For the purposes of this blog post we are the supreme chancellors of the American Economic Association and we are mad with power. The only question is what shall become of this power? What will be our legacy? For me, the answer is obvious.
An AEA Working Paper Series. A working paper series for all!
Wait, maybe we need to walk that last bit back. After all, a working paper series for all already exists. It’s called the internet. Or at least SSRN. What exactly is it that we want again?
If we’re being honest, what we want is to post our papers to the NBER working paper series (WPS), but some of us aren’t members. That’s still not a call to action, though. Are we just trying to replicate a club that we aren’t members of? What are the benefits of posting a paper to the NBER WPS that we desire for our own research? Better to work our way backwards from what we specifically want than complain about what we don’t have.
What I think we want to solve is the research dissemination problem in economics. The review process can last anywhere between 1 and 5 years, during which time research is, at best, fully internalized into the field before being formally accepted, but can also become stale, outmoded, or even leap-frogged by parallal researchers. Worse still, research can be missed. Fields, observations, questions, they all have moments. For a piece of research to have an impact, it is paramount that it be within the purview of researchers, policy makers, and journalists during those moments. The NBER has solved this problem through the prominence of it’s WPS, but only for members.
So we want the AEA to replicate the NBER WPS, but for everyone? Sure, but it’s not that easy, since solving the problem for everyone presents an actual paradox. The whole reason the NBER WPS has solved the research dissemination problem is exactly because it is not open to everyone. Researchers, policy makers, and journalists take the work posted within the NBER WPS seriously because they trust the filter. They trust the NBER to only grant membership to serious researchers. They trust members to only post papers that are sufficiently developed that they are ready for public consumption. They trust it because they need to trust it. There is far too much research produced to possibly be consumed without a massive quality filter. The journals used to provide this service, but they became too slow and the NBER filled the gap.
The problem we are trying to solve is not how to create just any research filter, but the source and nature of that filter. The American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy, Quarterly Journal of Economics, they were (in theory) pure quality filters. They were meritocracies. Sure, there was always plenty of grumbling about journals being clubs (and there is, as it turns out, a lot of merit to those complaints), but the club component was at least nominally less dominant. The NBER, on the other hand, is a club, full stop. A useful and important club that has advanced the discipline in countless ways, but still a club.
So, to return to our motivating question, is there a way to offer the benefits of the NBER WPS outside of a pure club structure? If we have apply a quality filter, can we do so in a more openly meritocratic way that grants at least the prospect of access to a wider group of researchers?
Your first thought might be “We can read and evaluate the papers individually”…but that’s just an academic journal, and we already know the problems there. For a WPS to matter we need both sufficient scale and speed. The NBER solved this by filtering people, not papers. That is, I think, exactly what an AEA WPS needs to replicate. And that, to my mind, brings us to heart of the matter: can we create a WPS membership filter that is open and meritocratic, or is that a contradiction in terms?
Can the American Economic Association create a membership-only Working Paper Series that offers then benefits of the NBER WPS, but with less dependence on the path dependent forces that currently shape NBER membership?
Let’s start with the block of granite that is the entire AEA membership. Can the AEA offer a functioning WPS that includes the papers of all of it’s members? I don’t think so. Too many people, too many papers. Management, including quality control, would be too costly. More problematic, the number of papers coming out in weekly/monthly digests would be too large to be useful to readers. We need to cut it down, but how?
No reason we can’t charge members who want access to the WPS a $100 a year on top of their dues to pay editors and managers. Discounts for graduate students and faculty in lower income countries would be important, but straightforward. That will lower the numbers, but not enough. Worse, a modest price would be insufficient, and might even backfire, as a quality filter.
2. Educational or institutional requirements
We can set up minimal standards for WPS membership. The simplest: a Ph.D. Stricter: faculty appointment. Strictest: faculty appointment in an R1 accredited institution. Is this fair? No, but I’m not sure what qualification requirements would be perfectly fair. You could, of course, have separate series for current graduate students, with the graduate series posting quarterly. Any of these would still include far too many papers, but we’re making progress.
3. Prior contributions
What if we limited WPS membership to established researchers? For example, limiting the WPS to individuals who have previously published in one of the six AEA journals? This strikes me as the most feasible to me, particularly from the point of view of the AEA and its strong interest in maintaining the integrity of its journals. It would make the numbers manageable.The AEA could also partner with other top associations, such as the Econometric Society, European Economic Association, and Royal Economic Society to create a list of 10-20 journals. Publication in one of these outlets would grant WPS membership access for 20 years. This would still advantage graduate students co-authoring with stars to jump start their career, but do you honestly think there’s any world in which writing with brilliant scholars isn’t an enormous advantage? Marginal improvements folks, that’s what we’re going for.
Perhaps research impact could be a channel for membership? It seems to me any researcher with 25 citations within the previously establish list of journals has established their bone fides as a researcher. This seems good to me on it’s face, but difficult to implement.
5. Current member/editor sponsorship
This is basically what the NBER does. I am bit hesitant to include qualification via the exact channel I am rebelling against, but there is also something to be said for allowing some discretion in opening the door for others, particularly when we consider the obstacles facing disadvantaged groups when trying gain access to the academy. I’d be far more interested if current member/editor sponsorship for AEA WPS membership were exclusively limited to junior researchers from groups targeted for greater inclusion.
6. Two of the previous four
My guess is that having multiple channels to WPS access is the best way forward, but with the caveat that a researcher has to qualify on more than one dimension to establish themselves as an active, top-tier researcher. Limiting access in these manners will keep the monthly flow of papers limited to a manageable, consumable quantity. The filter imposed will ensure the necessary level of quality, while at the same time granting access on dimensions sufficiently orthogonal to the traditional high school -> undergraduate->grad school prestige pipeline filter. Because that is the real goal here: to solve the economic research dissemination problem for broader subset of scholars. This isn’t a perfect solution, but I think it would stand as a significant step forward.
So there it is folks. The seed from which the AEA WPS will surely spring forth in the next 5 years, surpassing the NBER WPS and becoming the go-to channel to stay abreast of research at the bleeding edge of economic knowledge. I look forward to paying my dues and posting my first paper.