Munger's Insights on Academic Publishing
By David Henderson
Duke University economics professor Michael Munger has an excellent article today at AIER titled “The Future of Academic Publishing.” There’s so much in it that it’s hard to summarize. He basically goes through the history of publishing, identifying the binding scarcity at each point and the implications of that scarcity, and then considers how the web really has changed things a lot.
On that basis he makes some predictions about what academia will look like in 20 years, and points out that even if he’s wrong, he’s right about his analysis of the current situation.
I would add one thing that makes the situation slightly less dire than Munger claims. And I emphasize “slightly.” We faculty who get to vote on tenure (in my case, since I’m retired, got to vote on tenure) do have one ability that is relevant for judging: we can read and think. I say it’s slight because in sitting through 24 years of tenure deliberations, I got the distinct impression that few of my colleagues read the work of those they were voting on and, instead, went with the outside letters and, more typically, the tenure committee’s recommendation. I did that for the first three or four years, but sometime in the mid-1990s, after voting on someone whose work I didn’t know and then learning later that it was weaker than I had thought, I committed to reading at least two published articles of each person I voted on. I think I kept that commitment in well over 90% of the cases from then on. And without that judgment, the process is often corrupt, with people voting for people they like rather than for people who do good work.
Munger’s article has also reminded of two things I’ve been thinking about over the last few years.
First, I notice how often young academics who have friended me on Facebook post excitedly when they get a “hit,” that is, an acceptance in an academic journal, but how rarely they say much about what’s in the article.
Second, I’m so glad that I committed to getting enough academic articles published to get tenure and then to be promoted to full professor, but not too many. That freed up time to write articles in places like the Wall Street Journal (53 so far, counting book reviews) and to follow large parts of the economics literature. Related to that, I remember the chairman of my department who told me in 1992 that I got tenure, having told me sometime before that or since (I’ve forgotten which), that he didn’t see the sense in putting zero weight on articles in the Wall Street Journal. He said that he, an economist, had had one in the Journal of Political Economy in the late 1970s and it didn’t seem to be clearly better than some of my WSJ pieces.