What’s Wrong with Heterodox Economics Journals?

By L. Randall Wray

I just came across a very interesting bit of research, A Guide to Paradigmatic Self-Marginalization: Lessons for Post-Keynesian Economists by Leonhard Dobusch and Jakob Kapeller; you can find it here.

I realize this is not going to be of interest to many of our readers, as it is a sort of “inside the halls of academia” analysis. What the authors do is to look at the strategies of editors running the top orthodox and the top heterodox journals in economics. Actually it might be a bit unfair to label these strategies, as the authors do not mean to imply that editorial policy knowingly pursues the strategies. Instead, the article looks at the ex post results.

In a nutshell, what they find is that the articles published in orthodox journals do not cite the research published in heterodox journals. NO SURPRISE THERE! But they also find some startling self-defeating practices pursued by heterodox journals.

Let’s first deal with cross-citation between orthodox and heterodox articles, then turn to the problems with within heterodoxy.

With regard to the relations between orthodox and heterodox research, there probably is some cross-fertilization, especially in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis. As we all know, orthodox economists completely missed the coming of the GFC. After it happened, they all “discovered” Minsky and perhaps some of the other heterodox work. However, when an orthodox economist “borrows” an idea from heterodoxy, this does not lead to many citations to heterodox work. Often there is no citation, however, even if an orthodox author cites a couple of heterodox pieces, further research published in orthodox journals will typically cite the orthodox economist who “discovered” the idea—who made the idea “legitimate”—while ignoring the heterodox literature.

In some respects this is understandable. Why would an orthodox economist cite Minsky on instability when one could instead cite an orthodox Nobel-winning economist like Krugman, who “reread Minsky” one night?

However, heterodox journals operate in a completely different manner. Heterodox economists pride themselves on taking a “pluralistic” approach to economics. They at least give lip service to the notion that the economy is too complex to be explained adequately with just one approach. Further, much of the heterodox literature is concerned with refuting orthodoxy—explaining why it is wrong in theory and in practice. Hence, heterodox publications amply cite the orthodox literature—showing how “pluralistic” the authors are while they are distancing themselves from their enemies.

Why is this important? Because journals are ranked in large part by numbers of citations, with indexes of citations weighted by the “importance” of the journals in which the citations occur. I do not want to get into the details of these rankings of journals, but it is important to know that rankings improve not only by the status of the journals in which an article is published, but also by the citations to an article that occur outside the publishing journal.

In other words, if an article is published in The Journal of Heterodox Economics (TJHE—a fictitious journal) and then cited hundreds of times but only in that journal, the impact of the article is lower than if it is also cited a lot in The Journal of Orthodox Economics (TJOE—another fictitious journal).

And here’s the deal. Not only do articles published in TJOE avoid citing articles published in THJE, they do cite a lot of articles published across a range of other orthodox journals.

Heterodox journals adopt exactly the opposite strategy. They cite lots of articles published in TJOE as well as other “top” orthodox journals, but they studiously avoid citing articles published across other heterodox journals. For example, THJE articles will tend to cite articles published in THJE but not in other heterodox journals. So heterodox economists boost the rankings of orthodox journals while depressing the rankings of heterodox journals.

This has obvious incentive effects. Young researchers need to get tenure, and the way to get tenure is to publish in highly ranked journals. Ergo, publish in orthodox journals. There is a strong incentive to send your best research to the orthodox journals (to boost your own ranking) and to send your crappy stuff to heterodox journals. (Sorry, but it needed to be said.)

It gets worse. Leonhard Dobusch and Jakob Kapeller divide published articles across heterodox and orthodox journals into three categories: formal, non-formal and econometric. Now, many people might think that almost by definition, heterodox research tends to be non-formal. Indeed, a lot of orthodox economists reject heterodox articles as “journalistic”. The authors, however, find that many of the top heterodox journals are instead heavily formal- and econometrics-biased. And articles so-classified are even more likely to cite orthodox research and to limit citations to heterodox journals.

Finally, at least some heterodox journals have adopted fairly restrictive rules about making papers available pre- and post- publication. In other words, they require authors to avoid publishing research in the form of working papers so as to restrict availability of the research to the journal articles. This makes it difficult for nonsubscribers to obtain the work, and hence they are much less likely to cite it. Practically by definition, those who publish in orthodox journals do not read heterodox journals. (And the vice versa is not true: heterodox economists read, and often subscribe to, orthodox journals.)

