Two publication cultures: economics versus physics

In a recent blog post, professor Roger Farmer comments on the publishing process in economics. He writes that economic journal publishing is “a process that is highly centralised around five leading journals. These are the American Economic Review, the Quarterly Journal of Economics, the Review of Economic Studies, Econometrica and the Journal of Political Economy. For a young newly appointed lecturer, publishing a paper in one of these top five journals is a pre-requisite for promotion in a leading economic department […]”

However, getting a paper published in one of those five journals takes a lot of time. From Farmer’s post again: “In economics, the expected time from writing a working paper to publication in a journal is around four years. That assumes that the researcher is shooting for a top journal and is prepared to accept several rejections along the way. When a paper is finally accepted it must, more often than not, be extensively rewritten to meet the proclivities of the referees.”

Based on conversations with physicist/complexity theorist Doyne Farmer, Roger Farmer contrasts the publishing process in economics with publishing in physics: “In physics, a researcher is rightfully upset if she does not receive feedback within a month. And that feedback involves short comments and an up or down decision. In physics, there is far less of a hierarchy of journals. Publications are swift and many journals have equal weight in promotion and tenure decisions.”

Then professor Farmer speculates why economics and physics have such a different culture. He suspects is has to do with the fact that physics is driven by experiments. In macroeconomics, “there are often many competing explanations for the same limited facts and it would be destructive to progress if every newly minted graduate student were to propose their own new theory to explain those facts. Instead, internal discipline is maintained by a priestly caste who monitor what can and cannot be published.” (emphasis mine)

Farmer ends his post with an appeal to his fellow (macro)economists:

Now would be a very good time to re-evaluate our culture and perhaps, just perhaps, we can learn something from physics.

As someone who graduated in physics and then switched to finance, I can say Farmer’s description of the publication process in physics is accurate. Authors typically receive a decision on their paper a couple of weeks after submission to a journal. The feedback ranges from (a) accepted as is, (b) needs minor revisions, (c) needs major revisions, or (d) rejected.

When the reviewers accept the revised paper, it is published. Assuming minor revisions, the whole process from submission to publication takes about 3 months. It seems crazy that it would take four years to get a scientific paper published.

What I find very weird in Farmer’s account is how much economists care about prestige. As a physicist, I have never cited an article because it was written by a “big name” in the field or because it was published in a top journal.

To explore the different cultures in economics and physics a bit further, I have looked up the publications of the Nobel Prize1 winners in both disciplines in Google Scholar. I have limited the sample to the past ten years. For each scholar, the journal in which his/her most cited paper was published is shown. The number of authors who wrote said paper is given between brackets. If the Nobel Prize winner has work with more citations that was not published in a journal but in a book, this is indicated as [+Book].

Here are the results, ranked by the year the Nobel Prize was awarded:

ECONOMICS

2016

Oliver Hart, Journal of Political Economy (2)
Bengt Holmström, The Review of Economic Studies (1)

2015

Angus Deaton, The American Economic Review (2) [+Book]

2014

Jean Tirole, Journal of Political Economy (2) [+Book]

2013

Lars Peter Hansen, Econometrica (1)
Eugene Fama, The Journal of Finance (2)
Robert Shiller, The American Economic Review (1) [+Book]

2012

Lloyd Shapley, The American Mathematical Monthly (2) [+Book]
Alvin Roth, The American Economic Review (2) [+Book]

2011

Thomas Sargent, Journal of Political Economy (2) [+Book]
Christopher Sims, Econometrica (1)

2010

Peter A. Diamond, The American Economic Review (1)
Christopher Pissarides, The Review of Economic Studies (2) [+Book]
Dale Mortensen, The Review of Economic Studies (2)

2009

Oliver E. Williamson, The Journal of Law and Economics (1) [+Book]
Elinor Ostrom, Science (3) [+Book]

2008

Paul Krugman, Journal of Political Economy (1)

2007

Eric Maskin, Econometrica (2)
Roger Myerson, Mathematics of operations research (1) [+Book]
Leonid Hurwicz, The American Economic Review (1) [+Book]

 

