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Blog: AES Symposium on Strategic Directions for the Journal of Agricultural Economics: Some Takeaways and Further Reflections

AES Symposium on Strategic Directions for the Journal of Agricultural Economics: Some Takeaways and Further Reflections

Jonathan Brooks, Editor-in-Chief

It was most helpful to share insights from a panel with rich and diverse experience at the recent Symposium at the Agricultural Economics Society’s annual conference in Edinburgh, and to receive feedback from around 40 AES members[1]. My thanks to the panelists and all who participated. Participants were asked in the announcement to read David Harvey’s reflections as outgoing Editor-in-Chief [2] as well as my own thoughts on strategic challenges facing the journal[3]. If you haven’t read them, please do!

To initiate the discussion we ran a Mentimeter poll, which was revealing in terms of the diversity of expectations for the journal. Of course, this was informal and by no means scientific (certainly not worthy of journal publication!). Nevertheless, the journal is an organ of the Society and the responses were instructive. 

Participants were asked about the breadth of coverage in the journal, noting that many of the published studies involve micro-econometrics, conducted using either farm level data datasets or from primary data constructed for choice experiments. The question was naturally a leading one, and it is not surprising that majority of respondents considered this focus to be too narrow, but it is striking that a significant minority does consider applied econometrics to be the JAE’s niche in the current journal landscape.

 

 

We have recently signaled a willingness to broaden the scope of material in the journal via featured articles and special sections within the journal devoted to specific topics. This gives some flexibility to take stock of the state-of-the art in specific research areas and ensure that important topics and developments in methods  do not go neglected. One clear message from panelists and participants was that this widening should not come at the expense of rigour. Relatedly,  a majority considers the journal’s citations-based Impact Factor to be an important, albeit not singular, indicator of the journal’s performance.

A further question concerned the extent to which the JAE should engage more with policymakers and other stakeholders. Here views were more evenly divided, with 40% of those expressing a view considering it to be a priority, 40% a “nice to have”, but a significant minority (20%) fearing that it could distract from the journal’s main aim of advancing academic scholarship.

Presumably the 60% who do not consider this to be a priority are still interested in the ultimate policy significance of their work, but view academic research as being essentially upstream, with ideas that may be taken up after a period of gestation and often by secondary users. I can understand this view, although the JAE is nevertheless an applied journal, so if it can produce reliable results of use to policymakers, then I would hope to be able to inject them into the policy domain as swiftly as possible. 

An academic journal is a venue for advancing the frontier of research in terms of methods, as well as in terms of providing robust empirical analysis. It is also a proving ground for researchers to establish their credentials and advance their academic careers. But I am conscious that many people working in a more applied vein, in government institutions and think tanks, as well as in academia, do not turn to the academic journals as their primary reference source. For much of my own career, as I noted in my editorial, I have been a bridge between research and policy. Throughout that period it was rare to be able to pluck an answer to a policy question straight from the academic journals, including one specialized in agricultural economics. More often than not, we had to undertake or commission policy analysis directly tailored to the question at hand. That included more time than I care to remember trying to reverse engineer the economic aspects out of multi-dimensional concepts that had acquired currency in the policy domain: multifunctionality, circular economy, regenerative agriculture, green growth, food sovereignty, right to food, policy coherence, resilience. These terms barely get a mention in submitted articles, beyond perhaps lip service in the introduction. 

Hence I am concerned about something of a disconnect between research and policy, with the former including contributions that purport to be policy relevant but are unlikely to ever have any real world traction and the latter inlcuding hastily crafted policy analysis in the grey literature (or even in highly cited journals such as Nature) that have less robust intellectual foundations. Others that I know working in the policy area have similar concerns. Here is an observation I received via email from a well respected university professor in the US, who recently provided very thorough comments on a paper contributed to the JAE. 

“I have found that there is almost no correlation between work I do that generates academic citations and work that has a policy impact. There is a need for good analysis of important policy issues, but it seems that a lot of the highest quality research is done on issues that are not that important, or issues where even the best research is unlikely to have an impact on policy choices. Meanwhile, even mediocre work that reflects a better understanding of the policy process can sometimes have a large impact. I could go on an extended rant, but I'll just say that I'm glad I'm at the stage of my career where I can afford to spend more of my time on what I think is important and useful, and less of my time on playing the publication game.” 

As Editor-in-Chief I am relying on a strong team of Co-Editors and Associate Editors to help ensure that accepted papers have something new and significant to say –in the economic, not just statistical sense. But I do view it as a fundamental objective to narrow the divide between impact as measured by citations and real world impact, so that fewer people in our discipline hold views such as the one expressed above. 

The JAE is one of a handful of journals dedicated to the discipline of agricultural economics. Diversity is a strength when it comes to balancing innovativeness and policy relevance. As a consequence the AAEA now has four journals (The American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Applied Economics Perspectives and Policy, the “sound science” Journal of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, and the outreach journal Choices). The European Association of Agricultural Economists has the European Review of Agricultural Economics, the “sound science” journal QOpen, and maintains the outreach journal Eurochoices jointly with the AES. So authors have options regarding where to pitch their research and there is scope to distil the findings of technical work in more accessible policy-oriented outlets such as Eurochoices. Even so, there are trade-offs. As Editor of the JAE, sometimes that means rejecting a competent piece of policy analysis that does not really tell us much that is new, at other times turning away material that is potentially innovative but too marginal to gain traction. As David noted in accepting his honorary AES membership at the Society’s Conference, there will inevitably be some errors in those judgement calls. As he did, so I too ask for your forbearance. 

As a final observation, I commented in the Symposium that we can continue to refine the About description on the journal’s website that sets out the kinds of articles of interest to the journal (topic keywords) and the Authors Guidelines that specifies the kinds of approaches that are of interest. The poll revealed that a majority of people only consult the JAE when they are looking for a specific piece, and typically find it via search engines. I would urge you to sign up for Wiley’s alerts, so you can be made aware of articles that as they are published under Early View. You can always delete the email if the paper does not interest you!


[1] Panelists: Brendan Bayley (HM Treasury and AES President 2023-24); David Harvey (former JAE Editor-in-Chief); Deborah Roberts (James Hutton Institute and AES President 2024-5); Jonathan Brooks (current Editor-in-Chief); Spiro Stefanou (Administrator, Economic Research Service, USDA

[2]  Harvey, D.R. (2023)  Agricultural Economics in the JAE: Some Editorial Reflections. Journal of Agricultural Economics,  00,  1–10. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1111/1477-9552.12568.

[3] Brooks, J. (2024), Challenges for the JAE: Thoughts from the new editor. J Agric Econ. https://doi.org/10.1111/1477-9552.12569
 

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