Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A veil of comradeship and colleagueship 

I was going to write something about Angus' post on peer-review and the lessons of Climategate, but much of this has been covered by Stephen Karlson, who has organized a great deal of the latter critique. He's linked pretty much all I've read.

Let me confine myself then to peer-review. I'm always amazed how well the process works. For the most part in economics referees are not paid to review academic articles. There is no review of the referee's quality except for overworked editors. My colleagues here at SCSU have stories of bad referees and bad editors who fail to read or grasp a paper. My answer ("said by the tenured professor"; yes, duly noted, though not born one) is that it's your job to make your paper so compelling that even the most wooly-headed referee sees its insight. Or as I tell my students "You can write whatever you want, but nobody has to read you. You must persuade them to."

But it's also true that at some journals you know who the referee is likely to be. That's why most of the use more than one, but still it's possible to get an editor who just decides your paper isn't worth publication, even when the referees do.

My own story is related to Angus' insofar as it's another paper on central bank independence. There was a paper written by an economist whose work in CBI was widely known, who now was applying it to a different group of economies than the industrialized economies that we had developed the theory for. His paper was in a top-15 journal. I thought the theory was misapplied to these economies (unlike Angus, I have had several papers supporting CBI as an anti-inflation device at the time, but I don't get to deliver those papers to the World Bank.) I talk to a few people who say "you should write a comment to that journal" which, for the nonacademic reader, means I write an article to take issue with something published in that same article. This journal charges $150 at the time (more now) for submitting an article to them. I decide to take my shot, write the piece, enclose the check and mail it off. It first turns out the editor doesn't like comments, but says in this case he would do so but would send it to the author of the paper I'm critiquing. We exchange letters, with him asking for clarification and me answering. Then ... nothing. More than a year passes, at which point I had written three times to the journal asking what had happened. One day the envelope that scares and delights appears, with the embossing of the journal on the return address. I open it to find ... a check for $150. No explanation. Just a check.

I didn't even bother writing back a WTF letter. I took the paper and my advice, and turned it into a chapter in my book. It will get a lot less attention, I guess, but nobody owes me readers.

If what Climategate teaches is the inherent flaws of the peer-review process, that would be worth as much as sticking another fork in the hockey stick. It relies on people motivated by professional ethics, people who choose to be academics for a variety of reasons that would make you skeptical of trusting them with your car, let alone with the search for truth. Ludwig von Mises made this point about how most intellectuals are anti-capitalism:
It is the same with many lawyers and teachers, artists and actors, writers and journalists, architects and scientific research workers, engineers and chemists. They, too, feel frustrated be cause they are vexed by the ascendancy of their more successful colleagues, their former schoolfellows and cronies. Their resentment is deepened by precisely those codes of professional conduct and ethics that throw a veil of comradeship and colleagueship over the reality of competition.