Full disclosure, I am not a disinterested party. Jan Kregel and I have been appointed as the new editors of the main Post Keynesian journal, the Journal of Post Keynesian Economics. Dobusch and Kapeller analyze the JPKE in some detail, and find that it stands out particularly strongly as an example of following what they identify as

“a set of practices common among heterodox schools that we see as particularly problematic in terms of the current paradigmatic struggle and call them “lessons for paradigmatic self-marginalization”: The first lesson, “be exclusive”, deals with a lack of pluralism and openness within and between different heterodox schools. The second lesson, “praise your enemy’s gods”, investigates the partially perverse consequences of following mainstream economics in their tendencies of (a) mathematizing economic research and (b) identifying “empirical research” with “econometrics”. The third lesson, “make your papers scarce”, analyzes how (lack of open) access to heterodox research influences its position in the current paradigmatic battle.”

Hmm. This is something the editors of heterodox journals need to work on.


First, stop excessive citing of orthodoxy. From what I’ve seen, many heterodox authors do this reflexively—I suppose to show they are keeping up with developments in the mainstream. What they are actually doing is boosting the rankings of orthodox journals.

Second, if you want to be truly pluralistic, introduce the full range of heterodoxy into your research. And don’t just include heterodox economics. The economy is an amazingly complicated thing and our understanding will be improved by including the best research from across the disciplines. Besides, you’ll be helping to boost the rankings of other heterodox journals—which if they reciprocate will boost the rankings of the journal in which you are publishing.

Third, work with the journal publishers to ensure that research is available before and after publication in the journals. As the authors note, heterodox research that is widely available as working papers gets read. Indeed, they note that: Novarese and Zimmermann (2008) report that heterodox articles posted on the RePEc-platform and distributed via the “New Economic Papers” (NEP)-mailing lists are on average downloaded more often than mainstream articles. Thus it seems reasonable to consciously improve the dissemination of heterodox work through digital channels such as research platforms or mailing-lists.” 

That finding is not surprising. Heterodox research is much more interesting and infinitely more consistent with reality. Orthodox research is retrograde—it does not advance knowledge. Given a choice, heterodox research will be preferred over orthodox research.

Heterodox economists need to stop practicing “self-marginalization”; they need to stop practicing “exclusion” of fellow heterodox approaches; they need to stop praising their “enemy’s gods” (excessive use of math and econometrics); and they need to stop making their “papers scarce”.

7 responses to “What’s Wrong with Heterodox Economics Journals?

  1. Hear, hear. Excellent article, Dr. Wray. Thank you, once again, for saying what needs to be said, but is often occulted. May heterodox economists everywhere heed this compelling analysis.

  2. “The economy is an amazingly complicated thing and our understanding will be improved by including the best research from across the disciplines.”

    It would be nice to see citations outside of economics from the other social sciences and perhaps even the systems field 🙂

    As an outsider I find the modelling techniques used by economists of all classes stunningly primitive. You never use raw mathematics in business system modelling, so I’m constantly amazed at how prevalent it is when you’re working with a larger system like the economy.

  3. Macrocompassion

    What Neil writes is not completely true.

    Ecomomics does not have to be made so complex, much as many of the experts would prefer. The kind I deal with on the Macro- scale has only 6 functioning (or role-playing) entities and they exchange only 19 kinds of goods, services and valuable documents all for money. This model which may be seen in Wikimedia commons, macroeconomics as: DiagFuncMacroSyst.pdf may appear to be crude, but it is complete and like the Einsteinen criteria for theoretical science is as simple as possible without being oversimple. In other words it is quite possible to be both comprehensive and complete once you are thinking logically.

    • However such a model is irrelevant, because it has little to do with the real world which has far more entities than that in a complex arrangement with significant emergent behaviour – not to mention significant viewpoint differences all of which have to be accommodated if people are to accept the structure.

      We’re way past simplistic models, much as we are way past simplistic models in weather forecasting.

      And for the same reasons. It ain’t a clockwork system.

  4. This advocates a smart way of gaming the self-serving merit system the old boy network uses to perpetuate itself, and I can’t argue against that, but in truth the “self-marginalizing” practices of the heterodox journals are the scholarly best practice. It’s just that the feudal lords have jimmied the ratings so that if Gary Becker writes another incredibly wrong-headed article, all the refutations and polemics against it, no matter how valid, are counted in his favor.