Publishing elsewhere: a strategy for the future?

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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).

10 thoughts on “Publishing elsewhere: a strategy for the future?

  1. What I found really surprising in your (otherwise fascinating) post is that an editor would be interested in a paper showing that the theory of X is equivalent to the theory of Y, with proof and theorem … I honestly thought that nobody would care about that kind of theoretical stuff anymore ! Plus, I really wonder what kind of practical implications this would have regarding economic policy (I intentionally use the words you put in that editor’s mouth).
    If you’re right, well, it means that there is little room for HET made by historians in theory journals. On the other hand, when I look at the kind of articles that ha’ve been published by JEL those last years, it seems that those articles fall under the category called “decanonization”. Thus, it seems that there’s a division of labor between economists who “canonize” and historians who “decanonize”. It leaves some place for historians to publish their articles, but unfortunaltely you can’t build the future of HET with that …

  2. Thank you very much for sharing these insights, which go far beyond the simple guesses I had.
    I still have to make up my mind on whether even trying to publish in economic journals is an interesting strategy, given the compromise one would certainly have to make in terms of style and content (light on history, heavy on literature review). But you certainly show that in any case, it would be especially difficult.

  3. Yann: it is really surprising to know that an editor would find interesting a proof of equivalence between theories of a dead economist X with that of an economist Y. But the editor was just illustrating the point and further supposing that this equivalence would have additional practical implications…. Too much supposing indeed! Nonetheless, a serious portrait is painted: that “dead economists’ stuff” can only appear in theory journals if a dialog with current economics can be established (by theorems and proofs, not in any other way!).
    And you’re exactly right on your second point: the “decanonization” way of writing history makes a conversation with economists even harder (because they’re looking for “canonization” narratives). I was even trying to play around a bit with this problem and being quite conservative in adding a lot of context to my narrative and trying to follow closely a well respected economist’s narrative; but got the “theorem and proof” argument anyway… And JEL has this weird thing of inviting authors to write articles (tending to invite well established economists to write about their field of expertise).

    Clement: I don’t mean to imply that we should just give up. On the contrary, I still think that an interesting conversation can (and should) be established between economists and historians (mainly those working on recent economics) –so PLEASE do consider trying to publish your works on economic journals (in the worst and unfortunately more common state, you tend to get a rejection quickly… It does hurt our feelings but such is life). Moreover, there may (hopefully) be differences among journals of different areas; some more open to HET than others.
    The questions I raised go more in the direction of the ongoing debate about historians fighting to stay in economics departments or not, of which this strategy of publishing in theory journals have an important role. As Yann said, we can’t build entirely the future of a discipline on this strategy, although, I add, we should keep trying to open the door more consistently. We never know if things will change in the future and a new appreciation of history of thought (in some of its many variants) will emerge…

  4. Your post goes to the heart of the question and I must say that I admire your willingness to do so so head on. I also have to say I agree with you, I have never been convinced by the “retreat argument” presented by Schabas (1992). First of all because to consider retreat as a worthy strategy, you need a safe place where you can retreat and as historians of sciences made clear in the 1992 mini-symposium, history of science is clearly not a safe place for historians of Economics.
    About publishing in Theory journals: I think the issue is less that of theory VS history than that of applied economics VS history. It is relatively easy to make the case that history can provide insights to economic theory – be it methodological, biographical, theoretical, sociological -, but it is a lot harder to make a case for history as applied economics, which is dominating in the actual stock of economic publications (including theoretical journals). This is I think the first problem.
    The French case seems to validate this point. Here, theorizing is still considered, in the majority of French economic departements, as the most valuable kind of economics and doing applied economics appears as a less noble enterprise. Moreover, because public funding is the major source of financement in the French University, the incentive to do applied research is less strong than in the US. One collateral effect of this situation is that history of economic thought (regardless of the specific method used by reserachers in the field) is still considered as part of the discipline, and in the French theoretical journals there is a regular output (from 3 to 5 papers per year) of History of economic thought articles, and from time to time an historian of economic thought (2 or 3 per year on average) is recruted on an “general economics” position.
    The second problem I see is that even in publications like the Journal of Economic Perspective where there is regular entries on the history of our discipline, these entries are often written by individuals who have no specific expertise on the topic on which they are writing. Hence, Historian of economics are deprived of a possible outlet – I add that I am not aware at all of the editing process of the JEP ,I would be interested in any feedback on this point.
    On the possible predicaments, I believe that one point of entry for us is economic history. There used to be a time now long gone and forgotten when economic history and history of economics where considered as one and the same. This has changed completely in the 1960s and 1970s due to the so-called cliometric revolution in the US (the situation is a bit different in England and on European continent, but the divide exists there as well). The fact is that quantitative economic history has been since the mid-1990s facing a methodological and institutional crisis and there has been a recent trend of trying to severe the broken links economic historians had with non-quantitative economic history including History of economics. Indeed, this year the Journal of Economic History has published his first non-quantitative article in ages and, guess what, it was an history of economics article!

  5. John Heilbron is an Historian of Science from Berkeley. Today as I cycled to work I was listening to a podcast of his interview on UCTV, here in video.
    Towards the end of the interview he was asked to make a case for the history of science. He answered that it could have a pedagogical use, since many students may find storytelling a better way to understand concepts than axiomatic textbooks; and that the primary audience of history of science might not be scientists but the public. How exactly one does that and to what purpose he did not explain.

