Publications as Positional Goods, and the Division of Labor in Academia

My co-blogger Mike Makowsky has a thoughtful post this week about the academic publishing process. I wanted to offer a slightly different perspective on the same topic. But my perspective comes from someone who is not at a research university, and someone who has recently survived the tenure process.

A little background for those not completely familiar with the academic world: schools are usually considered either teaching or research schools. At first this seems confusing: both Clemson (where Makowksy is) and the University of Central Arkansas (where I am) require that faculty engage in both research and teaching. The difference is subtle, but the big hint is that Clemson is considered an “R1” school (the highest research designation) and has a PhD program with many graduate students. At a school like Clemson, research is valued more than teaching. At UCA, teaching is valued more than research. (Much more could be said about the differences, perhaps in a future post.)

We both engage in both teaching and research (as well as service!), but the emphasis is different. For me at UCA, the expectations of which journals I will publish in and how frequently I will publish are lower than at a school like Clemson. At Clemson, some of your publications should be in the Top 5 (or at least Top 10) journals from time-to-time. At UCA, if you published in one of the top journals, the assumption would be that you are probably leaving soon to go to an R1 school

I’m glad both types of schools exist, and my point here is not to disparage either type of school. But the difference is important for thinking about the academic publishing process.

For someone at an R1 school, publications in top journals are positional goods. Makowsky doesn’t say this exactly, but that’s my takeaway from his post. There are only so many spots available in these journals, and they have value because there is only a fixed number available. And since there has been, over the years, a lot more economists doing a lot more research not all of the great papers will end up being published in one of the top journals.

Upshot: there are a lot of great papers being published in Top 50 or even Top 100 journals! Let me pick on myself. As I said, I recently successfully survived the tenure process. My publication record was good enough. You can inspect my publications over at Google Scholar. I’m proud of these publications. I think some of them are really great. But I’m fairly confident that I would never earn tenure at Clemson with these publications. Instead, you need a publication record like Makowsky.

What’s interesting here is that Mike and I occasionally publish in some of the same journals. Public Choice and Constitutional Political Economy jump out to me. These are, in my view, very fine journals. Lots of interesting research is published in these journals. I’m especially proud of this paper in Public Choice. But if someone published only in these two journals and journals like them, they wouldn’t get tenure at an R1 university.

So what do we do with this information?

Here’s my overall message on this topic: you can be a successful academic without necessarily publishing in the very best journals in your field. And it has to be this way. There simply aren’t enough spots in the top journals for everyone at every school in the nation to get tenure. And that’s OK. For those at R1 schools, or graduate students aspiring to be at those schools, top publications are a must.

What’s really fascinating to me is how this filters out into the wider culture, including the general public and the media. While the general public can probably identify the very top schools (Harvard, etc.), once you get past the top 10 or so it becomes very fuzzy. I think most in the general public will just default to thinking about the “better” schools as those with better sports teams.

And the Top 5 or 10 journals? Forget about it. The general public has no idea. Heck, it’s even hard sometimes to get people to understand the difference between a working paper, an accepted journal article, and a regular old policy paper (which may never be intended for submission to a journal). We’ve seen this a lot in the past year with research on COVID-19! But it’s a perpetual problem.

And it’s potentially a big problem. We want to be sure that public policy is being informed by the best current research on a topic. In an ideal setting, the best research would make it into the top journals, and then this research would be used to inform public policy. We know that it rarely works that way. But Mike’s post hints at the real possibility that a lot of the best work isn’t even published in the very top journals. So maybe the confusion among the general public isn’t so bad.

All of this is to say: it’s really important for academics to communicate with the general public and policymakers. And to communicate, as best we can, what the research on an issue says. Ultimately, this is a form of teaching, but not necessarily teaching in the classroom. And I think it very clearly shows the important connection between research and teaching. But if we really, as economists, believe in the division of labor, we should believe that it’s a really good thing some of us specialize in teaching, while others specialize in research.

There is occasionally that rare academic, like a Milton Friedman or Paul Krugman, that excels in all areas (research, teaching, and communicating to the public). But we can’t all be superstars. And that’s okay.

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