Thursday, January 20, 2011

On Intellectual Masturbation

Do academic journals matter any more?

By Marc Lee
The Progessive Economics Forum
January 20th, 2011

Intellectual Masturbation by Caroline Caux-Evans
I do a lot of reading and writing as part of my job. But though I work for a research policy institute, I find I have little need for academic journals, and if anything, academic journals have made themselves less and less relevant over time.

It used to be the case that academic journals represented essential sources of literature if one wanted to get a handle on any particular topic. In the days of the Internet, that comparative advantage has dissipated. This may be because many academic journals only participate on-line through a payment wall. I do sometimes come across an article I want, only to have the journal seek a preposterous fee for accessing it. This seems odd as the whole point of academic papers is supposed to be advancing the state of knowledge and getting your own ideas as widespread as possible.

If I really want a particular paper, I can often get a copy from the author’s website. Failing that, I walk down the street to Simon Fraser University’s downtown campus, where my alumni ID can get it for me. In practice, I rarely bother if I have to go out of my way. It is true that many journals are putting their content up for free – that is, leveraging the power of the Internet – but this still seems the exception rather than the norm.

A deeper concern is that as academia has pursued finer distinctions of study, the research work of vast parts of the academic establishment has turned into intellectual masturbation that paradoxically adds little to our collective understanding. In economics, there is a plague of theoretical papers that trot out, in the words of Nobel Laureate Wassily Leontieff, “more or less plausible but really arbitrary assumptions, to elegantly demonstrated but irrelevant conclusions”. There are empirical papers that have degenerated into incomprehensible statistical tracts far removed from interesting policy questions, and anchored in bad theory to boot. But there is a shortage of research that takes empirical observations as the basis for theory.

I do not want to paint all economists or academics with this brush as there are some phenomenal researchers out there. But they are unfortunately a tiny fraction of the total. And while economics seems to be an easy target for this criticism, the same problems appear in other parts of the social sciences and arts (I’m tempted to give a free pass to science, but have you seen the nonsense that passes as theoretical physics?).

Academic journals need to rethink how they work to be more relevant and responsive in a world where blogs and websites allow users a rich array of research. There is a place for peer review to set a higher standard of scholarship and this is an obvious niche for journals. But first, tear down that wall and let the sun shine in.

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