HCEO Co-director James J. Heckman sat down for an interview with Robert Johnson, President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET), following his panel on economics publishing at the 2017 Allied Social Sciences Associations Annual Meeting. "Publishing and Promotion in Economics: The Curse of the Top Five," was organized by Professor Heckman and included Health Inequality network member Angus Deaton, Measurement, Interpretation & Policy network member George Akerlof, Markets network member Lars Peter Hansen, and MIT Economics Professor Drew Fudenberg.
During the session, the panelists looked at the incentives facing post-Ph.D. economists entering academia. Specifically, they discussed the pressure to publish in the "top five" journals in order to receive tenure and promotion.
"I was surprised at how much enthusiasm each of these senior scholars felt about the importance of this question and their views that we really should think deep and hard about how we should go forward with a better way to incentivize our young," Heckman says in the interview.
Johnson noted that the senior scholars all seemed to share the belief that things in the profession are currently out of line. "If you don't read the paper and you just use the measure, or you just use the indicator as a proxy for quality, you might be off course," he said.
Professor Heckman commented that there has been pushback against novel ideas in economics for a long time, using Akerlof's infamous paper, "The Market for 'Lemons,'" as an example. "The 'Lemons' paper got rejected by everybody," he said. "Then he finally published it in a journal that, at the time, was not that strong." He added that there is a lot of resistance among journal editors and referees to new ideas.
"Every thought that's fundamentally new is weird," Heckman said. Referrees and editors often have a sense that they have to stick to the kind of papers they usually publish. "It's a big burden on editors and referees to think creatively." The drawbacks to not taking a chance on new ideas, however, can be huge. "What kind of work are we not getting out?" Heckman asked.
"The average academic learns a set of tools, they keep the set of tools, they have every incentive not to renew those tools once they get tenure," he continued. Economists then need to look "more broadly at what the incentives are to stay current."
James Heckman is the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. HCEO would like to thank INET for their support of our initiative.