In an academic world of impact factors and citations indexes, many historians of economics share the view that publishing articles in economic journals is a healthy practice to our field. However, not many historians have managed to do so for a variety of reasons.
On the other hand, historical work on recent economics can potentially interest more practicing economists than accounts on Smith or Ricardo. Economists would in turn not mind having articles on the history of recent economic ideas in the journals they usually read.
Despite the use economists make of the past and the interest in knowing the “origins” of game theory, behavioral economics or in learning more about venerated figures such as Frank Ramsey, Paul Samuelson or John Hicks, many editors of economic journals seem to disapprove having a historical article published in them.
What are the reasons for rejecting a work on the history of economics? The most often I have encountered is that this kind of paper does not fit within the mission of a theory journal. Some editors go even further by affirming that the journal has moved away from publishing history of thought papers. On this ground, the paper is rejected by the editor without sending it to referees (more on this later).
Besides this reason, there are others used to reject a history paper. One editor stated that the journal has abandoned the field of the history of economic thought chiefly because the lack of enthusiasm among readers and referees (an editor was careful in pointing out that he/she has nothing against the history of economic thought despite his/her decision to reject a history paper). In this case, the editor did try to get some reports on a history paper but simply got back none after sending it to several referees.
Two interesting variants of the argument of a lack of interest. First, on the side of referees, theory journals have nowadays adopted policies of substantially cutting down turnaround times and avoiding situations where authors submit many times and ultimately are not rewarded with publication. As a consequence of these policies many manuscripts will be rejected on the first round of refereeing. Thus, fearing that history articles have low chances of going through a second round and being published, editors feel more compelled to rejecting them in the first round (supposing they do send the articles to referees).
Second, on the side of the readers, editors of theory journals argue that history papers should have clear interface with current data, policymaking, or modeling issues. An editor even provided an illustration of this point: “suppose that a paper establishes a theoretical result, with Theorem and Proof, showing that Ramsey’s optimal taxation is equivalent to Pigou taxation (…). Suppose that the result is not obvious and has further implications. Then it seems to me that this may be of interest to the readership” of a theory journal.
All this reluctance to have a history article in theory journals illustrates very well the humanities-science cultural divide and the science wars discussed by Roy Weintraub (2007). A question that emerges out of this set of arguments against having a history article in theory journals is what kind of “historical” analysis one has to write in order to fall within the mission of theory journals. If one with theorem and proofs and with clear interface with policymaking and modeling issues, my fear is that historians are not the ones who will write such pieces (although some may try to), but rather practicing economists interested in constructing a past to the current practices in economics. To use Craufurd Goodwin‘s (2008) argument, this is the use of history of economics as a literature review that was the hallmark of the neoclassical and historical economics and that persists to the present day.
In a world of many specialized journals it is not surprising or senseless to have editors of theory journals advising that history articles be published in history of thought journals. What is a concern is the acute humanities-science divide (that defines what is a proper interface of history with current economics) and the alleged lack of enthusiasm among readers and referees of theory journals. So the main question that remains is how much of a strategy to our field do we have? Should we insist on getting the economists’ attention by publishing in theory journals? How?
P.S.: Caveat: clearly I do not mean to imply that all editors of theory journals have this same position on the matter, nor that it is impossible to publish history of thought articles in theory journals. A significant recent example is Carl Wennerlind’s (short) piece on David Hume published in the Journal of Political Economy in 2005 (which received the best article award in the history of economics in 2006). Moreover, journals like the Journal of Economic Literature are somewhat more open to some kind of historical analysis (more in line with the literature review type).