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What Do (Academic) Economists Value?

What Do (Academic) Economists Value? published on No Comments on What Do (Academic) Economists Value?

Which do economists consider most important in evaluating one another? The quality of the journals in which they publish, or the number of citations of the articles they have written?

It turns out, according to a recent study by John Gibson, David. L. Anderson and John Tressler coming out in Economic Inquiry, that economists seem to place more value on the prestige of the journal than whether or not anyone cites–or even reads–the research. At least among top-ranked economics departments. Or, at the top-ranked economics departments in the University of California system, but there’s little reason to think that the behavior of economists across the UC system is not representative of the profession as a whole in this regard. Their abstract reads:

Research quality can be evaluated from citations or from the prestige of journals publishing the research. We relate salary of tenured University of California (UC) economists to their lifetime publications of 5,500 articles and to the 140,000 citations to these articles. Citations hardly affect salary, especially in top-ranked UC departments where impacts of citations are less than one-tenth those of journals. In lower ranked departments, and when journal quality is less comprehensively measured, effects of citations on salary increase. If journal quality is just measured by counting articles in journal tiers, apparent effects of citations are overstated.

This is an interesting–and to my mind, sad–result. As the authors explain in their paper, there are many reasons why citations would be a more meaningful measure of the quality and impact of a particular paper than would be the journal in which it is published. After all, the decision to publish is based on the opinions of a handful (at most) of individuals (i.e., the editor and a few reviewers picked by the editor). Citations, on the other hand, reflect the opinion of the broader academic community.

And in terms of relevance to anything of value, one might also argue that citations are a much better metric of the “So What?” question. If no one cites a paper, it suggests either no one read it or no one found the ideas or results it contained to be worth mentioning in the market of ideas or future research. Which begs the question of whether it is really all that important or meaningful, whether within academia or, heaven forbid, more broadly? And if not meaningful, then what is the basis of “quality”?

The authors also identify another wrinkle. Among lower ranked economics departments, journal quality is less important and citations tend to be given more weight. The authors, citing Liebowitz (2014) , suggest this may be because “faculty at lower ranked schools may rely on easily available proxies, such as counts of articles or of citations, rather than making their own determination based on reading the articles when they have to evaluate a research record in order to make a labor market decision.” This may be because faculty at lower ranked programs are more likely to have published in lower ranked journals–and there is no general consensus on relative journal quality rankings beyond the top few journals. Hence the appeal and use of such metrics as Impact Factors

I’d like to think there’s something more going on. Rather than simply using citations as a low-cost way of evaluating research quality, perhaps lower ranked programs, which tend to be more teaching-focused, actually value  the citations in and of themselves as an indication that the work actually has meaningful relevance and impact.

One would expect there to be some correlation between citations and the quality of journal in which an article appears. The traditionally more highly ranked journals likely have larger readership, which should translate into more citations. One metric of journal quality–its impact factor–is based on the number of citations it receives. But that is based on the average for the journal as a whole, not any one specific article. As illustrated here, it’s quite likely that a small percentage of articles in a given journal generate a substantial proportion of its citations, meaning the journal’s quality metric may be a rather poor proxy for any given article’s impact.

When push comes to shove, however, Gibson et al. suggest that what matters most to academic economists–especially those at the more prestigious departments–is not necessarily how much influence or relevance a particular paper has for shaping the intellectual debate, but whether it appears with a more prestigious cover.

That says something about the profession, I think. And perhaps not something good.




Craft Beer in the US: History, Stats and Geography

Craft Beer in the US: History, Stats and Geography published on

Ken Elzinga (Virginia) and Carol and Victor Tremblay (Oregon State) have a paper in the latest Journal of Wine Economics titled “Craft Beer in the United States: History, Statistics and Geography.” The paper provides a great overview of the history of the craft brew industry as well as some interesting analysis on the geographic development of the industry. The history section seems to draw heavily on Tom Aticelli’s 2013 book The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution, but provides a much more concise summary. And paired with the statistical overview of the beer industry in general and the empirical analysis of the craft brew industry that follows, this paper offers a nice, short primer for anyone interested in the history (and economics) of the craft brew industry in the US. The paper’s abstract follows:

We provide a mini-history of the craft beer segment of the U.S. brewing industry with particular emphasis on producer-entrepreneurs but also other pioneers involved in the promotion and marketing of craft beer who made contributions to brewing it. In contrast to the more commodity-like lager beer produced by the macrobrewers in the United States, the output of the craft segment more closely resembles the product differentiation and fragmentation in the wine industry. We develop a database that tracks the rise of craft brewing using various statistical measures of output, number of producers, concentration within the segment, and compares output with that of the macro and import segment of the industry. Integrating our database into Geographic Information Systems software enables us to map the spread of the craft beer segment from its taproot in San Francisco across the United States. Finally, we use regression analysis to explore variables influencing the entrants and craft beer production at the state level from 1980 to 2012. We use Tobit estimation for production and negative binomial estimation for the number of brewers. We also analyze whether strategic effects (e.g., locating near competing beer producers) explain the location choices of craft beer producers.

Do Medical Marijuana Laws Increase Hard-Drug Use?

