End of an Era
May 3, 2020
As of April 25, 2020, the American Committee on Asian Economic Studies has lost its journal of 30 years to a takeover by Elsevier. ACAES founded the Journal of Asian Economics in 1990 with a vision to serve its mission of promoting economic research on Asia and fostering engagement between Asian economists and their counterparts in the rest of the world. Our achievements toward that end are commemorated in an editorial marking the Journal's 30th anniversary, here.
Through its 30-year history under ACAES, three Editors-in-Chief led the Journal: ACAES founder Manoranjan Dutta (1990-2007); Michael Plummer (2007-2015); and myself (2015-2020). These Editors-in-Chief were all selected by the ACAES leadership for their dedication to the ACAES mission with the concurrence of the publisher/owner of the Journal (JAI Press until 2000, and Elsevier thereafter). In a break with this long established practice, Elsevier on March 18 offered me a one-year terminal contract for 2020. Unilateral termination of the Editor-in-Chief, duly chosen by ACAES, would effectively sever the tie between ACAES and the Journal. The Journal's stakeholders rallied in support of keeping me as Editor-in-Chief and preserving the Journal's relationship with its parent organization with a letter writing campaign. The 43 stakeholder statements are posted here.
Elsevier was unmoved by this heartfelt show of support and stood by its intention to terminate the Editor-in-Chief and sever the Journal's tie to ACAES. I declined to accept a contract on these terms which thus brought my service to a close. The Associate Editors resigned in solidarity, pending follow through on manuscripts currently in their charge.
I'd like to offer my thoughts on why 43 thoughtful and compelling statements by those who care deeply about the Journal failed to impress Elsevier. The statements emphasize achievement of a qualitative nature. By contrast, Elsevier's overriding performance indicator is quantity. We increased the number of papers published in 2019 to 33 from 30 in 2018. But Elsevier now has journals that publish hundreds of papers a year, and that, I suspect, is their vision for JAE. More generally, Elsevier wants full control over setting the agenda. They can maintain such control by rotating editors in and out, and not letting any one editor come to define the character of a journal. In their view, one credentialed scholar is as good as another when it comes to managing an assembly line of submissions, reviews, and decisions. This is what allows them to scale up to where a great many handling editors operate in parallel to co-edit a single journal. The model has been extremely successful in generating profits for shareholders and extracting rents from libraries while keeping the cost of inputs (academic labor) low. They don't need me for that, regardless of what academic stakeholders may have to say.
For the sake of the academic profession, let us hope that other models of journal publishing survive. I'll update on this page if we can find a way to be part of that survival.