The economics of economics blogs

Paolo Manasse 28 October 2011

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Why do many economists, especially in the US, devote a lot of time and effort to manage a blog (notable examples are Steve Levitt, Paul Krugman, Brad De Long, Greg Mankiw, Dani Rodrik, Becker and Posner, Mark Thoma, John Taylor)? Perhaps the professors, at a certain age, are just fed up with the long lags required to publish in scientific journals? Or do they simply wish to gain greater visibility, for themselves and their scientific work? Do they do it for ‘civic duty’, in order to popularise their ideas, to generate a debate and get feedback from readers? Even more puzzling, why in many European countries, namely Italy, does this not happen?

Three effects

A recent CEPR Discussion Paper (McKenzie and Özler 2011) addresses some of these questions. The authors test the following hypotheses:

a)     A link from the eight major American blogs to papers enhances significantly their number of downloads and abstract views;

b)     That writing a blog significantly improves the author’s reputation above his scientific peers;

c)     That blogs affect the opinions of the readers.

The results are quite interesting. The link from a blog increases significantly the paper’s downloads and abstract views in the month of the blog publication and, to a lesser extent, in the following month. Figure 1 shows that some blogs have a very large visibility ‘multiplier’ effect. A quote from Paul Krugman’s blog, or Marginal Revolution, or Freakonomics leads to an increase in the number of abstract views by between 300 and 470 units (compared to a monthly average of 10.3 views for NBER papers). Moreover the number of downloads increases by between 33-100 units (compared to the monthly average of 4.2 for the average NBER paper).

Figure 1. Abstract views and downloads per month for a typical paper

 

For the second hypothesis, the authors use the results of a survey about the most admired economists in the US, and intersect the results with the rankings (RePEc) of the top 500 economists in the world, based on scientific publications. The authors test if the probability of appearing in the list of the most admired economists, controlling for scientific ranking, is influenced by being a blogger or not. It is. Bloggers are about 40% more likely to appear in the list of most admired economists – an effect equivalent to that of being among the 50 top world economists based on publications records.

Finally, to assess the impact of blogs, the authors conduct a random selection experiment on 619 students of Masters and PhDs in Economic Development, young economists of the World Bank, and young employees at NGOs, some of which were prompted to check out a new blog to follow the World Bank. The results show that those who are exposed to the blogs give a better assessment of the quality of research at the World Bank, and of the desirability to get a job there.

US vs. Italy

Thus in the US the blogs of individual economists, often academics, significantly increase the visibility of scientific papers, the reputation of the authors, and affect the readers’ opinions – three good reasons to ‘waste’ time blogging. But then why do Italian academics, with few exceptions, not have blogs?

If you scroll down the ranking of the most popular 500 Italian blogs in economics you find, almost exclusively, ‘collective’ blogs, such as lavoce.info (the Italian partner of voxeu.org).

Certainly this cannot be due to individual incentives relating to the academic career. If blogging has a high opportunity cost because it subtracts precious time from research, this explanation would imply that academic merit has a larger impact on academic careers in Italy than in the US, which is rather implausible.

The alternative explanation relies on nonacademic incentives. If the individual benefits (personal reputation, dissemination of results, ability to influence the public opinion) are perceived in Italy as a fraction of those accruing in the US, it is rational to share the costs by joining a collective blog. But then this explanation leads to another question. What explains this perception?

I advance here a few hypotheses:

  • Italy’s ‘economic literacy’ is far below that of the US, and this implies lower benefits from blogging;
  • Italy’s concentration of media ownership is far larger in Italy, which leaves less room for individual initiatives;
  • Italian (European) economists share a Catholic/post-Marxist culture which places much less confidence on individual, as opposed to collective, achievement;
  • The ‘market size’ is much lower in Italy, also due to language barriers, and this limits the gains from blogging;1
  • The benefits of personal (nonmarket) networks in Italy are far larger than the benefits of market-oriented activities such as blogging.

These possible explanations deserve empirical scrutiny. Any PhD student volunteers?

References

Manasse, P and A Turrini (2001), “Trade, Wages and Superstars”, Journal of International Economics.

McKenzie, D and B Özler (2011), “The Impact of Economics Blogs”, CEPR Discussion Paper 8558, September.

 


1 For a formal discussion of Rosen-type 'superstars' effects in a model of international trade see Manasse and Turrini (2001). 

 

 

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Topics:  Education Frontiers of economic research

Tags:  blogs, influence, research dissemination

Comments

The US is big. Really big. 
In a country the size of Canada it's possible to know personally almost every single academic labour (or public, or environmental) economist in the country. So the costs of acting like a jerk are high, as there is a reasonably high probability that the person you offend today will be your referee/external reviewer/person sat next to you at dinner sometime within the next year or three.
At the same time, there is much less need to establish an individual reputation - by the time you add together people you've studied with, people you've worked with and people you've met at conferences, people will soon know who you are.
In this context, collective blogging has a lot going for it.
Also, I wouldn't assume that the rewards to academic productivity are lower in Italy. Remember, a lot of merit based systems are fixed sum games, so if you have 10 junior colleagues who are publishing in the top journals, your chances of getting a substantial merit increment are low unless you can out-perform them. If you know that would involve working 70 hours a week, why bother? Once you have tenure the incentives to publish decline sharply also.
Consulting, on the other hand, is financially lucrative - and that might be another reason to blog.
Don't forget, too, that Americans work more hours per week than people in almost any other industrialized country. One theory is that it's the cheap domestic help. But there are definitely different social norms about work hours.
 

My personal view is that many research institutions in Europe (especially in my home country Germany) are rather risk averse when it comes to new ways of doing research and communicating about research. I assume that often the management of research institutions is hardly providing incentives to researchers that want to try blogging or crowdsourcing.
I am fully convinced that making your thoughts and ideas more transparent not only at the end but rather at the very beginning of your research process benefits the quality of your work. However, researchers will need time (at the workplace!) to familiarise with the blogging software, to establish new networks to research communities etc., again I assume that it is exactly this kind of “start-up investment” that is hardly granted by the management of research institutions. In other words: embarking on a blogging adventure does not pay off for a (young) researcher in most institutions. PhD students, especially in humanities, are from my point of view still too often expected to be lone fighters for their cause who should seek advice from eminent researchers in their institution but not from the broader (non-scientific) public.
Crowdsourcing a whole research project (e.g. like David Roodman's Microfinance Open Book Blog) is a fascinating new way of doing research and documenting the evolution of answers to your research questions. It needs some bravery to constantly put your ideas to a public test, this bravery needs – from my point of view – more support by management of research institutions in the first place as otherwise researchers will likely shy away from blogging due to associated initial entry costs.
Therefore, Professor Manasse, you are right in calling for PhD student to address these questions in much more depth, but make sure that they get an enabling environment to do this research in the Web 2.0 and not the isolated workplace 1.0. 

Paolo Manasse

Professor of Macroeconomics and International Economic Policy, University of Bologna

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