It may be that the internet, contrary to its reputation as the Great Leveler, is actually playing a role in locking in the reputations of well-known academics at the expense of those who are just starting to build their careers. At least, that is the conclusion of a new report covered in an article in today’s Inside Higher Ed. Glenn Ellison, a professor of economics at MIT, argues in his report that fewer professors in highly ranked economics departments are bothering to publish in top peer-reviewed journals. Instead they are preferring to post their writings on personal home pages, conference web sites, and online databases, where the power of their reputations alone will draw many readers. Although this trend may open up more space in traditional journals for lesser known economists, over the long term it may also serve to undermine the status of those very journals because the work of the best known people in the field rarely appears on their pages.
There has been a widespread concern about what impact the advent of the internet will ultimately have on the peer review system, but rarely before has that worry centered on the possibility of the best scholars eventually abandoning the system. More typically it has focused on the potential for high-quality reviewed work to be swamped by writings that have not been assessed in advance by knowledgeable members of the discipline. By contrast, Ellison’s report envisions a world in which peer review publication may become an exercise that only junior members of a discipline need endure. But if journals begin to lose their status as the vehicles of the discipline’s best work, it is not clear how one would move from one category of scholar to the other.