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Ellison has painstakingly documented the decline of articles published in top economics journals by authors working in the highest-ranked schools. These authors are continuing to publish, but are seeking other outlets, including unrefereed preprint and working paper servers.
There are several explanations for this trend, and Ellison is careful about not attributing what he has observed to a single theory. Still, there are two explanations that make empirical and theoretical sense:
- The Internet has allowed the certification and dissemination functions of journals to be disaggregated, permitting other services (like preprint and working paper servers), and networked search tools (like Google Scholar), to perform the function of disseminating research findings.
- Any economist will tell you that it is taking more time to get your work published in a top-economics journal. Submission to publication may take years in many cases, and reviewers are more eager to require multiple revisions from the authors. For those economists who have already built a reputation, the benefits of going through the certification process may not be worth the effort, at least not for all of their work.
More top economists may realize that the publication hassles they have been enduring are not necessary. The peer-review process may also be subject to unraveling: as more top economists withdraw from the process, the signal that publication in a given journal provides is devalued, and this may lead to further withdrawals.
Since the prestige of a journal is heavily influenced by a small number of influential papers, losing these contributions can be significant in a publishing environment where authors want their work associated with other high-profile authors. This is what Ellison means by “unraveling,” a negative feedback loop in which market confidence is eroded. Think collapse on Wall Street, only much slower.
Ellison concludes with a warning on what such a decline of peer review could mean, especially if no alternative certification system is ready to step in.
One could imagine that new institutions may arise and perform many of the same functions as the current peer-review system more efficiently. Given how central peer-review has been to academic research over the past century, however, the thought that the current system might collapse before any successor is clearly established is troubling.