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The Heart of the Matter: A Comment on David Zilberman’s Post on Ag Economics Departments

Highly recommend this very thought-provoking blog post yesterday from David Zilberman of UC-Berkely about the difference between ag economics and economics. It is so pertinent to debates about the direction of the profession that go right down to the departmental level. Essentially, he asks the question: Who are we? He makes the important argument that publishing in top 5 econ journals should not be the goal in ag econ departments. Not that that is a bad thing, but rather it is the wrong goal in an ag econ department. Instead, he advocates for a return to the traditional land-grant goal of solving significant societal ag and resource problems.

I had an experience recently that I think illustrates in a very concrete way why this matters. I was a co-author on a paper submitted to the AJAE, the flagship journal of the ag econ profession, or so I thought. The article was rejected, which is not all that unusual for my submissions to the AJAE. But it was not the rejection that really set me off. And set me off it did. It made me violate a rule I learned early in my career and almost never violate: Don’t get into fights with journal editors. What set me off was the fact that the editor did not send the paper out to a single ag econ reviewer. Instead, all the reviewers were financial economists. When I send a paper to the AJAE I expect it to be evaluated by my peers and I do not regard financial economists as my professional peers. I am not bashing financial economists at all. I read this literature all the time. They simply are not my ag econ peers. If I wanted the paper to be evaluated by financial economists I would have sent it to the Journal of Finance! To top things off, the AJAE editor added in the rejection letter something to the effect that we should be honored to have had the paper reviewed by such a distinguished group of finance reviewers. Talk about throwing gasoline on the fire!

I confronted the AJAE editor (who shall remain un-named) about the situation in a sharply worded email. We went round and round. I admit the exchanges got pretty testy. I was not backing down and I won’t on this issue today. This is the ultimate matter of principle. That is, who are my peers academically? This should be the driving principle for how my scholarly contributions are evaluated. I was struck in the email exchanges by how different my perspective on this question was from the AJAE editor. My view was that ag economists are my professional peers and they should review my papers at the AJAE. I am ok with maybe one reviewer outside ag econ but not all of them! The editor’s view was that we should want to have our work evaluated by the best people in economics. How is this different from what David is talking about in his post?

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