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President's Column

January 2017

Providing rigorous, high quality publication outlets for our members to communicate their work to the broader scientific community is among the most important activities of the association. 

There have been some dramatic changes in the publishing landscape for authors of journal articles in agricultural and applied economics.  However, my sense is that these changes are not widely known or acknowledged.  As a result, the AAEA and some of our “sister” associations have been caught a bit flat footed.  Despite the fact that the publishing landscape has dramatically changed in the past decade, some core aspects of the AAEA’s journal offerings have remained static.  If we want to continue to serve our members and remain a source for key research in agricultural and applied economics, some change is likely warranted.

AJAE publishing trends 1980-present (source: AJAE editorial reports)

First it is useful to start with some facts:

  1. As the above graph shows, the number of new submissions to the AJAE has increased dramatically in recent years.  Since 2010, there has been a 50% increase in new submissions from around 350 per year to now over 500.
  2. The acceptance rate at the AJAE has precipitously fallen over the past few decades.  In the 1980s, the acceptance rate was higher than 40%.  In the 1990s, it was around 25%. Now it is under 10%.
  3. The number of pages published by the AJAE has remained relatively flat for the past 30 years. The AAEA started a new journal (the AEPP) in 2010, but at the same time discontinued the Review of Agricultural Economics (RAE). In theory, the AEPP is more general (given the “applied economics” focus) than was RAE, but in practice has often served to narrow publishing opportunities as it is focused only on “policy” and because it uses about a quarter of its pages for invited submissions.
  4. These trends are not unique to the AJAE.  Across the top five general economics journals, there has been a doubling of submissions and a halving of acceptance rates from the early 1990s to 2012 (see Card and DellaVigna in the Journal of Economic Literature, 2013). At the same time, average review times and average paper lengths have dramatically increased (see also Ellison in the Journal of Political Economy, 2002).
  5. While the impact factor of the AJAE has increased over the past decade, it has not increased as fast as several of the other journals listed in ISI’s ranking of journals in the “Agricultural Economics & Policy” category. 
  6. Recent years have borne witness to an increase in the number of journals that compete with the AJAE and AEPP.  Examples include the suite of four American Economic Journals, two new journals from the Association of Environmental and Resource Economics (the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists and Review of Environmental Economics and Policy), the Annual Review of Resource Economics which competes with AEPP for review and synthesis papers, China Agricultural Economic Review, new journals in health economics including American Journal of Health Economics and Forum for Health Economics & Policy, new online-only journals including Agricultural and Food Economics (Springer), Journal of Agricultural and Food Industrial Organization (BePress then De Gruyter), AgBioforum, and more.    

The result of these changes is that a smaller proportion of the academic papers being written today on food, agricultural, environment, development, and health economics are being published under the umbrella of the AAEA. 

There are a variety of factors driving the increased number of submissions to the AJAE.  There are more submissions from developing countries.  Some of these papers are lower quality and are routinely desk rejected.  But, it should be noted that the influx of papers also represents a potential opportunity to broaden the profession’s reach.  Technology has changed.  Changing technology has lowered the cost of creating new journal content while also lowering the cost of researchers performing statistical analysis and writing papers.  Another possible explanation for rising submissions may be increasing interest in food and agricultural-related issues among the broader public.

My sense is that there has been a sizable outward shift in demand for journal article space.  The result has been an increasing “price” for authors in the form of longer reviews processes and lower acceptance rates.  While technology has also lowered the cost of supplying journal space, the shifts in supply seem not to have kept up with the demand shifts – particularly at “high quality” outlets like the AJAE.  Even if they have, the AAEA has kept its supply of journal articles essentially fixed, meaning the AAEA journals publish an increasingly smaller share of the total number of journal articles being produced.

Pragmatically, it is also worth noting that the AJAE and AEPP have been an important source of revenue for the association in recent years.  The revenue from these journals represents, on average, about 30% of AAEA income over the past three years. 

What can or should be done?  One option that I’ve discussed in the past is to raise the profile of our existing content through our new media relations strategy.  In addition, the AJAE editors are admirably undertaking efforts to raise the impact of the journal.  Be on the lookout in the coming year for some new content in the AJAE.  In particular, the editors aim to select a “lead article” in every issue and invite short discussions from prominent scholars on the lead paper (the article’s authors will also be given an opportunity to briefly respond). Not only does this strategy have the potential to increase the rigor of the journal but it can highlight important work being done in the profession and expose it to a broader audience.  In addition to these efforts (and as if they weren’t busy enough with the increasing volume of submissions), the AJAE editors also aim to begin including an occasional “Note from the Editors” in the AAEA Exchange to increase transparency, discuss journal developments, and highlight journal content. 

More broadly, the aforementioned changes have prompted the board to consider whether and how the AAEA might increase the supply of journal articles published under the Association’s banner either through existing outlets or perhaps through a new one entirely.  We are in the beginning stages of thinking about how to respond to these structural changes in the publishing landscape.  I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts and suggestions. 

Jayson Lusk
AAEA President