- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Talk about your inflationary pressures.

In the competitive world of economic studies, an article placed in a top-tier publication can easily grab attention, secure funding or win a choice university post for an ambitious academic.

This coveted space is effectively shrinking, however, because economic articles are exploding in size. According to an academic study, the median length of an article in five of the nation’s most prestigious economic journals has tripled since the 1970s, when thinkers such as Milton Friedman and James Tobin were revolutionizing the discipline.

The result: Top journals such as the Review of Economic Studies and the Quarterly Journal of Economics are publishing 25 percent fewer articles because of the increase in the average length. The situation has become so extreme that the American Economic Review has instituted a limit on the length of submissions — 40 pages for papers with 1.5-line spacing and 50 pages for double-spaced articles.

“The trends have been similar at all five journals and also across fields,” researchers David Card and Stefano DellaVigna said in a survey for the Journal of Economic Perspectives, “leading to widespread concern about the allocation of journal space and the readability of articles.”

Mr. Card, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a phone interview that the wordiness among economists “reflects a tremendous shift from mainly theoretical research to much more empirical research.”

Instead of focusing only on ideas, Mr. Card said, economists have been more likely to manipulate economic environments and gather data. These articles involve more than just a hypothesis; academics also include extensive descriptions of the methods of fact-gathering that they use to reach their conclusions.

Theoretical work also has grown. Mr. Card said it is surprising but does not account for most of the overall increase in length.

It wasn’t always thus.

“The Wealth of Nations” isn’t a quick read, but many seminal works by economists such as Thomas Robert Malthus and Robert Mundell were far shorter than modern economics articles.

Though Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto — one of the most famous and influential theoretical works of the field — set up an entirely new economic system, it was short by today’s journal standards. The original text, in an English translation obtained from Marxists.org, takes 34 single-spaced pages. Median lengths of today’s papers in top journals extend to 40 to 50 pages.

“The way these articles are written is very detailed,” Mr. Card said. “The authors spend a lot of time explaining an idea so that everything’s clear.”

He notes that the most prestigious economic journals have long periods of peer review and limited space to showcase the works of many economists. Longer articles hogging more page space exacerbate this problem, though Mr. Card said, “I don’t think anyone would say they’re crowding anyone else out.”

There are few instances of top five journals trying to accommodate for this trend. Journals sometimes publish more frequently than they once did.

“There are also lots of alternative outlets. There are journals online, in other places. They’re widely known, and people know where to find them,” Mr. Card said.

The move to trim the lengths of articles has had mixed results. Authors forced to fit the limits at one journal rarely made any real cuts — deleting a chart here, changing a margin there.

“People will produce what you ask for,” Mr. Card said. “We can often get papers in that format with relatively minor changes.”

Economic articles traditionally have single authors. In other lab-intensive fields such as biology, an article might have five or more listed authors. As the page lengths of articles have increased, however, economists are collaborating more often and raising author counts, Mr. Card said.

The result: Even though fewer articles get the nod for publication, more economists are getting credit for being published. In a field where academic advancement and tenure decisions may be tipped by a candidate’s publication record, those editorial decisions could have some direct real-world consequences.

“Economics has a different style of research,” Mr. Card said. “But there are more authors on articles, and for the younger people, they think that’s good.”

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