Friday, 17 June 2016

Editing the Economic Journal

I have been an editor at the EJ for a year now. These are some reflections. They do not represent any "official" communication of the journal. They are simply a way for me to document and think through some of what I have learned:

  • editing a "general interest" journal is pretty hard. Don't we all like to complain as authors? That unfair decision, this long delay. Yes, I did that quite a few times, too. Now I am at the other end - not at a top-5 journal, but a decently ranked and cited general interest one. In the two economic history journals I edited, I typically knew the literature inside out, and could call on 'friends and family' to help me out in assessing the papers (meaning faster turnarounds). This is much harder in a GE journal, where all the editors will sooner or later have to handle a paper further from their expertise
  • I think my statistics are ok, but I need to learn to take into account that fewer referees are friends and acquaintances. Editorial Express (which I love) tells me this about decision times of all submissions that crossed my electronic desk:

Mean= 32 Min=0 Max=181, Median 13, std= 36, n=190

So I took on average 32 days to make a decision; the median time was 13 days. This is the effect of desk rejections, which I try to do within a day or two. Once the paper is with referees, it is impossible to do things in much less than 40 days. The maximum time to decision I am not proud of -- 181 is way too long, but it was one of the cases where an important referee first said "yes", only to postpone several times before defaulting entirely, which meant that I had to appoint another one. If referees don't sign on, it's normally a bad sign; I should perhaps factor in the reluctance to take the paper on as a signal of quality (much as one would in a tenure case).
  • desk rejections are crucial. I handled almost 200 papers in my first year. It is not in the author's interest to have the paper rejected after 50 days when the ex ante chance is very low. By rejecting a high share (~50% in my case), I can try and do a much better job with the rest. This is also different from Explorations and the European Review of Economic History, where the desk-reject rates in my case were a lot lower.
  • there is a LOT of negative refereeing. As a QJE editor recently told me, if one only took the average of opinion received, one would almost never publish anything. He felt it wasn't like that 10 or 15 years ago... that also means that the whole process get noisier, meaning editors have to override at least some referees almost all the time to take a paper. I don't know where this wave of negativity comes from, but it is very noticeable. Referees perhaps want to be sure they don't wave through a poor paper, and impressing an editor with criticism is easier? While a lot of referees give detailed, thoughtful, helpful advice, more than a few reports read like "no, not in my backyard." I personally take a pretty dim view of strategic refereeing...
  • I encourage referees to tell me about a.) the importance of the paper - if everything the abstract claims is actually true, is this an important paper? b.) the technical correctness of findings. The invitation to referee actually asks that referees do NOT write an essay on "how they would have written the paper." I have had overwhelmingly positive reactions to that; many referees have told me that this makes it much easier to return a report quickly. I sometimes feel that there has been an arms race among referees to outdo each other with 5+ page reports, especially at top journals. This is wasteful. I may try to help the author write the best one that is struggling to come out, but of course only their name goes on it -- it is the author's paper.
  • I love being part of a smooth, collegiate operation. Economic history journals are by nature quite small, and there isn't much need for structure and coordination. The EJ is a big ship, and it is run very well, with full-time support, regular phone conferences and twice-yearly meetings. It is also very nice to be in a society-owned journal, not in the jaws of a shark-like commercial operation like Elsevier (owners of Explorations)
  • Things just don't change very fast. There is a trickle of papers that I solicited, and some people seem to have noticed that I am an editor and send me papers in my intellectual arena, but it's a bit slower than one might have hoped...
  • I think of a decision letter as a "contract", meaning that authors are in if they do what the letter requests; I don't like multiple rounds with lots of vague calls for making the referees happy. If the referees contradict each other, it's my job to figure out what is best for the paper. I have as yet not sent out the same paper more than twice to referees (original submission and resubmission).
  • I am still experimenting with how much less refereeing I do for other journals. I get a lot of people excusing themselves by saying "sorry, AE at xyz journal, so I am not doing this." Specialization is such in our field that this can lead to extremely narrow choice sets for referees. I try to keep refereeing for top journals, and papers where I obviously should say something because there are not that many economic historians with knowledge of the area. The AER just gave me one of the Excellence in Refereeing Awards -- maybe I should invest a little less there? (just kidding, where the top-5 papers go is essential to how the profession ticks).

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

The liquidity cost of Brexit

thought that Brexit wouldn't have any immediate effect? Not so, at least if you like your wines from Spain. My favourite dealer from the Begur area offers this morsel - perhaps a tad exaggerated:


Saturday, 21 May 2016

Prize competition - earn a $1,000

I have an interest in German fighter pilots during World War II (yes, it's a research project joint with Philip Ager and Leo Bursztyn). We particularly care about status competition amongst top-scoring pilots (the image on the left shows victory marking on the tailgate of a Messerschmidt).

