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Lazy economists?

I was interested in this piece in The Australian’s Higher Education supplement discussing a report by Frank Neri and Joan Rodgers (the full paper here) indicating that in the vast majority of economics departments in Australia – 25 out of 29 – at least half the faculty published nothing in the top 159 economic journals from 1996-2002. Indeed almost half the Departments most academics had not published anything in a much broader group of 600 journals over this period.

The four top publishing Departments were ANU, University of Melbourne, University of Tasmania and University of Western Australia. I am surprised that University of Queensland did not make this list – it has been in my view one of the better performing departments in recent years. On the other hand I was a bit surprised that Tasmania made the list.

The 14 poor publishing universities were Defence Force Academy, Uni Canberra, Edith Cowan, Flinders, James Cook, Macquarie, Monash, Newcastle, QUT, RMIT, USQ, UTS, UWS, and VUT. Some of these universities have very small economics departments with their business teaching having been turned over almost entirely to low level vocational programs in ‘marketing’ and ‘management’. This reflects an ill-considered, short-sighted trend. The so called ‘management’ programs in particular are often directed to those who have never had much more of a job in their life than working in MacDonalds and which are taught by instructors without management experience. The ‘marketing’ programs are often little more than babble – how can you teach marketing to students who lack basic microeconomics? Emphasising these programs in a business degree creates neither the basis for teaching or research excellence.

But the inclusion of Monash and my former undergraduate university, Macquarie, in the list of research non-performers requires explanation. Monash is a very large university and should have done better than this.

At the high performance end I am unconvinced of the research virtues of some of the high flier departments. In some their teaching load is 25% of the load at most universities and, on this basis (calculating research productivity as research output/available research time), their comparative performance seems, if anything, poor.

Of course in many cases evidence of poor research contributions is not a signal to punish a department with funding cuts but, on the contrary, might provide a signal to inject funding to build the department up. This injection of funding should go towards teaching and research in sound economics areas – not to administration and not to the pseudo-sciences that are being oversold as business education in most Australian universities.

8 comments to Lazy economists?

  • conrad

    I’m glad they only looked at business departments — which are some of the best funded in Australia. I’d hate to see what it looks like in other areas.

    I think, to some extent, the government really only has themselves to blame for this. If they hadn’t enouraged and rewarded the proliferation of crap for so long (DEST points), some people producing crap might have tried to do something good, and those doing good stuff, who are basically punished for it (since they generate the same number of DEST points for much higher effort), might have less inclination to move to greener pastures where such work is rewarded.

  • derrida derider

    That paper doesn’t sound right at all – to my personal knowledge there have been publications in significant journals by at least two people who are in the listed “unpublished” unis (I’m not in any of the unis myself).

  • rabee

    Every few months we see a new paper by Australian economists on this topic.

    I’m beginning to think that all this work on ranking research performance is utterly useless and a waist of time.

    Where are the new ideas?

  • hc

    Rabee, This has implications for the RQF exercise that will be conducted next year in relation to research funding in the universities.

  • Christine

    Universities have as much right to try to figure out relative rankings of their employees (and employers) as anyone else. The govt and private sector spend a huge amount of time on filling positions/promoting people, which hardly happens at all in the unis. On the other hand, there’s a lot of govt evaluation of programs – like this RQF thingy, presumably?

    I’ve heard lots of positive comments about UTas eco from people in Canada, but have to admit I wouldn’t have picked it out as top 4. So will need to go look at the paper …

  • Damien Eldridge

    Christine, You gave me a bit of a shock there. when I read UT my first thought was the University of Texas at Austin. While they are an excellent department, they are not quite top 4!!! But then I realised you meant the university of Tasmania and Australian rankings!!! (In addition to being a lecturer at La Trobe university, I am also a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin!!!)

    Harry, I wonder what the results would be if a similar study was carried out in the US? While the performance at the top schools would be better, would the performance at lower ranked schools be similar? I don’t know the answer to this question!!!



  • Damien Eldridge


    I just realised that my initial misinterpretation was caused by a misread!!! For some reason, I read “— UTas eco —” as “— UT as eco —“. Oh well!!!



  • Bring Back EP at LP


    Why do economists at a University have to write any papers?

    Is this their core activity?

    Most papers I have read contain so much mathematical mumbo jumbo it gets hard to decipher!