Create Change

Shouldn't the way we share research be as advanced as the Internet?

Scholars Speak


Martin Osborne
University of Toronto

Martin Osborne
Martin Osborne

Martin J. Osborne is a professor of economics at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on game theory and its applications. Osborne received a B.A. in economics from Cambridge University in 1975 and a PhD from Stanford University in 1979. He was one of the founders of the open-access journal, Theoretical Economics, and has served as managing editor since its inception in 2005. He also has been associate editor of the International Journal of Game Theory, Mathematical Social Sciences and Games and Economic Behavior.

How has the Internet changed the way academics research and communicate in economics?

One big change is that the Internet has made pre-publication research very much easier to obtain. Academic economists have long circulated their research as "working papers" before submitting it for publication to peer-reviewed journals. I don't know exactly when the first working papers were circulated, but the Cowles Foundation at Yale, which publishes an important series, lists papers dating back to 1955 on its website. In the pre-Internet era, these working papers were printed and mailed to individuals and departmental libraries. The Internet has made them much more easily accessible and searchable. In fact, Google Scholar's sophisticated search has to some extent made the working paper series redundant, because it allows papers on individuals' websites to easily be found, even if they are not issued in a working paper series.

Another big change arises from the fact that the Internet allows information to be written to remote servers as well as read from them. In the pre-Internet era, submitting a paper for publication meant that the author mailed a few copies to the editor of a journal, enclosing a check for the submission fee. The editor sent the copies by mail to referees, who eventually mailed back reports. To find referees, the editor had to rely on people she knew, or had to browse through the journals that happened to be on her shelves, or had to go to the library and search journals or indexes there. All these tasks consumed a considerable amount of time, and many of them were assigned to secretaries and editorial assistants.

The Internet has virtually eliminated the "administrative" components of these tasks. An author can submit a paper online, making payment by a credit card; an editor can search for referees quickly and efficiently using an engine like Google Scholar; papers can be sent to referees by email. Secretaries and administrative assistants are now redundant--or, more accurately, can be replaced by editorial software. And fortunately, excellent Open Source software is freely available, in the form of the OJS system. The consequence for scholarly communication is that the administrative cost of running a journal is virtually zero, so that Open Access financially viable.

Tell us about the open-access journal, Theoretical Economics. What kind of need does it fill? Why and how did it come to be?

Theoretical Economics is a response to the limited availability of the top-quality journals in the field. The very best "general" journal that publishes research in economic theory is owned by a professional society and has relatively wide circulation, but the best "field" journal in economic theory is extremely expensive and consequently has limited circulation. Researchers in well-funded research universities in developed countries have access to it, but others do not.

The marginal cost per reader of making research available on the Web is virtually zero, so that once it is produced, economic efficiency demands that it be freely available; any access charges result in an inefficient underutilization of the research. Theoretical Economics was initiated by a group of economic theorists--myself among them--who were concerned about the high access charges of the existing leading field journals, and the consequent limited availability of the research they publish. We wanted to create a freely available outlet for high-quality research.

What have been some of the challenges in getting the journal started?

The biggest challenge is one faced by any new journal: how to get high-quality submissions. Everyone (and perhaps especially economists) wants to publish their research in journals that will impress their deans and generate large pay raises. And deans are impressed by journals that have established reputations for publishing high-quality research. So a "coordination problem," as economists say, exists: the best journal is the one to which all the best research is submitted; if journal A is now the best and everyone switches to submitting their best papers to journal B, then B would become the best journal. We've spent a lot of effort trying to induce people to switch, with a good deal of success.

What kind of response have you had? What do you expect the future holds for the journal?

The support for the journal has been terrific. We started publication in 2006, when we published four outstanding quarterly issues. We also have an outstanding collection of papers at the "revise and resubmit" stage, so that we will be able to publish at the same level for the next year, and continue to attract excellent papers. At this point, the future looks rosy.

What is the future of peer review of scholarship in your field?

My expectation is that peer review will continue in its current form into the indefinite future. The volume of research produced is huge, and without the categorization of that research by quality and field that the current system generates, researchers would be lost.

There are some experiments with alternatives that may succeed in supplementing the current system, but I don't believe that they will supplant it. For example, the Web offers the possibility for anyone to easily submit comments on research, and at least one new journal in economics is using such comments in the peer review process. I'm interested in seeing the outcome of this experiment, but I'm skeptical that it will wind up significantly altering the nature of peer review.

Can you explain how RePEc (Research Papers in Economics) works and how it has impacted your field? Are there other noteworthy, innovative services that have emerged from the economics community?

RePEc indexes papers in working paper series and journals, playing a role for economics not very different from the role Google Scholar plays for all fields. Any journal or institution that has a working paper series can put a file of the paper metadata on a server and invite RePEc to read it periodically. The result is a database that currently has over 200,000 working papers and over 250,000 journal articles. Not only is this database searchable, but also RePEc reports the articles that cite each paper and provides links to the ones that are freely available.

What else needs to change to improve the communication landscape in economics?

More published research should be freely available in its exact published form. The working paper versions of many published papers are freely available, but the exact published versions should be also.

Turning to the classroom, how has digital media affected the way you teach?

The existence of presentation software hasn't yet affected the way I deliver lectures. It has, however, affected my students' access to the lecture material, which I can now post on my website.

Is there consensus among your colleagues about the open sharing of information? What are the biggest areas of debate?

Yes. Economists are very much aware that the more easily available is their research, the more it will be cited, and the more amenable their Deans will be to raising their salaries! At the same time, I don't think many economists think much about the issue of access to their research, because they believe that publishing in the most prestigious journals is enough. True, these journals have limited circulations, but most economists appear to be satisfied with the fact that almost all leading researchers have access to them because they are at major universities with large library budgets. So on the one hand, economists generally believe that more access to their research will benefit them, but on the other hand, many probably believe that pretty much everyone who matters has access to the best journals in any case.

What is the argument you'd offer for more open sharing of research?

The main argument that I see concerns economic efficiency. The marginal cost of making research available on the Internet is virtually zero, so the efficient utilization of this research requires the price to be virtually zero.