A recent article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives written by John Conley and Ali Sina Önder mapped the PhD graduations of 154 top economic departments in the US and Canada from 1986-2000 to their research record in a wide breadth of peer-reviewed economic research journals. They focus on the research record of the graduates of the top department after six years, and the conclusion is “only a small percentage of economics PhDs manage to produce a creditable number of publications by their sixth year after graduation.” The sixth year is relevant because it pertains to the point at which a faculty member applies for tenure.
Their interesting results drew some attention in major news outlets. The Economist article titled “Lazy graduate students” led with another conclusion from the original journal article: “If the objective of graduate training in top-ranked departments is to produce successful research economists, then these graduate programmes are largely failing.”
However, these conclusions are based on how these authors evaluate a successful research economist which seem to be largely representative of economics faculty at these top schools.
Research success in this article is measured by the weighted number of published research articles by each person. How the weighting is applied is reflective of the top schools perspective on quality. Each journal is weighted against the premiere journal in economics, the American Economic Review, based on relative citation counts among other factors and given an AER-equivalent score.
The AER-equivalent score heavily discounts field-specific journals because these journals are focused on a more targeted research community. In my field, energy and transportation economics, the Journal of Environmental Economics is worth 0.1185 AER articles, the Energy Journal worth 0.0092, Journal of Transport Economics and Policy worth 0.008, Resource and Energy Economics worth 0.0076, and Energy Economics worth 0.0004.
If you thought these values for field-specific research were pretty measly, consider that Conley and Önder also discount based on the number of authors which clearly discourages collaboration and the limitless potential in the network effects of knowledge. It further encourages the compartmentalization of research. At least in my mind it is preferable “to stand on the shoulders of giants” rather than focus on individual genius. Economic research should “wake up” to the broader nature of their work.
The fact is that economics does not exist in a vacuum. Trade and preference is based on human interaction which implies a link with social sciences, psychology, etc. Furthermore, production is highly field-specific. It is very difficult to get anything of actual value from the stylized economic theory which attempts to capture all manner of production from corn to electricity to medical services. This is especially the case since actual markets rarely mesh well with the assumptions required for economic theory to be constructive.
To be fair many economists have woken up and reached outside the economics discipline to further economic knowledge of fields and field knowledge in economics. Many economists including faculty and students in my own department have crafted meaningful collaborations with scientists and published in Nature, Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). These articles are far more visible and impactful that the AER. For example, Nature, Science, and PNAS have a Google Scholar’s h5-index of 355, 311, and 217, respectively. AER pales in comparison with 122. Why are these journals still considered worthless as a measure of successful research for “pure” economists?
The metric of successful research economists used by “pure” economists is antiquated. Their idea of success seems to be individual geniuses who reside in the highly-structured economic silo. However, if we are to expand the relevance of our field we cannot remain in our comfortable siloes without a window to the specifics of the world around us. We must go out and interact with experts with field-specific knowledge so we can make meaningful contributions to the advancement of the understanding of nature and have a positive influence on society, which should be the true measure of success. It is widely recognized by economists that technology is the key to economic growth; therefore, economists must be intimately familiar with technology and intimately familiar with experts in technology. Only then can we truly contribute to economic growth and prosperity.
- Jeffrey C. Peters
C.W. “Lazy graduate students?” Blog. The Economist. Nov. 12, 2014. Accessed at: <http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2014/11/productivity-phds>
Conley, J.P., Önder, A.S., 2014. The research productivity of new PhDs in economics: the surprisingly high non-success of the successful. Journal of Economic Perspectives 28(3), 205-216.
Kalaitzidakis, P., Mamuneas, T.P, Stengos, T., 2003. Rankings of academic journals and institutions in economics. Journal of the European Economic Association 1(6), 1346-1366.