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Blogs are better than academic journals…

January 19, 2012

… for many things, including disseminating new knowledge, advancing knowledge, resolving practical problems and learning about things. The main purpose for academic journals these days seems to be to increase the prestige of the person publishing.

Debate is very important for advancing knowledge – There is no debate in academic journals. Research is published as if it is established truth. Some of the most profound insights I have gained in my study of economics have been from following an intense debate between several highly skilled practitioners, and I am not alone. To move the state of knoweledge, you need to convince, and you can’t convince people without actively engaging them.

Feedback is important for learning – There is no feedback mechanism in journals, but blogs have comments. Conversations in the comments section provides feedback to both the author and the people reading the blog. If you write something that is wrong, commenters will typically let you know, as well as provide feedback on what to improve. The tone of discussion, in my experience, has usually been polite and respectful.

Multiple levels are important for teaching – In order to fully learn a concept, you need many levels. Basic, intermediate and advanced, not just the more advanced new research. The level of debate on blogs ranges from simplistic to far more subtle and sophisticated than is in any textbook, even at the graduate level. The main reason, I think, is because textbooks are typically written by one or maybe two people, so they only have the viewpoints of a few people included.

Beating a Dead Horse on Math – A long time ago, people wrote math as a way of clarifying verbal arguments. Today, people write math because they want to conceal the fact that they have nothing to say. Marshall was right in that you should be able to translate your argument into math if you really understand it. But likewise you should be able to translate your math into words. For example, Woodford (who is an extremely good economist), gets a multiplier in a flexible price model by assuming that the government is just really good at producing things and that the central bank can perfectly control the interest rate. Well, sure, but that doesn’t tell us anything about reality. It took Nick Rowe, a blogger and a really good economist, a lot of effort to figure out what precisely he was saying.

Disemenation – A journal article from JSTOR can cost in the neighborhood of $50. That’s insane. A solid textbook costs around $100 and usually includes summaries and insights from dozens, if not hundreds, of journal articles. I was thinking of a list of journal articles that are worth $50. At first, I came up with a few articles I really like, which would have been cool for status affiliation, but honestly no 20 page article is worth $50. A journal is not a good avenue for getting people to read your work. Most articles go unread and uncited, and if an article is good enough to make it to a top-tier journal, it would have been good enough to become a popular blog post anyway. Journals are more a way to signal that you are good at playing the game of academic publishing rather than a way to spread your ideas. I bet Marginal Revolution gets more hits than the QJE, JPE, Econometrica and the AER combined.

Further Reading:
Paul Krugman on blogs vs journals.
Cheap Talk on the perfect journal
DSHR on Peer review
The Guardian on Academic publishing
Academics should blog
The Virtues of Blogging

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