A Cautionary Tale About Working Papers

My Texas A&M colleague Kim Yi Dionne posted last week about the Bulletin of the World Health Organization‘s (BullWHO) decision to rescind its acceptance of one of her papers after the BullWHO editor realized that the paper had previously been posted online as part of a working paper series:

“About a week after the acceptance, however, I got this email:

Dear Dr Dionne,

In the course of editing the paper that was reently (sic) accepted for publication in our journal, we found an essentially identical working paper describing the same study on the website of the University of California in Los Angeles.

http://papers.ccpr.ucla.edu/papers/PWP-CCPR-2009-046/PWP-CCPR-2009-046.pdf

Because this constitues a case of duplicate publication, we now have no choice but to reverse our decision to accept your paper for publication.

It turns out my co-author had submitted a previous working draft of the paper to her center for posting on their working papers site.”

This is awful. I can only imagine what it’s like to get told that an acceptance is rescinded after going through all the work necessary to get a paper published. This would be especially awful in certain cases in economics, where the time from inception to publication is measured in years. For example, I began working on my job-market paper in the summer of 2002; I collected the survey data for it in 2004; I presented it in seminars in 2006-2007; it was finally accepted by Land Economics in early 2011; and it’ll be published in early 2012. In other words, it took almost ten years from inception to publication!

I am not sure I have a coherent position on the working paper culture. If you are interested in that, Berk Özler makes an excellent case for why the working paper culture is not working in a post on the Development Impacts blog.

But if there is a lesson to be learned from Kim’s woes, it is this one: Know your intended outlets.

I have often heard it said that you should just write the best research paper possible and then choose where to submit. But for me, two things militate against that “write now, choose journal later” position. First is the fact that if you know who your intended audience is, your writing will be a lot more focused, with the end result that it will be much more pleasing to your intended audience than a piece intended for just any audience. Second is the fact that it minimizes the scope for stories like the one told above. This is especially true when dealing with outlets that are closer to the “hard” sciences (such as public health journals) than they are to the social sciences.

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