    I will try and publish in economics journals when I consider that economists will see a use for my work and will scrutinize it in an informed manner. If I write a paper that is heavy on metrics and that touches upon the concerns of economists I will send it and test my luck. I need to be sure that what i send is totally different from what has been done before and that it does not fall in the usual pidgeonholes of comparison of theory, priority disputes, or such like, probably a paper that is not clearly history either.

  6. Tiago , the fact that you seem to think that unless “you are sure that it is totally different from what has been done before”, you will not send it to an economic journal is interesting. It means that you will probably never submit anything to an economic journal, at least in the next ten years (including economic history). This is not a personal attack, since I believe that you are not alone in this case and that most of historian of economics, either for good or for bad reason, do not submit to these journals (see at the bottom of this comment). They/we do not submit to historical journals, either. The only journals outside our profession where some historians of economics have submitted and published on a regular basis these last years have been Isis and Science in context (correct me if I am wrong). I suspect that there is some kind of “follow the leaders” strategy here: we know that a couple of senior historians of economics have published in these journals, some of them are also engaging us to do the same, so we act accordingly. In a word, we are looking for safe (at least less risky) options.
    I, for example, submitted only once to a standard (French) economic journal. Two things are noteworthy about this experience: 1. It was not an usual paper for me – no archives, no 18th century – but a paper I thought might be “sellable” for a different audience and a paper on a topic where there was very little (just what Tiago suggested). 2. The paper was rejected – one of the referee simply hate it (without mentioning clearly his/her reasons). This was some time ago and since this I never submitted to an economic journal. However, I will do it next year and I have now come to the point where I believe it is important to do so. Not in terms of personal career, but for the profession as a whole: how can we keep our options open as Pedro rightly suggests, if we continue to stay clear of the economic (and historical) journals?

  7. Loïc: I think you add a very important dimension to the discussion that I was not considering so much, that of the divide applied economics versus history. The trend towards applied work in the US is clear (see for instance Kim, Morse and Zingales (2006), “What Has Mattered to Economics Since 1970”, Journal of Economic Perspectives), and the French front of the matter is very interesting. But I still wonder how much of this can be attributed to applied economics (vs. history). There are other factors that explain why HET in different countries has followed specific routes compared to the US (something that Goodwin (2008) mentions briefly in the end of his entry). And in my own experience, I don’t think applied economics was an issue: I had a historical analysis of nowadays very popular theoretical tools and thought I had a good chance to be of interest of practicing economists. The answer is: your story is very interesting (for guys doing theory…) but does not fall within the mission of a theory journal; go publish in a HET journal. Your cross-country perspective just offers a new possibility: that we try theory journals outside the US (those publishing articles in English) –although the Economic Journal, for instance, had the same approach as the US journals, with the editor rejecting without sending the papers to the referees.
    On your point of economic history journals, I find it wonderful! However, I’d like to hear more from you about what kind of HET papers (theme, approach, major characteristics, etc) that have a chance of getting published in economic history journals.
    Tiago: nice reference to Heilbron’s position on the role of history of science. I agree that it has a powerful pedagogical role, but also for scientists: graduate students of my department just asked me to offer a HET (graduate) course in recent economics, so that they can understand better, for instance, the disputes in modern macro and the alleged convergence in it… But I’ll not develop this further as it deserves a separate post.

    It is clear that we have to write something different (than a typical history paper and than what has been done in terms of predecessors and so on) in order to have some chance in a theory journal. I’m just afraid that the chances are not great anyway: theory guys look for literature review narratives (as Blanchard’s 2008 working paper on the State of Macro) with a short section on what has happened in the past and then the major part of the article is devoted to what is done (or remains to be done) nowadays. Historians, even if they want to, have no advantage in writing these narratives: they will not do the major part (what is done nowadays) so well and will be accused by referees of not mentioning this or that development. Practicing economists (Blanchard, Mike Woodford, Solow, Samuelson, Stiglitz, Diamond, etc) are the “natural” candidates to writing these pieces. And here I come to the JEL and JEP issue: according to their editorial policies (which is to commission/invite papers, although there is a chance of proposing a topic and paper –but the editors, again, are not open to “historical” analysis), they want articles that make a literature review (of recent developments…), “synthesize and integrate lessons learned from active lines of economic research,” that “offer readers an accessible source for state-of-the-art economic thinking” and that “suggest directions for future research” (among other things like being useful for pedagogical purposes). Again, state-of-the-art means things like Blanchard’s (2008) article, not a balanced (historical) analysis of how this state-of-the-art came to be and what is its major characteristics –let me just add here that the opposition to a history article is not based necessarily on its lack of mathematics; an editor stated that “narrative articles” (i.e., one without math) are acceptable provided they talk to current issues on modeling, data, policymaking, etc (i.e., Blanchard’s piece, which is entirely without math, will be published in a theory journal, as several others discussing the alleged “convergence” in modern macro).

  8. I save the economic history journal stuff for a future post.
    On the Journals outside US: In France, the only Journal that is eventually worthwhile to publish in (for a foreigner) is the Revue économique, for it is in JSTOR (moving wall of 4 years though) and it accepts papers in English. I am not sure though about its coverage outside France. I think it will be very useful to have a kind of collective debate about what and where to publish our stuff. I also believe that editors are following a “big name” policy and the fact that historians of thought are not considered for historical pieces in JEP is for me a sign of our devaluation in terms of academic branding. In this respect, it is quite significant that economist historians interest for others came out of their sub-discipline crisis.

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