PHYSICS

2016

Michael Kosterlitz, Journal of Physics C: Solid State Physics (2)
David Thouless, Journal of Physics C: Solid State Physics (2)
Duncan Haldane, Physical Review Letters (1)

2015

Arthur McDonald, Physical Review Letters (150)
Takaaki Kajita, Physical Review Letters (128)

2014

Shuji Nakamura, Applied Physics Letters (3) [+Book]
Hiroshi Amano, Applied Physics Letters (4)
Isamu Akasaki, Applied Physics Letters (4)

2013

Peter Higgs, Physical Review Letters (1)
François Englert, Physical Review Letters (2)

2012

David Wineland, Physical Review Letters (5)
Serge Haroche, Physical Review Letters (8) [+Review article in Rev. Mod. Phys.]

2011

Adam Riess, The Astronomical Journal (20)
Brian Schmidt, The Astronomical Journal (20)
Saul Perlmutter, The Astrophysical Journal (32)

2010

Andre Geim, Science (8)
Konstantin Novoselov, Science (8)

2009

George E. Smith, Bell Labs Technical Journal (2)
Willard Boyle, Bell Labs Technical Journal (2)
Charles Kao, Proceedings of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (2)

2008

Yoichiro Nambu, Physical Review (2)
Toshihide Maskawa, Progress of Theoretical Physics (2)
Makoto Kobayashi, Progress of Theoretical Physics (2)

2007

Peter Grünberg, Physical review B (4)
Albert Fert, Physical Review Letters (9)

 

We can immediately see some trends.

Of the 20 economics Nobel Prize winners, 15 published their most-cited work2 in one of the five top journals.3

In physics, the dominance of the journal Physical Review Letters is clear. Of the 25 physics Nobel Prize winners, 8 published their most-cited work in Physical Review Letters. However, there is a wide diversity of journals that publish Nobel Prize worthy articles.

Whereas half of the economists spread their ideas (the gospel of the priestly class?) through books, the physicists communicate their results through papers. PhD students in physics read journal articles instead of books. Besides, experimental/observational data are always more important for making progress than words.4

Another remarkable difference between economics and physics is the number of authors. Most economists publish alone or with one co-author. Among physicists, that behavior is only typical for theorists. Most Nobel Prize winning results in physics have been obtained by teams. In astronomy and particle physics, it’s not unusual that hundreds or even thousands of scientists are involved in the project.5

Finally, you might have noticed that a lot of breakthroughs in physics are published as letters. In my experience, physics papers are usually short (3 to 10 pages). Economics papers are much longer. If you don’t believe me, check it yourself in the current edition of the American Economic Review and Physical Review Letters.

So to return to Roger Farmer’s suggestion that macroeconomists re-evaluate their culture and learn something from physics, a physicist would advise: focus on data, stop being obsessed with prestigious journals, stimulate team work, and keep it short.

Update 9 October 2017:

The 2017 Nobel Prizes confirm the trends described in the post above.

Economics has one single winner, Richard Thaler. His most cited work was published in The Journal of Finance and had one co-author.

The 2017 Nobel Prize in physics was shared by three physicists:

Rainer Weiss, The Astrophysical Journal (28)6
Kip Thorne, Physical Review Letters (1144) [+Book]
Barry Barish, Physical Review Letters (1144)

However, their paper in Physical Review Letters had more than a thousand (!!!) authors.

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In other news, my book Bankers are people, too is not written for Nobel Prize winners. Because I explain banking from scratch, the book is accessible to readers without knowledge of economics. True to my physics roots, I cover a lot of ground (from credits to offshore tax havens to quantitative easing) in a limited number of pages. Check it out!


  1. Yes, I know the economics award isn’t a real Nobel Prize.
  2. Excluding books
  3. It’s actually the four top journals, as none of the economists published their most-cited work in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.
  4. Reading old papers has its merits, but that discussion would lead us too far.
  5. The Nobel Prize in a certain field and year can be shared by three scientists at most. Obviously, the three person maximum rule is problematic when many more people directly contributed to the result that is celebrated with a Nobel.
  6. Weiss’ most cited paper is currently about COBE measurements. The paper on the observation of gravitational waves will certainly eclipse that COBE paper in terms of number of citations.

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