Books, journals and incentive structures

by Henry Farrell on March 29, 2004

As Kieran “says”:, social scientists are very easily seduced by their models, even when these models are actively misleading. Good social science should not only develop models, it should test them. Which is all in the way of an extended health warning for the following argument, which I’ve no intention of testing, and am not even sure I subscribe to myself. It’s indisputable that US social scientists look down their noses at their mainland European colleagues, who in turn are quite naturally resentful. Americans often justify their snobbishness by pointing to the failure of most mainland European academics to publish in the top journals of the field (which are usually US or UK based). Europeans tend instead to publish in edited volumes or non-peer reviewed journals. What I want to argue is that this difference isn’t because Europeans are any stupider than Americans, or less able to write interesting pieces – it’s because both Europeans and Americans are responding rationally to different systems of resource allocation.

Consider the major differences between peer reviewed publication, and publishing a piece in (say) an edited volume from an university press. The first is all about burnishing your own independent reputation as a researcher and a scholar. If you publish an article in one of the top journals in your field, you’ve demonstrated your ability to conduct research that meets the (supposedly) disinterested standards of your peers. Publishing a chapter in an edited volume is quite different. Except in unusual cases, you don’t enhance your own independent reputation as a researcher very much by publishing a book-chapter. Because the controls are fairly lax (edited volumes often aren’t peer reviewed, and when they are, the standards are usually quite low), outsiders aren’t likely to think very much more of you as a scholar for publishing a book chapter. What it does is to enhance the reputation of the _editor_ of the volume, who has another book that she can put on her curriculum vitae. Thus, when you publish a chapter in an edited volume, you’re usually doing it as a favour to the editor of the volume in question.

What this means, I reckon, is that academics in market-based systems will rationally choose to publish in journals whenever they can. In a relatively impersonal academic marketplace, you want to signal your individual accomplishments – your ability to publish, and thus bring lustre (and additional resources) to the institution that you’re working in. This is your best way to persuade people to hire you, to promote you, and to give you research leaves and other goodies. But if you’re in an academic system where advancement depends on personal contacts rather than a semi-impersonal marketplace, your incentives are going to be quite different. Publishing in peer reviewed journals is often going to be a waste of resources. What you want to do is to show potential employers that the big gorillas in your field on your side. One good way to do this is through gift exchange – through doing them favours (publishing chapters in their edited volumes) in the presumption that they will eventually return them. Thus, you have little incentive to make the major investment of time and resources that it would take to publish in a major peer-reviewed journal. Instead, if you want to get a good job, it makes much more sense to publish in books edited by important figures in your field. In a sense, your attractiveness to employers doesn’t depend on your intellectual prowess – it depends on your connections.

As I say, I don’t know how far I want to push this argument – at the very, very best, it’s a crude approximation. But it does accord somewhat with my perceptions of the North American and continental European systems (I’ve worked in both for substantial periods of time). To the extent that it’s true, it suggests that the key explanatory variable for different patterns of academic publishing isn’t language differences, or even differences in academic training – it’s incentive structures. This would not only explain the paucity of Europeans publishing in top journals. It would explain the difficulties that some of the few Europeans who do publish in these journals have in getting good jobs at home, especially in Southern Europe. If they haven’t invested enough time in making the ‘barons’ happy, they’re liable to have enormous difficulty in getting jobs, no matter how good their publication records appear to be in objective terms.

Update: see Timothy Burke’s more general remarks on “incentives in academia”:



eszter 03.29.04 at 10:12 pm

That’s an interesting approach and does help explain why people in various places would choose to pursue the various types of publications.

Here’s a question though: how does a young new scholar get to the point of being invited to publish a paper in the edited volume of a bigshot? How can such a young scholar break into the field in the book-publishing context?

I’m not saying that journal publishing is completely meritocratic (for one thing, it seems quite fluky) as I suspect it helps if you’re an old friend of the editor or work in the same department as he/she does vs a young new scholar submitting his or her first piece. That said, the journal process seems to leave a bit more room for random people to get their work out and noticed.


John Quiggin 03.29.04 at 10:20 pm

An excellent analysis, though I think cultural norms are also important. Most of the time the two are aligned and it’s hard to tell which is dominant.

A closely-related issue is that of specialisation which is strongly favored in the US, to the extent that I’ve been told that, if I were to apply for a US job, it would be good idea to delete many of my publications from my CV. It’s my impression that cultural norms outside the US place a good deal of weight on the idea that academics should have a broad command of their own discipline at least. This requires a lot of reading that does not translate into publications of any kind – it’s not clear whether the norm is effectively reinforced by incentives.


Tobias Schwarz 03.29.04 at 10:41 pm

Eszter, yes, knowing both Germany and the UK, I’m fairly confident to say that the German system is far more hierarchically organised.

On the general argument, I think this is an interesting way to look at it. Yet I still belive that language market size is the most important explanatory variable. Where there’s familiarity with publishing in English, journal publications increase, if I’m not mistaken.

And I think there’s a reason this is happening in smaller countries rather than in bigger ones. Why risk exposure on the world market if you can live quite happily in your niche market – say Germany, or France, especially if international reputation has usually hardly any tangible effect on researchers incomes over here – certainly in the social sciences.


Timothy Burke 03.29.04 at 10:51 pm

Compulsive tooting of own horn here, but I was musing about academic incentive structures myself a while back ( ) I don’t quite understand why more normative claims about academic life (why this happens or that doesn’t happen) aren’t referred back to some incredibly tangible and explicit incentive structures. Perhaps partly because those incentive structures are cloaked in mysterious processes of tenure evaluation or peer review and partly because academics like to think they’re above that sort of thing. But incentive as an explanatory logic was ever a way to explain why people do what they do, this is it.


Erik 03.30.04 at 1:49 am

I think there is a good bit of truth to this analysis. In parts of Dutch academia there are attempts to change this by making government research funding available only for members of “research schools” and making membership in those research schools contingent on publications in foreign peer-reviewed journals. Clearly they think incentive structure matters.


dsquared 03.30.04 at 6:22 am

Anglo-American social scientists believe all sorts of bizarre things about Europe … it never ceases to amaze me how many British and American economists believe that French economists don’t use mathematics. (The opposite is true, btw; French economists are very often graduates of the elite engineering schools and tend to err on the other side).


Another Damned Medievalist 03.30.04 at 9:12 pm

And to take us off on a slightly different tangent, if you are a(n) historian, are you a humanities person or a social science person? I thought my degree was in the humanities, but most of the jobs advertised in the US, especially the West, put us in Social Science. Plus, the Americanists all seem to have to take statistics to graduate, while the pre-modern Europeanists and non-Westernists have to learn languages … I’m so confused!

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