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I'm personally excited about the prospect of writing a book at some point - but I'm pretty resigned to the fact that that may not be the way forward professionally. All the more so because I'm not entirely convinced I'm going to be an academic economist.

I read somewhere that the average journal paper is read by less than 10 people, including the referees and the editor. I would be very surprised if the average academic book is read by fewer than 10 people. I know that I certainly find it more exciting to read a book (even a thick one like Human Action) than a short journal article (honestly, what percentage of journal paper reading is limited to just reading the abstract?).

I guess journal papers are appropriate for presenting some new empirical results that conform to some established and well-known theory. For theory it may be appropriate if it's written in math. But then if one thinks that math is rarely the best way to develop economic theory, than it should be obvious that books are to be preferred. So the battle of the paradigms may turn out to be a battle of transmission formats as well! (and maybe this battle is not "neoclassical" vs. Austrian, but engineering-influenced economics vs. philosophy-influenced economics).

Mathematically-framed is not philosophically-influenced? I can think of huge swaths of philosophers that would take issue with that :)

Let's not pretend we're all automatons or tinkerers. When you draw the distinction that way the question is largely decided before the debate even begins! Either you write off the competition, or the competition - when polled on the question - declare themselves to also be on the philosophy-influenced side!

I mourn the trend, but there is no doubt that it is there and if anything accelerating. My most cited work is a book, but even Google Scholar seems to have stopped recording citations for it within the last year or so. I only know that it is from a listing they made a few years ago. It may be my most important and influential work, but officially it no longer "counts."

I have no experience on the topic, but I have a couple of questions.

What does this say of the trend towards specialization within the field of economics? Hayek wrote, in Prices and Production, that it's a mistake to study specific parts of economics without incorporating it into the whole (he was referring to monetary theory, but it applies to everything else, as well). Is there an observable accelerating trend of detachment between specific theory and economic theory as a whole?

Alternatively, is this trend a good thing? Maybe this specialization between economists who can incorporate specific theory into a general body of knowledge, making sure it's consistent with interdependent factors, and economists who are more useful at developing theory specific to only a very small pocket of economic science will lead to greater efficiency and therefore an accelerated pace of development.

I mean, how a professor personally feels about this trend is dependent on his preferences. But, what are the wider implications for the science as a whole? Is it a positive trend, or negative?

Another comment: why are a large number of academic books so expensive? Why do professors continue to publish with publishers who guarantee them only a slim outlet for sales? Are only certain publishers taken seriously within the profession (including the university's management)?

For example, the cheapest copy of Horwitz's Monetary Order, Free Banking, and Economic Order is no less than $230. If it's a book I really want I'm sure I'll buy it, but more likely than not the case is that I won't buy it. Now, my income is many magnitudes less of that of a professor, but my dad (who was a professor of sorts [community college] for a while, so did/does make a similar income) would say the same thing. More importantly, the books aren't distributed to those who need them the most, up and coming economists.

Journal articles are just more accessible, especially to students. Most of the time, they're "free" (well, they're paid for by the university itself).

However (and I use the example of free banking here specifically), the journal articles just don't cut it. I'm not an economist (an amateur economist, at best), so I acknowledge that my capacity for understanding more complicated topics is inherently limited (we can't assimilate knowledge all at once, after all). Nevertheless, along with a lot of personal reflection, it was Selgin's The Theory of Free Banking (which cost me ~$30+ dollars, because I was lucky and found a relatively cheap used copy) that finally afforded me a complete understanding. None of Selgin's academic articles defended his position as clearly and completely as his book.

How much more widespread would free banking be if a sufficiently complete treatise on the subject (such as Selgin's book) were easier to acquire? Or, if there were greater incentives for people to acquire and read it?

I'm not a fan of e-readers, but maybe it's the e-reader which will break what I see as an unfortunate trend towards incomplete elucidation of theory. It's the e-reader, certainly, that will make books on the whole cheaper to buy.

I think the trend has much to do with the fragmentation of knowledge and thought through the cultural influence of postmodernism, which was only reinforced by the internet. Complex integrative knowledge, though, needs more space. As Catalán observes, this may change soon with the e-reader -- especially as they become more scholar-friendly.

I think it is a symptom of what today's youth call "tl;dr".

Many academics lack the focus and dedication to understand and evaluate a book-length argument.

I wonder if at least part of this is due to the increased and growing competition for academic positions, given the number of people finishing PhD's, and looking for jobs.

Books are more time consuming to write, and require more systematic thought as the argument(s) are built up over multiple chapters and hundreds of pages.

