I thought it was just me

John Cochrane is to me one of the modern superstars of economics, a deep thinker with a genuine ability to see things that others miss. He is also about as well known as anyone in the profession, which is why I was surprised to find he is amongst the mortals when trying to get his papers published. This is from A paper, and publishing which is about his own trials in getting things through the publications mill.

Even at my point in life, the moment of publishing an academic paper is a one to celebrate, and a moment to reflect. . . .

Today’s thoughts, though, are about the state of academic publication.

I wrote the paper in the spring and summer of 2013, posted it to the internet, and started giving talks. Here’s the story of its publication:

September 2013. Submitted to AER; NBER and SSRN working papers issued. Blog post.
June 2014. Rejected from AER. 3 good referee reports and thoughtful editor report.
October 2014. Submit revision to QJE.
December 2014. Rejected from QJE. 3 more thoughtful referee reports and editor report.
January 2015. Submit revision to JME.
April 2016. Revise and resubmit from JME. 3 detailed referee reports and long and thoughtful editor report.
June 2016. Send revision to JME
July 2017. Accept with minor revisions from JME. Many (good) comments from editor
August 2017. Final revision to JME
September 2017. Proofs, publication online.
December 2017. Published.

This is about typical. Most of my papers are rejected at 2-3 journals before they find a home, and 3-5 years from first submission to publication is also typical. It’s typical for academic publishing in general. . . .

Once accepted, my paper sped through the JME. Another year or two in the pipeline between acceptance and publication is typical.

His conclusion is that the paper is better today than it originally was – it has now been “perfected” – but the reason for having even started the paper four years ago has disappeared. It also eats into one’s time like nothing on earth.

Such perfection comes at a big cost, in the time of editors and referees, my time, and most of all the cost that the conversation has now moved on.

The sum length of nine referee reports, four reports by three editors, is much longer than the paper. Each one did a serious job, and clearly spent at least a day or two reading the paper and writing thoughtful comments. Moreover, though the reports were excellent, past the first three they by and large made the same points. Was all this effort really worthwhile? I think below on how to economize on referee time.

What a fantastic waste of effort by so many over so long for so little. But I do like this particular suggestion because it creates an incentive structure for both the referee and the author of the original paper.

Journals should be the forum where competing views are hashed out.

They should be part of the “process of formalizing well argued different points of views — not refereeing “the truth.” We dont know the truth. But hopefully get closer to it by arguing. [In public, and in the journals] The neverending refereeing [and editing and publishing] process is shutting down the conversation.”

When I read well argued papers that I disagree with, I tend to write “I disagree with just about everything in this paper. But it’s a well-argued case for a common point of view. If my devastating report does not convince the author, the paper should be published, and I should write up my objections as a response paper.”

I take the pain of referees’ reports as just the way it is. But maybe it doesn’t have to be the way it is after all.

BTW if you are interested, here is the paper John has just published which will be online till November 9: The new-Keynesian liquidity trap. What an amazing effort for a paper I would never read under any circumstances – I could barely read the abstract. But then we would have to go into the value of most articles in most journals, and that is a very different story indeed. And if you don’t believe me, here is the abstract:

Many new-Keynesian models produce a deep recession with deflation at the zero bound. These models also make unusual policy predictions: Useless government spending, technical regress, capital destruction, and forward guidance can raise output. Moreover, these predictions are larger as prices become less sticky and as changes are expected further in the future. I show that these predictions are strongly affected by equilibrium selection. For the same interest-rate path, equilibria that bound initial jumps predict mild inflation, small output variation, negative multipliers, small effects of far-off expectations and a smooth frictionless limit. Fiscal policy considerations suggest the latter equilibria.

And now, according to John, none of it matters in the slightest anyway at all.

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