Do Medical Marijuana Laws Increase Hard-Drug Use? published on

According to a recent study by Yu-Wei Luke Chu in the Journal of Law & Economics, the answer is not just “No,” but that medical marijuana laws may actually decrease heroin use as consumers substitute the legal marijuana for heroin. Below is the abstract:

Medical marijuana laws generate significant debate regarding drug policy. For instance, if marijuana is a complement to hard drugs, then these laws would increase the usage not only of marijuana but also of hard drugs. In this paper I study empirically the effects of medical marijuana laws by analyzing data on drug arrests and treatment admissions. I find that medical marijuana laws increase these proxies for marijuana consumption by around 10–15 percent. However, there is no evidence that cocaine and heroin usage increases. From the arrest data, the estimates indicate a 0–15 percent decrease in possession arrests for cocaine and heroin combined. From the treatment data, the estimates show a 20 percent decrease in admissions for heroin-related treatment, although there is no significant effect for cocaine-related treatment. These results suggest that marijuana may be a substitute for heroin, but it is not strongly correlated with cocaine.

Thursday's Interesting Reads

Thursday's Interesting Reads published on

A couple of interesting articles came across my screen today.

The first, by Alex Tabarrock over at Marginal Revolution, corrects a popular misconception about the relative bargaining power of workers. He points out the problems (both conceptually and factually) in framing employment issues as “firm versus worker,” which focuses on the threat of worker unemployment. He also shares a nice chart from the St. Louis Federal Reserve illustrating how this perception of employers having control over employment relationships is quite incorrect. One of my favorite lines/points:Buyers don’t compete against sellers, buyers compete against other buyers (and sellers compete against other sellers). See how that’s important in this context.

The second, by Andrew Flowers at FiveThirtyEight Economics, reports on a recent study by Montazerhodjat and Lo (MIT) that argues how the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should change its one-size-fits-all approach for approving drugs to take into account the opportunity cost of making the wrong decision. This idea isn’t at all new to economists. Currently, the FDA uses the same standard for all drugs, regardless the severity of the consequences of making the wrong decision (in the trade-off between Type 1 and Type 2 errors). Montazerhodjat and Lo’s study (available here) is pretty technical, but Flowers’ piece does a great job of summarizing the economics and the results in a much more lay reader-friendly way.

Happy reading!

The Editorial Process in Economics and Social Sciences

The Editorial Process in Economics and Social Sciences published on

Marc Bellemare offers some thoughts about the editorial review process in economics and social sciences…from an editors perspective. His insights are helpful for new or younger scholars, and a good reminder for those more seasoned.

On May 1, I will become editor of Food Policy, replacing the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies’ Bhavani Shankar, and sharing the role of editor with the University of Bologna’s Mario Mazzocchi, serving for an initial term of three years.

Given that, I thought now would be as good a time as any to write my thoughts about the editorial process. This will allow me to go back to these thoughts once my term as editor ends, to see what else I might have learned. So here goes–in no particular order–some thoughts I’ve accumulated on the editorial process in the social sciences. I hope others with editorial experience can chime in with their own additional thoughts in the comments.

An Overview of US Food and Nutrition Programs

An Overview of US Food and Nutrition Programs published on

Hilary Hoynes (Berkley) and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach (Northwestern) have a new NBER piece that provides a very useful overview of the four major food and nutrition programs in the U.S., including their histories, current statistics, potential benefits, and the current research on their effectiveness.  An ungated version of the piece is available here.

This chapter provides an overview of the patchwork of U.S. food and nutrition programs, with detailed discussions of SNAP (formerly the Food Stamp Program), WIC, and the school breakfast and lunch programs. Building on Currie’s (2003) review, we document the history and goals of the programs, and describe the current program rules. We also provide program statistics and how participation and costs have changed over time. The programs vary along how “in-kind” the benefits are, and we describe economic frameworks through which each can be analyzed. We then review the recent research on each program, focusing on studies that employ techniques that can isolate causal impacts. We conclude by highlighting gaps in current knowledge and promising areas for future research.

State Contract Law and Debt Contracts

State Contract Law and Debt Contracts published on

An interesting paper by Colleen Honigsberg, Sharon Katz (both at Columbia) and Gil Sadka (Univ. of Texas at Dallas) in the November 2014 issue of the Journal of Law & Economics (available here) looks at differences in debt contract terms based on the state’s contract law which governs the debt contract. A number of papers have studied factors affecting the use of various types of covenants and contract terms for debt agreements, but none previously have accounted for variation in state contract laws. Below is the abstract:

This paper examines the relationship between debt contracts and state contract law. We first develop an index to evaluate whether each state’s law is favorable or unfavorable to lenders. We then analyze how the contract terms, the frequency of covenant violations, and the repercussions of covenant violations vary across states. We find that cash collateral is most likely to be used when the contract is governed by law that is favorable to debtors and that out-of-state borrowers who use favorable law pay higher yield spreads. In addition, when the law is favorable to lenders, there are significantly fewer covenant violations, and the repercussions of covenant violations—measured as changes in the borrower’s investment policy—are more severe. We also compare the characteristics of relevant parties across states, and the results provide support for the theory that there is a market for contracts similar to the market for incorporations.

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