Bryan Caplan  

The Status of Unemployed High-Status Papers

Henderson's Godwin's Law... A Primer on Malemployment...
Every now and then, prominent economists release working papers that never get published.  What should we conclude when an elite article suffers from "long-term unemployment"?

1. The signaling story: Even prominent economists can't publish their paper, so it's probably terrible.

2. The counter-signaling story: Of course prominent economists can publish their paper.  But many are so elitist that they'd rather have a permanently unemployed paper than a paper in a third-tier (or even second-tier) journal.  The paper is probably mediocre rather than terrible.

3. The non-conformist story: Prominent economists can easily publish their paper if they "play the rules of the game."  The fact that they haven't published indicates unusually creative and open-minded research.  So the paper is probably unusually good!

Other stories?  What makes the most sense to you?

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
david writes:

"I'm still working on putting together ideas for a really great general theory, but I'm putting this bit out there first so I don't get scooped".

Adam writes:

Those are good ones that may certainly play a part (though I feel that the third is more likely to hinder a no-name economist, while elite economists are more likely to be able to get away with creative, non-mainstream research).

Here's another:

The Short Attention Span Story: Once you've gotten to the level of elite you no longer need to live or die by the next paper you write, so your research is almost entirely interest-driven. By the time you've written a paper you've worked on the aspect of it that interested you for some time, and the extra work of actually getting it published may not be worth the opportunity cost of simply moving on to the next thing right away.

david writes:

Oh, oh, another one:

"I want to cite an idea some other obscure Keynesian talked about back in the 1960s, or worse, some obscure Neoclassical talked about in the 1910s. That gives my paper some additional cachet: see, look at its venerable heritage.

But citing them directly in my paper would bait out all sorts of harebrained objections from reviewers with their own pet views on 1960s economic philosophy, especially touchy topics like Who Should've Won and Who Had The Last Word. So I should cite myself citing them somewhere instead! And since I'm a Famous Economist, my working papers have to be taken seriously!"

aka the "reviewers aren't allowed to break Double Blind, even if it's totally obvious who you are" way of sneaking in a dubious argument.

AMW writes:

A twist on the signalling theory:

A truly elite economist doesn't need peer review to be taken seriously. At this point in his career the journals get more from having his papers appear in their pages than he gets from having their title printed at the top of his essay. Posting working papers with no intent to publish - and raking in the citations nevertheless - is a way of flaunting his status.

Grant K writes:

The paper by George Borjas and Kirk Doran is relevant to this discussion. The paper is also a wokring paper by economists and I am not sure if it has been published. Borjas and Doran found that the number of publications by mathematicians who win the fields medal drops significantly after they have won the award. One of the reasons why is because the winners typically branch out into other fields of research in which they have less expertise.

Perhaps, as economists become more prominent they branch out into other areas of research and as a result publish less journal papers and more working papers.

This article mentions the paper.

Norman Maynard writes:

I suspect it is a mixture of Adam's story and AMW's. It's ultimately a story of diminishing returns, with prestige as the output and journal stamps of approval as the input. It stops being worth it.

Pseudonymous writes:

If you're already tenured, then the returns to publishing are actually not very high, especially given the severe waiting/review times at some journals, and the preponderance of working papers. I think at this point I don't really read anything after it's been published, I just read working papers.

Adam's story is also right. Especially for senior people, they have so many irons in the fire that once they've been working on a paper for years, even if it's something pathbreaking, they're going to have other things to do and think of it as a hassle.

JLV writes:

Prominent Economists are often also controversial economists. If a controversial-but-famous economist releases an NBER working paper (or something equivalent that a significant portion of the profession skims pretty regularly) then enough referees and editors might make their mind up to reject the paper before its ever submitted to make submitting the paper not worth the economist's time and effort (and submission fees)

Pseudonymous writes:

Also, david, I don't think there's any journals that are double blind anymore, exactly because everything's online as a working paper now.

Jim Rose writes:

there is a book on great papers that were rejected many times because they offered nothing new. see for How Are the Mighty Fallen: Rejected Classic Articles by Leading

alchian had papers that were published years after he wrote them.

Chops writes:

I think the explanations need to account for the fact that there appear to be unpublished working papers at all levels of research, from low-ranked-monkey to Nobel level.

Obviously, the incredible sloth of the publishing process plays a role. In other cases, there are copyright issues. But it's fair to say some papers simply get left behind.

I think the Ockhamite explanation is opportunity cost. Once you've gone through a tedious submission-and-rejection process a few times (each one can take a year or more!), you're probably working on other things. The paper by then has already found its level (unread, good, or bad) and publication might not change that too much. An economist at any level may easily have better prospects and more important uses of his time than fiddling around with an old paper to get it into a "good" journal ("good" being relative).

Brian writes:

It doesn't sound right to describe unpublished papers as "unemployed." The right analogy is that UNCITED or ignored papers are unemployed. Unpublished working papers that are nonetheless cited might be described as "self-employed."

The simplest explanation for unpublished working papers is that the papers don't need official publication to get cited or to have an impact. The inevitable hoop-jumping of peer review doesn't really make sense unless the peer-review journal is a necessary vehicle for a paper to get noticed. If your working paper can get noticed without it, why go through the extra expense of tiem and resources.

The bottom line is that I don't think such self-employed papers tell us ANYTHING about the paper's quality.

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