Editor in the Spotlight - Karl Shell
"A fun part of being an editor is to try to keep up with the science and sociology in your area but outside your narrow sub-field"
By Karl Shell Posted on 4 June 2011
Karl Shell, Thorne Professor of Economics at Cornell University, New York, is the founding editor of Journal of Economic Theory – also known as JET; one of the most prestigious journals in the field of economics.
He started the journal at the end of the sixties, at a time when the economics field began to expand and differentiate and the general journals were unable to absorb the increasing research output in the profession. Despite the emergence of competitors and more specialized theory journals, Karl Shell has managed to preserve JET’s position as the leading journal in economic theory for more than 40 years.
JET is a bi-monthly publication, typically publishing five regular issues and one topical symposium issue. Last year, the journal received more than 750 regular paper submissions. Of all submissions, only between 10% and 15% tends to be accepted for publication.
Q. What does being a journal editor mean to you and what do you find most rewarding about this role?
A. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to work with JET authors, associate editors, referees, and symposium organizers -- top economic theorists from around the world. This is the basic reward for editing.
Q. What are your biggest challenges as editor of Journal of Economic Theory. How do you overcome them and what extra support can Elsevier provide? In many areas of research, the growth of paper submissions is outpacing the growth of qualified reviewers and resulting in pressure on the peer-review system. What do you think the solution to this problem is and how do you see the peer review process changing in the future?
A. The biggest challenge comes from the phenomenal growth in the sheer size and quality of the community of researchers in economic theory, and the corresponding growth in the number of competing journals.
In the early days of JET, serving as a referee or an associate editor was considered to be at least an economic theorist’s duty and even an honor for the younger theorist. These sentiments still exist, but not for everyone.
I think that it might be useful to return to a system in which the editors-in-chief and the publisher strive to show that the opinions of the associate editors are taken seriously. If well done, some informal gatherings of editorial board members (during scientific meetings) might be helpful. At one point, we discontinued these gatherings because of differences between the associate editors and the publisher. Times have changed for the better, so we might very cautiously rethink these gatherings.
Q. We have observed a recent trend that researchers are increasingly accessing journal content online at an article level, i.e. the researcher digests content more frequently on an article basis rather than a journal basis. How do you think this affects the visibility of your journal among authors?
A. This is an important downside to the generally very positive advantages of online publication. New authors are less likely to be discovered since browsing of the paper versions of journal issues is now rare. It might also be that researchers are less likely to read outside their narrow sub-fields, given that search engines will efficiently point them to their intended destinations. Short-run efficiency is not always optimal.
Q. The move from print to electronic publishing has stimulated a broad discussion around alternative publishing models. These models are often termed as ‘open access’ and include:
- Author Pays Journals
- Sponsored Articles
- Free access to archives
What is your opinion about the ‘open access movement’ and how does it affect your journal?
A. Open access has not so far provided serious competition. Author page charges are rare in economics. Sponsored articles are rare, but JET might – after advice from our editorial board -- consider sponsorship of appropriate symposium dispatches by university departments and central bank research groups.
Free access – or access at a nominal charge – exists among economics journals, but it is not a big factor since most researchers have university access to JET. There is some open archiving currently. More serious potential competition might come from the online reading-lists (of current un-refereed working papers) recommended by some leading research economists on their websites.
Q. Researchers need to demonstrate their research impact, and they are increasingly under pressure to publish articles in journals with high impact factors. How important is a journal’s impact factor to you, and do you see any developments in your community regarding other research quality measurements?
A. Impact factors are important to JET and other journals. Impact-factor measurement has been extensively researched, but in my opinion these studies lack depth.
Q. As online publishing techniques develop, the traditional format of the online scientific article will change. At Elsevier we are experimenting with new online content features and functionality. Which improvements/changes would you as an editor find most important?
A. JET is a theory journal; so technical appendices are less important than they would be in an applied journal. Nonetheless, technical appendices are essential for JET. We have an obligation to provide as Supplementary Material: data, computer code, computations, proof of results where proof is not in the article, and related work etc… Graphs and dynamics could be provided in interactive format in the online version.
Q. Do you use social media or online professional networking within your role as an editor or researcher? Has it helped you and if so how?
A. No, but we might consider doing so.
Q. How do you see your journal developing over the next 10 years? Do you see major shifts in the use of journals in the future?
A. JET aspires to be the top journal in economic theory – broadly defined. This is a tough task, since several society journals are vying for this space.
Refereeing in economics is too slow. I worry about the day when major scientists post what they consider to be must-read working papers, thus short-circuiting the journals (except for their role in university personnel validation).
The online nature of journals has severely weakened the journals’ role in identifying new promising authors. In the hard copy days, when one looked for an article by an established figure, one often stumbled on a nearby article by a “new” person. Now if one is looking for (say) “Kenneth Arrow”, one is less likely to stumble on a path-breaking note by a relative unknown on (say) monetary theory.
Q. Do you have any tips or tricks to share with your fellow editors about being a journal editor?
A. A fun part of being an editor is to try to keep up with the science and sociology in your area but outside your narrow sub-field. This is more than fun! This is essential for successful editing.