journals published by Elsevier and Academic Press. In 1987, the AEA introduced a third journal, the Journal of Economic Perspectives, to publish articles for a more generalist audience. In 2009, the AEA introduced four field journals – Applied Economics, Economic Policy, Macroeconomics, and Microeconomics. These journals permitted the publication of more specialized research under the AEA name and allowed for the publication of longer articles in the AER. Finally, the AEA began to publish more in the AER in 2011 by increasing the number of issues per volume from 4 to 6. The expansion of the AER and creation of 6 other journals since 1969 has translated into the AER articles being highly cited and the acceptance rate being stubbornly low in the face of greater number of submission. Thus, much to the chagrin of some, the publications of the AEA play an outsized role in the legitimization and circulation of ideas in the economics discipline.

What we see with this briefest of overviews of the scholarly communication process in economics during the twentieth century is accelerated growth over the last few decades to accommodate the growth in the volume of research. Who is chosen to be the editor of a journal, the decisions made about the type of content to publish, and the manner in which the scholarly communication process is financed all shape the outlines of a scholarly communication process that reflects the type of discipline that others demand.