Journal articles require only a more focused attention to a small theme, topic or subject, and can be completed in far, far less time than a book.

In addition, the journal referee process generates a supposed system of measuring the "significance" or "importance" or "relevance" of the article based on what journal it appears. So there is the "ranking" aspect.

In the case of a book, you have to wait for the reviews, which can be months -- or more likely, years -- after the volume has appeared in print.

It is partly these "pressures" of the profession that had fed this -- apart from any of the other elements that are involved in terms of what is viewed as the "scientific" method and the presumed "scientific" way of presenting one's "discoveries" or "evidence" to other members of the profession.

Richard Ebeling

In some journals the average readership of articles (past the abstract) is nearer to 1 than 10.
Surely it is a matter of balance and timing, what you are trying to achieve and can reasonably hope to achieve at different stages of your career. Papers early, books later if you have got enough to say.
How many people have got enough to say to write a good book?
How many people have any new ideas after they finish their doctoral dissertation?

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I'm full of ideas, Rafe. I just need the time! :-)

Pete. B said: "But I still get more excitement out of reading books than I do articles. ... The articles tend to be a utilitarian use, their books however possess a more lasting value to me. I can only assume this is because of the way I was intellectual brought up."

I don't think so. I think books are more satisfying because for the kind of economics that you enjoy, a book is a better medium for making a lasting and relevant argument. Sure, it can happen in articles. Use of Knowledge in Society, etc. But the vast majority of journal articles make smaller contributions.

On the other hand, a book can take in the larger picture, develop a story, handle potential objections, explore nuances, and so forth - it can make a greater contribution than most articles. This is the reason that books are more naturally a good medium for Austrian economists, while journal articles fit with many other schools better: Austrian economics is mostly about developing an argument, teasing out the logic and handling objections etc -- many other schools condense this from words into math, and do not focus very much on assumptions or explanations, and use citations for handling potential objections. Hence, they can fit the whole book into a small journal article.

When was the last time I read a book cover to cover? I cannot remember. I tend to turn books into a collection of journal articles. There is too much out there and not enough time.

I have thought that Austrians (and other heterodox economists) tend to write books because they must start from the ground up. They cannot plug into a *generally accepted* framework and simply make a small improvement. They must give their readers the needed background.

Looking at the situation from the journal perspective, journal editors need to be focused on short contributions and so they cannot spare much space for background. So heterodox economists must have their own journals or go to books.

It is also the case that books have a certain nonspecialist market. Words, rather than mathematics, are a better medium for this.

Finally, I'd like to say that I do not think of economics as a single discipline anymore. So the idea of communicating with the profession doesn't make much sense to me. I hope that the fracturing of economics will continue and accelerate. There is no realistic possibility of engaging with a large proportion of people calling themselves economists.

Let us enjoy those who are interested in what "we" are. Let the profession fall into parts.

What Rafe says makes a lot of sense. Nowhere is diminishing returns more obvious than in the consumption of books/papers by the same professional economist. Even economists who seem interesting after one paper tend to become boring after two or three papers. Hayek is the most obvious exception. Now I'm going to sound like Rafe but the three books I have read by Popper remained interesting to the end. Nozick was also versatile enough for 3 books (maybe more, I don't know yet). Ok, back to economists: mostly it is like one theme with x variations (x + 1 = number of papers). So in this sense, Austrians really are superior from this consumer's point of view (and we're fortunate that Austrians "must start from the ground up." The Economics of Time and Ignorance would be a lot less enjoyable as a 20-page article with references instead of explanations).

I wonder whether there is too much specialization in academics and culture - the renaissance approach, where all educated people could contribute one idea or book to economics, one or two to history, and play music and paint as well, may lead to more worthwhile products. Someone need not focus only on economics (Austrians know that history and philosophy, along with political science are important to economics, of course). Maybe its natural that one can likely only write one or a few good books; several good articles; with new content in a single discipline. Maybe it would be better for people to do that and then move on - write fiction, play music, do something else afterward. The current academic job market of course discourages this..

Well, even if all you provide is one good idea, more likely than not you're idea is not going to be well received by the entire community, so at least you can use that to perpetuate your academic career. ;)

I think this shift coincides with the shift in dissertations in many places from something that could conceivably be published as a book, as was done in the past not infrequently with better dissertations, to the "Three Essays on (whatever) Economics," with one Job Market Paper being really all that matters.

I prefer books because the thoughts are more comprehensive and more loose ends can be tied up. Journal articles just never give you the big picture the way books do.

Liberty,

As someone who does work in multiple fields, let me assure you that you are absolutely right -- and not just in academia!

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