12 July 2011

Elite Syncopations

For those not familiar with the working of universities this post may seem rather obscure, but in reality it explains one crucial mechanism used by neoclassical economists to ensure that the routes to publication and promotion are controlled by their own. It explains how orthodoxy maintains its hold on the economics profession.

This is a large claim made for a research paper presented at the recent Association for Heterodox Economics conference in Nottingham by Harry Bloch, from Curtin University in Perth, Australia. It traced how Australian economists were involved in the process of deciding the quality of different pieces of research produced by their peers. In Australia this process is transparent; in the UK it is not. Hence the focus on scholars on the other side of the world.

The academics were told to rank the journals they commonly read into four categories; it was suggested that they should have 5% in A* (Nobel Prize material), 15% in A, 30% in B and 50% in C. The first conclusion from Table 5 is that economists are very hard on themselves: they considered a full 60% of journals in the also-rans category, a much lower percentage than other disciplines.

But it also demonstrates the domination of the field by proponents of econometrics. The method of regression analysis is the fast route to promotion. A mathematical model is always ranked more highly in terms of esteem than a paper which relates to a real-world problem, such as the financial crisis for example. Theory is rated well, with applied economics – that area which deals with policy – less so. Meanwhile ‘other economics’, such as that which actually questions the status quo, receives the lowest rating, with no journals featuring in the A* category at all.

It is also important to note that these were not everyday academics but Professors and members of professional societies. These are the guardians of orthodoxy, and their own work is likely to be in the field of econometrics and economic theory that presently dominate. As the table shows, none of the journals that covered heterodox economics was included in the A* ranking, making it extremely difficult for those outside the mainstream to achieve research funding. The process of ranking specifically excluded heterodox economists, although they were identified as a specific group - the only group to be excluded.

The second table (Table 7) illustrates the effectiveness of the gatekeeping by the orthodox. It shows the domination of the field by conventional economics while the majority of economists with different views languish at the lower tiers.

Bloch concludes his article as follows:

'The processes employed in the 2010 round of research evaluation under Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) did not provide a fair assessment of heterodox economics research in Australia. The rankings used as the indicator of the quality for journal articles were unbalanced in favour of economic theory and econometrics and against applied economics and other economics (which included heterodox economics).'

We can expect no better form the UK's Research Excellence Framework process.

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