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There are several means to disseminate ideas, results, experiments, criticism, and discoveries in the sciences and humanities. The most often used are professional journals, books, working papers, technical reports, pamphlets, and presentations at academic conferences. Professional journals are the main means of communication because the majority of journals use the referee or peer-review system for papers submitted for publication. The referee system aims at selecting the best papers and achieving the greatest objectivity possible. In addition, journals provide a fast and efficient way to spread the latest developments in a field of study. They also serve as a forum for discussion, which is essential for the advance of knowledge.
Publications in academic journals are used to rank departments and scholars. Publications are one of the key instruments used to assess the quantity and quality of scholars and departments through objective criteria, a method in line with the belief that scholars and academic institutions should be evaluated on the basis of merit. The ranking of departments and scholars requires a list of journals that are themselves ranked according to their importance. Rankings of journals are based on the relative impact of the papers published. Generally, the impact of a journal is captured by the number of citations to its articles in other journals (Liebowitz and Palmer 1984). An alternative approach to ranking journals is to survey members of the relevant profession (Malouin and Outreville 1987).
Due to the increase in specialization among and within many branches of the sciences and humanities, the number of specialized journals is increasing. Rajeev Goel and João Faria (2007) showed, in a differential game between editors and authors, that the launching of new journals generates greater competition among editors, enhancing research quality. Another consequence of specialization can be observed in economics, where there has been a fall in the importance of general journals relative to specialized journals (Faria 2002a). In addition, new academic journals have been established as a result of the publication congestion in existing journals. This congestion results from the increasing difficulty of producing high-reputation journals, causing a rise in rejection rates and a time delay between submission, acceptance, and final publication of papers. Glenn Ellison (2002) argues that in economics this slowdown is due to an increasing tendency among journals to require that papers be extensively revised prior to acceptance.
Professional journals are part of the publishing business and thus are subject to market forces. The main agent behind the market performance of academic journals is the publisher. In most cases, a publisher with a good reputation, experience, and penetration in the academic market can make a difference in the performance of an academic journal. In economics, commercial publishers have gained a substantial market share. They have been successful in creating new journals, as well as taking over top journals formerly published by nonprofit organizations, such as professional associations and university presses.
One consequence of the increasing role of commercial publishers in the production of professional journals is a rise in prices. David Rosenbaum and Meng Hua Ye (1997) produced evidence that commercial publishers engage in price discrimination between individual and library subscribers, showing that library prices rise faster than individual subscribers’ prices. Owen Phillips and Lori Phillips (2002) showed that library prices are two to ten times higher than private prices. Nathan Berg (2002) proposed that university libraries, in order to cope with journal-price inflation, pick a threshold level of quality of academic journals below which no subscriptions are ordered.
Plagiarism, rhetorical conventions, and editorial favoritism are among the potential problems that plague professional journals. The majority of the 117 editors of economic journals surveyed by Walter Enders and Gary Hoover (2004) considered the use of several unattributed sentences to constitute plagiarism. Eighty-three of the 117 editors said that they had seen no cases of plagiarism in a typical year. Of the remainder, twenty-eight editors reported a collective total of forty-two occurrences of plagiarism in an average year. The key findings of Enders and Hoover are that editors tend to rely on copyright law to protect themselves from plagiarism; they are not likely to publicize an instance of plagiarism; and the majority of editors favor a code of ethics enumerating various forms of plagiarism and the appropriate penalties.
Technological innovations change the research tools and may affect the way professionals present their findings. Rhetorical conventions become a problem for journals when professionals put more importance on the presentation of their work than on its content (see McCloskey 1991). Anecdotal evidence suggests, at least in economics, that technical knowledge, such as sophisticated mathematics and econometric techniques, increases the chances for publication. One possible reason lies in the fact that technical knowledge decreases the opportunity cost for a contributor who has acquired the minimal technical expertise demanded by the journal (Wallis and Dollery 1993); in addition, technical knowledge makes it easier for a referee to evaluate an article. As stressed by Bruno Frey (2001), the emphasis on formalism may lead to a disregard for relevance and originality.
Editorial favoritism is a serious problem for professional journals because it can be a significant source of bias in the evolution of knowledge. The bias is mainly reflected in the choice of topics, research techniques, and literature. Editors and referees may choose to publish a paper not because of its content but because of the author’s network of connections or his or her views. David Laband and Michael Piette (1994) point out that editorial favoritism generates sizable wealth redistributions among members of the scientific community, providing strong incentives for authors to attempt to influence their chances of publication and citation. Of course, academic networks facilitate the circulation of ideas and personal contacts, which are essential to fostering the advance of knowledge (Faria 2002b). In the same vein, editors, following Thomas Kuhn (1962), may be interested in defending the prevalence of and reinforcing a given paradigm. However, in spite of the difficulty in investigating the fundamentals of editorial bias (Medoff 2004), the possibility of its occurrence raises a red flag on the dangers of exogenous factors interfering with the process of knowledge formation.
- Berg, Nathan. 2002. Coping with Journal-Price Inflation: Leading Policy Proposals and the Quality-Spectrum. Economics Bulletin 4 (14): 1–7.
- Ellison, Glenn. 2002. The Slowdown of the Economics Publishing Process. Journal of Political Economy 110: 947–993.
- Enders, Walter, and Gary A. Hoover. 2004. Whose Line Is It? Plagiarism in Economics. Journal of Economic Literature 42: 487–493.
- Faria, João R. 2002a. An Analysis of Rankings of Economic Journals. Brazilian Journal of Business Economics 2: 95–117.
- Faria, João R. 2002b. Scientific, Business, and Political Networks in Academia. Research in Economics 56: 187–198.
- Frey, Bruno. 2001. Why Economists Disregard Economic Journal of Economic Methodology 8: S. 41–47.
- Kuhn, Thomas S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Laband, David N., and Michael J. Piette. 1994. Favoritism versus Search for Good Papers: Empirical Evidence Regarding the Behavior of Journal Editors. Journal of Political Economy 102: 194–203.
- Liebowitz, Stan J., and John P. Palmer. 1984. Assessing the Relative Impacts of Economic Journals. Journal of Economic Literature 22: 77–88.
- Malouin, Jean-Louis, and J.-Francois Outreville. 1987. The Relative Impact of Economics Journals: A Cross-Country Survey and Comparison. Journal of Economics and Business 39 (3): 267–277.
- McCloskey, Donald N. 1991. Mere Style in Economics Journals, 1920 to the Present. Economic Notes 20: 135–158.
- Medoff, Marshall H. 2004. An Analysis of Parochialism at the JPE and QJE. Unpublished manuscript.
- Phillips, Owen R., and Lori J. Phillips. 2002. The Market for Academic Journals. Applied Economics 34: 39–48.
- Rosenbaum, David I., and Meng Hua Ye. 1997. Price Discrimination and Economics Journals. Applied Economics 29: 1611–1618.
- Wallis, J. L., and B. E. Dollery. 1993. The Economics of Economics: A Model of Research Discourse. Australian Economic Papers 32: 175–183.
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