We need data on pilot training, especially a brief history of which fighter schools people passed through (Luftkampfschule and Jagdfliegerschule). Anyone who can send me a detailed list containing that information about the top 200-scoring German aces should get in touch via email -- I promise to pay $1,000 or euro equivalent (first $500 for the first 100; the next $500 for the second).

We have tried our luck in the archives, to little avail; but it may just be possible that enthusiasts somewhere sit on this information, or something closely related... So let's see if "markets in everything" actually works (or prizes for the right kind of thing).

Friday, 20 May 2016

Goodbye SSRN

SSRN has been sucked into the Death Star of academic publishing, the Dutch company called Elsevier. The story is here. It's obvious what they are about -- making it impossible for people to read versions of papers published in Elsevier journals in a slightly earlier version. If you happen not to be part of the $40 per pdf paying crowd, that was a great alternative; find the same paper's wp on SSRN, and be done. Despite some weasly-worded promises, it's clear that this is what Elsevier wants to stop. After buying Mendeley, a platform for citation management and paper depository, Elsevier is basically trying to capture enough of the knowledge-sharing between academics to stop threats to its hyper-profitable overcharge-for-open-access-or-subscription model.

There is a credible alternative view, espoused here: that it's all about the value of data to Elsevier. I am skeptical... surely a firm like Elsevier could have gotten that kind of data for less?

Be that as it may: For the last 15 years, I uploaded my papers religiously on SSRN. I even had a line below my signature advertising my latest working papers there. It was a great platform to make stuff available. But barriers to entry are L O W. When I have a minute, I will move stuff to REPEC or IDEAS; there will surely be a competitor along that does at least as good a job as SSRN (which was never that great to start with). 

Friday, 1 April 2016

Mills and institutions

Will Goetzmann and collaborators have a new paper in circulation that looks institutional innovation over the last millennium or so... Medieval mills were high-tech and expensive to build, and it turns out that many of the things that make modern corporations tick (or not tick so well) were already tried out in the joint stock companies that financed and operated these mills. Here is the abstract:

We exploit unique archives extending over six centuries to trace the development
of corporate governance mechanisms that emerged in response to problems inherent in
organizing, capitalizing and sustaining large-scale business enterprises. Two Toulouse
milling concerns with antecedents in the 11th century organized themselves via mergers
into widely-held joint-stock companies in the years 1372 and 1373. We document the
institutional innovations they developed over the ensuing centuries, and place these
in the context of institutional economic theory. The rms adapted or invented insti-
tutional features that are widely recognizable today, including fully tradable shares,
limited liability, shareholder meetings, governing boards, cash payout policies, account-
ing audits and mechanisms for re-capitalization.
The paper has some interesting implications. First, it shows that it wasn't Northern Europe that invented the corporate form. Second, it shows that the advantages of joint stock companies seem forever elusive -- they don't out-compete other corporate forms today, and they didn't back then. This casts doubts on theories of development that put a shortage of capital center-stage. Plenty of food for thought here... 

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

migrating extremists

Christian Oechsner and Felix Roesner have an interesting paper on migrating extremists. When Austria was partitioned after WWII into different zones of occupation, the Russians got a bit "extra". Since the last thing you wanted as a Nazi was to be under Russian occupation, it is likely that many Nazis migrated out of that extra bit of Upper Austria coming to the Russians. Oechsner and Roesner show that in these areas, there is much more right-wing voting after 1945 than one would expect, given pre-1938 trends... and that the pattern persists to the present day, with FPÖ results inexplicably high in areas just outside the newly expanded Russian zone. Here is the abstract:

We show that migrating extremists shape political landscapes toward their ideology in the long run. We exploit the unexpected division of the state of Upper Austria into a US and a Soviet occupation zone after WWII. Zoning prompts large-scale Nazi migration to US occupied regions. Regions that witnessed a Nazi influx exhibit significantly higher voting shares for the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) throughout the entire post-WWII period, but not before WWII. We can exclude other channels that may have affected post-war elections, including differences in US and Soviet denazification and occupation policies, bomb attacks, Volksdeutsche refugees and suppression by other political parties. We show that extremism is transmitted through family ties and local party branches. We find that the surnames of FPÖ local election candidates in 2015 in the former US zone are more prevalent in 1942 phonebook data (Reichstelefonbuch) of the former Soviet zone compared to other parties.

David Card

awesome portrait of an awesome economist: