Important Message to Economists: You No Longer Need to Be Nice to Me

I became an editor at the Journal of Political Economy eight years ago.

The J.P.E., as it is known within the economics profession, is one of the most prestigious academic journals in economics. Having a paper accepted or rejected at J.P.E. can make or break a young academic’s career. My guess is that having a paper published in the journal is worth $100,000 in future earnings. Being an editor gives you real power within the profession.

The first thing I noticed when I became an editor is how nice everyone was to me all of a sudden. When I would visit another school there was never a shortage of people who wanted to talk to me. Folks I barely knew were always making the extra effort to keep me up to date on their latest ideas. Whenever I asked for a favor, there was rarely any hesitation to help me out.

Some new editors are bothered by this royal treatment. Others recognize the phenomenon for what it is and simply discount all the friendly attention. I took a third course: even though deep down I knew the real reason why people were being nice to me, in my mind I pretended that economists really liked me for who I was as a person and a scholar. As long as I didn’t think too hard about it, I was able to deceive myself pretty successfully for eight years.

Now the party is over.

As of April 1, 2008 I have stepped down as an editor at J.P.E. and will not be taking any new manuscripts. Except for the handful of authors whose papers I am currently handling, there is officially no longer any reason for economists to be nice to me. (Unless, of course, they plan on writing a popular economics book and want me to blurb it, as happens about once a week.) I suspect that once the word spreads, I can forget about any kindness within the profession.

As an editor I rejected nearly 2,000 papers. Every time I rejected a paper I made an enemy. That is a lot of enemies.

I accepted only about 100 papers total. Every author whose paper I accepted was certain their paper should be accepted and therefore gave me little credit for making the proper decision.

Being an editor is not a great job. I spent at least a day a week on the job and never received any official financial compensation.

I did find, however, that people were willing to offer me large bribes to get their papers published — often upwards of $50,000 per paper. So I made a pretty good living off the corruption. I will miss the extra income.

Nikhil Punnoose

How much of that power is truly transient? Granted, you are no longer an editor, but wouldn't it be obvious that both because you were an editor and because of all the other factors that made you good enough to be one, you would still wield a considerable amount of power over the career of any young economist you took an interest in?


You could take bribes from people wishing to be listed as co-author on your papers. Extra income on everything you publish.

Although it'll net you less than an approval for the JPE, it should be easier to avoid detection and provide more consistent revenue.


AaronS, in the weird world that is academe, the success of Freakonomics might actually DECREASE the chance that Levitt would have been named an editor of the JPE.


Adam Smith WAS right! I'll be...


Kathryn, that's what cult leaders say about lack of transparency.


Disregard that, I enjoy Broadway musicals. Seriously.

I'm also posting on the New York Times website, which is fabulous.

Princess Leia

I will be nice to you even if you can no longer publish my papers. Promise!


@Lawrence Spindel DDS

Try giving your date nitrous oxide :-)


You have a tin ear.

William Cross


The issue with bribes isn't that they're uneconomical for the people involved -- it's that the costs are all externalized.

If I, as the subscriber of a journal, think I'm reading the top economic papers in the field, when in fact I'm reading the papers of people rich enough to bribe the editors, then I'm unwittingly paying the cost of the bribe, first by my inflated subscription price, and second, by handing out cushy jobs to undeserving candidates who were rich and unethical enough to bribe the editors.

It's a case of market failure, not good markets.


Infopractical: oh but that's the beauty of it!


"I did find, however, that people were willing to offer me large bribes to get their papers published - often upwards of $50,000 per paper. So I made a pretty good living off the corruption. I will miss the extra income."

It's only fair that you explain exactly the degree to which this is (or is not) a joke. It's just impossible to tell in text. At least, I don't know you that well.


Did you Tivo your April Fools joke this year?


This makes me think of an interesting question. From an economic perspective, are bribes good or bad? I'm no economist but it seems to me that a bribe works out to a win-win for the people involved and if they were a bad thing then they would die out because of market forces. Thoughts from people more knowledgable than me?


AaronS, according to Wikipedia, "Freakonomics" was published in 2005. Accordingly:

a. Mr. Levitt was most likely not made an editor of JPE as a result of the success of "Freakonomics".

b. There is a good chance that, for those five years prior to its publication, the success of "Freakonomics" had little to no influence on whether or not Mr. Levitt accepted bribes in order to accept papers for publication into the JPE.




JPE will have two new editors now since Piazzesi also left? Will Jesse Shapiro and Emily Oster be the new generation? I wonder.

Lawrence Spindel DDS

I am a dentist and I have noticed a similar phenomenon at my office. Patients are almost always nice to me at my office, they laugh at my jokes, smile at me and are generally respectful. Recently, separated, I went out on a series of blind dates, few of whom found me funnyor seemed to like me at all. At first, I was at a loss for why this was habppening, but I decided that I wasn't as funny as I thought and possibly it was the my position of power in my office that earned me the laughter. Now, if only I could bring a sharp instrument on my dates.


The same thing happens when a researcher takes a position at the National Science Foundation. In some disciplines, it is common for researchers to take "rotator" positions for several years, helping to evaluate proposals and make funding suggestions. During that time, suddenly everyone is friendly, with lots of feigned interest , insincere invitations, shameless flattery, and so on. Asking people to do things becomes very different than before- no one wants to say no to a program officer. Seeing this change in dynamic makes me shudder at the certain abuses related a similar change in relationship that congresscritters get when they become lobbyists, for example.


Interesting that even scientists and journal editors are subject to the same self-interested incentives as everyone else.



I am interested in just how someone "offers a bribe." I mean do they say, "Hey, if you will publish this, I will give you $50,000?" Or is there some protocol that one uses to advise you that they would glady offer a bribe, etc.?

Having never been offered a bribe--and never having offered one--I think this would be very fearful grounds. I mean, you could offend the person...or for that matter, they might play you (yes, deposit it in this off-shore bank account...and then never publish the article).

While I'm sure you are jesting about being involved in any way, I would imagine that it might not have been so easy to resist had you not already encountered the success of "Freakonomics." Of course, it might also be the case that you would not be an editor had "Freakonomics" not made a big name for you and Dubner.

In any case, I'd be interested in hearing how a bribe "gets done."




Wasn't it one of the Louis' who said: If I give an honour, people think they deserved it anyway; if I don't they hate me.