The death of refereed journals may be exaggerated.


There is growing move against overpriced refereed academic journals. For example, see Stephen Matchett of the Australian here. And the economics discipline is a great example of both the failure of refereed journals and why their imminent death is exaggerated. 

In economics, refereed journals are a historic archive. The lags between submission and publication are often years. Simultaneous submissions to multiple journals breaches journal rules (so evaluations are sequential) and rounds of revision take many months/years. Rejection and resubmission at another journal (rejection rates at the best journals are well over 90%) means more years of wait. And even after acceptance, official publication may take more months. So researchers publish new research and access new research in public working paper databases, like SSRN. By the time a paper is formally published in a journal it is ‘old news’. So the expensive journals should be easily eliminated, right?


Refereed journal publications are used to judge academic quality. Papers in the twenty-top-journals-who-claim-to-be-in-the-top-ten are the benchmark for tenure at the best universities. Lower level journal publications are needed for jobs at other universities. It is not just publish or perish that reigns. It is where you publish that matters.

Not all of these journals are expensive as some are published by ‘societies’ that keep the price down to more modest levels. But many economics research journals are published by the for-profit presses. And all of the highly ranked economics journals follow similar snail-paced processes for reviewing submitted papers.

The self-reinforcing culture, that places the journals as the measure of quality, is hard to change. It is hard to break because a new journal is automatically ranked middle-to-low. This makes it hard for open-source journals or journals using a different model (e.g. B.E.Press in its original incarnation) to ‘move up’ the rankings. Academics (particularly junior academics) are reluctant to publish in such journals because they are not highly ranked. And they can’t become highly ranked without getting highly cited papers from good researchers.

Existing senior academics in the economics discipline have little reason to alter the system. They have their historic archive of papers in highly ranked journals. They may grumble about the submission fees, the refereeing requests and the publication delays but they are the winners in the current system.

The importance of publishing in ‘highly ranked’ journals is reinforced by universities in Australia who explicitly want to use journal rankings (such as the ERA list) to evaluate academics. So while the universities may complain about the price of the journals, they are part of the problem because they use these same journals as a measure of quality.

Is there a solution? Changing a ‘bad equilibrium’ such as the one in economics can be hard. It usually requires a big coordinated leap to move to a ‘better equilibrium’. The best universities in the world may be able to orchestrate such a shift but they (or their economics departments) would have to act in unison. An alternative to the journals may involve an open source database like SSRN with a ranking system – but the alternative would have to be strong enough to drag along the academics and this means it has to be a credible alternative measure of prestige for those academics.

9 Responses to "The death of refereed journals may be exaggerated."
  1. Changing a ‘bad equilibrium’ … usually requires a big coordinated leap to move to a ‘better equilibrium’.

    True, though sometimes the amount of co-ordination needed can be quite small.  A push (including formal changes to assessment for tenure) by a mere half dozen of the top unis would cascade downwards and drag the rest in.

    Which is also an important point – the leap can be surprisingly quick. The pattern would be a tiny but slowly growing trickle of papers to the new model taking place for some years, followed by a sudden massive torrent like a dyke bursting.  We’re getting the tiny trickle – the torrent might happen this year or it might happen decades hence, but I think it will happen.  Buying shares in Elsevier is a high-risk bet.

  2. Just a couple of quick comments: First, citations are an interesting alternative of assessment although not unproblematic. Less problematic, arguably though than some of the more political ranking exercises that circulate. Second, yes, it is hard to build reputations but it can be done, as Games and Economic Behaviour and Experimental Economics have demonstrated. And I am sure there are similar journals out there in areas that I do not know that well.

  3. The role of journals is to facilitate scholarly peer review and when that works well journals are an indispensable institution. The quality of a journal depends on the quality of the peer review. 

  4. Isn’t the point of the whole ‘Academic Spring’ about ending the business model of journal publishers extracting substantial rent by getting the free content of academics reviewed by the free labour of other academics, and then selling the result back to the universities that employed the academics in the first place.  And then bundling the top end journals with a range of more obscure ones, and publishing electronically with very reduced costs?  

    I would have thought that universities could cut their losses by undertaking electronic refereed journal publishing with free access.  The internet has killed the rationale for outsourcing all that complex typesetting, copyediting, printing and distribution in the first place. 

    I can’t remember when I last accessed a paper journal.  

  5. Richard, that “Academic Spring” sounds as successful as the other “A… Spring” 

    As far as I can tell. Our library now stocks every online Springer and Elsevier journal  but we can’t access society journals like Econometrica

    It seems libraries like these diverse bundles that commercial publishers offer and don’t have much time for niche journals like Econometrica.


  6. Rabee – I assume that you can get Econometrica and other society journals via jstor using your library. But these have a two year ‘lag’. This seems to be something with society journals (presumably they want to encourage individuals to be members). Like Richard, I can’t remember the last time I accessed a paper journal, so the jstore lag just makes the journal even more irrelevant for research purposes. If you suggested I should look at a paper in a recent journal that had the two year lag I would just go to the author’s web site. Most of the time it will be there. 


  7. stephen,
    agreed with everything you say. As to how to break the business model I think it unlikely that you will break it via a big push for other journals. Rather it would have to be displaced by something else getting so successful that journal editorial boards will opt to go the society route and break free of the publishers.
    What something else could displace it? I think a system of peer-ranking working papers which then get reverse-auctioned to journals would work extremely well, but you indeed need some top institutions to adopt it early on.

  8. I subscribed to Econometrica from 1975 on and had a complete collection until last year when I gave the lot away. I realised that I hand’t read anything in the journal for years and if I did want something (unlikely) I could get it on JStor. 

    It is important in life to jump hurdles but its not the only thing you want to do.  How much do the top 20 journals contribute to our understanding of the economy? What major issues in economics have been resolved in recent years by econometric research and by the hard work done in economic theory?

    Is it hurdle jumping or is it useful? I guess yes, its useful for “ranking” people. But ranking for what?


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