Low-grade journal rankings are failing economics

Academic powerbrokers have downgraded non-neoclassical journals in spite of weaknesses apparent since the GFC. But scholars ignore non-orthodox economists at the discipline's peril.

The Australian Business Deans Council has just released its new ranking of the quality of academic journals in economics. This listing in turn is used to rank the quality of academic research.

A publication in a top-ranked A* journal earns serious revenue for the university where an academic is employed, and serious brownie points for the academic in terms of career and promotion prospects. A publication in a B-graded journal is worth much less; a C-graded is effectively “thanks for trying”. The many ungraded journals are ignored completely. So the rankings are a big deal for academics, and they strongly affect the direction of research by economists.

Given that mainstream economists completely failed to anticipate the global economic crisis that began in 2007-08, you’d imagine that this resulted in journals that publish non-mainstream economists being more highly ranked, wouldn’t you? After all, while mainstream journals like the American Economic Review were awash with articles discussing the wonders of the 'Great Moderation' and predicting continuing stability ahead – even after the crisis had begun – non-mainstream journals like the Journal of Post Keynesian Economics and the Journal of Economic Issues had contributions from authors like the late Wynne Godley warning that it was all going to end in tears – as it duly did. Surely then, non-mainstream journals deserve to be ranked more highly.

Dream on. The ABDC-proposed rankings harshly downgrade journals that publish non-mainstream economists. Table 1 shows the proposed downgrades of journals. The ones in bold are journals that have always specialised in publishing papers by non-mainstream economists – people like the late Hyman Minsky – or cover topics that play almost no role in modern economic theory – such as discussions of economic history and the development of economic thought over time.

Table 1:The ABDC's list of proposed downgrades for economics journals

Table ECO_B: Journal Downgrades Journal Title

Rating

FORM B Submission Reference*/Panel suggestions

1

Australian Economic History Review

A to B

UTS submission

2

BE Journal of Theoretical Economics

A* to A

ECO_FB_S_001

3

Journal of Economic Issues

A to B

UTS submission

4

Journal of Economic Surveys

A to B

UTS submission

5

Journal of Post Keynesian Economics

A to B

UTS submission

6

The Review of Black Political Economy

A to C

UTS submission

7

Revue Economique

A to B

UTS submission

8

The Economic History Review

A* to A

Panel suggestion

9

Journal of Risk and Uncertainty

A* to A

Panel suggestion

10

History of Political Economy

A to B

Panel suggestion

11

Fiscal Studies

A to B

Panel suggestion

12

ASEAN Economic Bulletin/Journal of Southeast Asian Economies

B to C

Panel suggestion

So what are the grounds for this downgrade? It’s hardly that the leading journals are the proven bastions of economic wisdom. In fact, they uniformly reject approaches to economics which don’t fit into the mainstream neoclassical straightjacket without even bothering to referee them, and this is despite the failure of papers that conform to that straightjacket to anticipate the crisis.

There’s one mechanical but effectively discriminatory reason for the downgrades. Journal rankings are largely based on the number of citations that articles get. Since the vast majority of economists are neoclassical, they read and cite each other’s articles – therefore neoclassical papers get many more citations than non-neoclassical papers.

It’s understandable that a mechanism like this is used, and it makes some sense in an open and mature discipline like biology or physics, or even in politics, where academics accept that there will be left and right wing views being proffered, and both deserve an airing. But in an immature and relatively closed discipline like economics, it means the majority rules.

That would not be a problem where the majority was right most of the time. But since they were spectacularly wrong, it is a problem. After the greatest failure of economics in its history, these revised rankings encourage the discipline to continue further down the road of failure. This is in strong contrast to what’s happening in the mainstream press, which is finally recognising the role of non-orthodox economists and the importance of changing the economic paradigm. The New York Times, for example, has recently published two features, one extolling the work of Hyman Minsky (and my role in extending his work), the other praising Wynne Godley.

So just at the time that the mainstream media is moving forward and appreciating the need for a new approach to economics, academic economics is happily moving backwards. This could be seen as a storm in an academic teacup of course, if it weren’t for the fact that economic theory affects the lives of billions if its advice is taken seriously by politicians. The Reinhart-Rogoff affair shows just how influential and damaging bad economic advice can be, since it gave politicians the excuse for austerity policies that economists now admit made the downturn in Europe much more severe than it would have been otherwise.

There’s another curious aspect to these downgrades. Notice that in Table 1, the ABDC attributes six of the downgrade suggestions to a submission from UTS. In fact, that simultaneously understates and overstates the role of UTS in recommending the downgrading of non-mainstream journals. Firstly, UTS recommended every downgrade of non-mainstream journals in the list – the committee just made its downgrade of two of them less severe than UTS recommended. So UTS played the leading role in downgrading non-mainstream journals.

But secondly, the ABDC’s public documents reveal that among these recommendations were all the product of one person. For example, a single person's recommendation to downgrade the History of Political Economy (the leading journal in the history of economic thought, known by its acronym HOPE ) from an A to a C was countered by the recommendations from three specialists in the history of economic thought – Professors William Coleman of the ANU and Tony Aspromorgos of Sydney University, and Alex Millmow from the University of Ballarat – that HOPE be upgraded from an A to an A*. Why, given such conflicting advice, did the ABDC not leave HOPE where it was as an A journal – or even go with the majority recommendation and promote it to an A*?

If this destruction of economics is allowed to go ahead, then the field of economics at universities in Australia will be made even narrower than it now is. Unfortunately that is likely to happen, and there’s little that the public can do about it, since they’re not eligible to comment on the ABDC’s rules that stipulate: "feedback must emanate from within Australia or New Zealand AND come from one of three relevant stakeholder groups: (1) a Business School/Faculty, or from a non-business school or faculty deemed to have legitimate interest in the FoR codes covered by the ABDC List; (2) a relevant Peak Body representing academics; (3) an individual academic with formal affiliation to a university (minimum of 0.5 FTE position)."

But I think the non-academic community should still have a good, hard look at this anyway. We expect our deans to at least apply some critical thought to their role, and surely this should have led them to consider that, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, suppressing the few journals that allowed non-mainstream economics to flourish was not a good idea.

Some questions to the Australian Business Deans Council might be appropriate. One might wonder how these downgrades are expected to contribute to the ABDC’s core mission of “the promotion of excellence in business education and research, and recognition of their value and contribution to the Australian economy and community in general”. 

Steve Keen is author of Debunking Economics and the blog Debtwatch and is developer of the Minsky software program.