Sunday, March 15, 2009

Science journals and science journalism

After my recent post The production of news: The NEJM news cycle about the effects of the New England Journal of Medicine's news embargo policy on the production of news stories, I corresponded with two of the young leaders in the new economics of media, Matt Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro. They pointed out that, aside from increasing the number of stories, an embargo might increase their quality, by preventing a "race to the bottom" in which the shortest, least well reported stories can come out before more carefully researched stories. With an embargo, reporters don't have an incentive to rush to publish, they know they can work on their story up until the embargo expires.

A separate issue was raised in an article Matt pointed me to, one that I had already noticed sharply distinguishes scientific journals like the NEJM and Science, which publish short articles weekly, from journals like the ones economists normally publish in, which publish longer articles, much less frequently, and with much longer delay. In Ingelfinger, Embargoes, and Other Controls on the Dissemination of Science News, Vincent Kiernan explores not only the effect of embargos, but also of the "Ingelfinger rule" (named after a former NEJM editor), which is that NEJM, Science, etc. won't publish an article that has in any substantial way been made available before publication. So, in particular, papers appearing in those journals can't first be posted on the web as working papers.

This is in stark contrast to the way economists work; the usual practice these days for an economist who finishes a paper is to put it up on the web even before it has been submitted for publication. Economics journals function as the archival sources of papers, not as the place they are first distributed. And this predates the internet; economists have communicated via pre-publication working papers at least since I entered the business, after the invention of the printing press, but before the word processor.

Partly this difference has to do with the speed of publication. A paper accepted by Science or the NEJM will likely appear not too many months after it has been submitted, while the process at most economics journals takes well over a year (and two is not so unusual). As a result, the weekly science journals seek to be a combination of science journals and science news sources, in a way that economics journals do not.

The difference between the two was first brought home to me in 1990, when I received a call from the then editor of Science, which turned into a proposal that I write an article for them summarizing work I had done studying various labor markets for new doctors. I had circulated a working paper on that subject in 1989, and at the time of the phone call from Science it was forthcoming in the American Economic Review, in 1991. I told the editor of Science that I would have to check with the AER, but that if I wrote the article, it would state clearly that it was a summary of the longer AER article. He replied that he would like to have the article, provided the short summary in Science came out before the original article in the AER.

I called Orley Ashenfelter, who was then the editor of the AER, and he said something very close to "go ahead and give Science the summary, a five page paper can't scoop a twenty five page paper." His feeling was that as long as the AER had the definitive version, there was no problem. And that is how I came to have two papers on that subject, published out of order, in

Roth, A.E., "New Physicians: A Natural Experiment in Market Organization," Science, 250, 1990, 1524-1528.
Roth, A.E., "A Natural Experiment in the Organization of Entry Level Labor Markets: Regional Markets for New Physicians and Surgeons in the U.K.," American Economic Review, Vol. 81, June 1991, 415-440.

(These papers were posted to the web so long ago that they are html versions made from the original text files, rather than pdf versions of the actual publications.)

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