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Preston McAfee Shakes Things Up in Academic Publishing

Most of our blog readers couldn’t care less about refereeing in academic publishing. And they should be thankful.

For a tenure-track economist, getting published is a brutal process. You spend a year or two coming up with an idea, try to think over every aspect of the problem, collect and analyze data, and finally produce a 30-page paper summarizing all the work. You can only send it to one journal at a time. Then you wait six to nine months to get a decision from an editor.

At the top journals, 90 percent or more of the papers get rejected, which means you then head back to square one at another journal. Even if the referees and editors like the paper, the best you can hope for is a “revise and resubmit” invitation, which entails pages and pages of demands for changes before it will be reconsidered for publication. In a few cases, the comments I got back from referees and editors were longer than the paper I submitted in the first place!

In the off chance that your paper ever gets accepted, there is often a delay of a year before it appears in print. Thus, from start to finish, the whole process takes 3 to 5 years.

For many young economists, the tenure clock expires before the publication process completes. These untenured economists don’t have any choice but to try to navigate the system. For many tenured economists who don’t actually need to publish in these journals, the headaches associated with peer-review are just not worth it. As economist Glenn Ellison recently noted, the top economists are increasingly turning to edited volumes and “special issues” of journals that either have no peer review or only a wisp of it.

Preston McAfee is trying to shake things up. I’ve had a deep admiration for McAfee since I first met him back in 1997 in Barcelona. I was giving an academic talk there — one I had given at least a dozen times before. By the fifth or sixth time I gave the talk, the questions had become routine. I hadn’t heard a good new idea on the paper from an audience member in a long time. Which is why I was so shocked when some guy I had never seen before asked two incredibly insightful, totally new questions that day. That guy turned out to be McAfee. He is an original thinker, as you can tell from his open-source Principles in Economics textbook. (He also has adorable children.)

McAfee just took over as the editor of a journal called Economic Inquiry. It has been a long time since I submitted a paper to that journal, in part because the last time I did, the editorial process was especially onerous. Just a few weeks ago one of my co-authors suggested sending our paper there, and I vetoed the idea for that very reason. Luckily, I’ve been slow in getting around to submitting to another journal, because with a new sheriff in town, things are changing at Economic Inquiry. After taking over as editor, McAfee posted this on the journal’s web page (hat tip to Marginal Revolution, who blogged about it):

Editor’s Announcement: No Revisions Option

Journal time to publication lags have become embarrassing. Many authors have 5-year submission-to-print stories. More insidious, in my view, is the gradual morphing of the referees from evaluators to anonymous co-authors. Referees request increasingly extensive revisions. Usually these represent improvements, but the process takes a lot of time and effort, and the end result is often worse owing to its committee-design. Authors, knowing referees will make them rewrite the paper, are sometimes sloppy with the submission. This feedback loop – submitting a sloppy paper since referees will require rewriting combined with a need to fix all the sloppiness – has led to our current misery. Moreover, the expectation that referees will rewrite papers, combined with sloppy submissions, makes refereeing extraordinarily unpleasant. We – the efficiency-obsessed academic discipline – have the least efficient publication process.

The system is broken.

Consequently, Economic Inquiry is starting an experiment. In this experiment, an author can submit under a “no revisions” policy. This policy means exactly what it says: if you submit under no revisions, I (or the co-editor) will either accept or reject. What will not happen is a request for a revision.

I will ask referees: “is it better for Economic Inquiry to publish the paper as is, versus reject it, and why or why not?” This policy returns referees to their role of evaluator. There will still be anonymous reports.

Authors who receive an acceptance would have the option of publishing without changes. If a referee noticed a minor problem and put it in the report, self-respecting authors would fix the problem. But such fixes would not be a condition of publication.

During the course of the experiment, an author may opt for submission under the old system. The old system remains the default; to opt in to the new system, please add “I submit under the ‘no revisions’ policy.”

I love McAfee’s idea. He’ll be getting my paper next week. I suspect I will make history by being the first paper to be rejected under his “no revisions” policy.