Academic reputation, alien news service, slain by World Wide Web

What do the Weekly World News and the academic tradition of peer review have in common? The Internet is their mortal enemy

Andrew Leonard
July 27, 2007 2:58AM (UTC)

Shed a tear for the soon-to-be-shuttered Weekly World News, a victim, said its publisher, American Media, of "the challenges in the retail and wholesale magazine marketplace that have impacted the newsstand."



Come on -- I don't care how garishly inspired your headlines are, you have zero chance of competing with a distribution medium that offers free access to more bizarre weirdness in one hour of Web surfing than most human beings are capable of absorbing in their entire lifetimes. Cyborg monkeys caught in the act of peeing on your begonias are a dime a dozen, online. The Weekly World News simply has no reason to be. Which could explain why it lost a whopping $160 million in 2006.

I could not stop thinking about the demise of the Weekly World News this afternoon, while reading a new paper by M.I.T. economist Glenn Ellison, "Is Peer Review in Decline?" (Thanks to Dani Rodrik for the tip.)

Ellison's thesis is that elite economists no longer need to be published in elite journals because they can easily attract attention to their research simply by putting a pdf of their latest working paper online. He supports this thesis with data indicating that top economists are responsible for a shrinking share of the articles published in the best journals. And while this might be good for promoting public access to the latest in economic thought, it's bad, suggests Ellison, for the time-honored academic practice of validating the merit of new research through rigorously mediated peer-review.

The changes that have occurred over the past decade are modest in magnitude. Economists at top departments are still spending a great deal of effort publishing in top peer-reviewed journals and publishing many papers there. One could imagine, however, that much larger changes will be seen in the near future. Technologies for disseminating papers will continue to improve. 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. Even a partial unraveling could have a significant impact on the course of economic research.

... 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.


When I first saw mention of Ellison's paper, I thought, wait a minute, didn't I read something like this a few months ago? In fact, didn't I blog it? Sure enough, last year, three different economists crunched almost identical data in a paper ominously titled "Are Elite Universities Losing Their Competitive Edge?" These economists looked at the same data point -- the decreasing representation of the top economic departments in the top journals, but came up with a markedly different interpretation.

I quote myself:


According to E. Han Kim, Adair Morse and Luigi Zingales, before the advent of the Internet, faculty productivity was highly correlated with physical proximity to high-quality academics. So, back in the day, faculty at elite schools produced more than faculty at non-elite schools. (The professors, who limit their research to economists, measured productivity by the number of articles written, raw counts of pages published, citations to published articles, and the quality of the journal in which the articles were published.)

But the Internet has enabled collaboration without physical proximity. So an up-and-coming new-growth-theory theorist at the University of Florida can coauthor a paper with a Stanford or Harvard or Chicago professor without having to move across the country. This is a great thing -- the democratization of education. As the authors note, "If improvements in communication technology have made low-cost access at a distance possible for production purposes, then firms have lost a powerful instrument to regulate and control the accumulation and utilization of knowledge."


There are several conclusions to be drawn from the conflicting interpretations of data. One is that economists spend an inordinate amount of time analyzing academic publication patterns. Another is that whether you are a hoity-toity elite economics journal or a trashy tabloid, the Internet is going to beat you over the head with a big stick.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Economics Globalization How The World Works U.s. Economy

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