Johan Fourie's blog

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On the economic histories of developing regions

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EHDRFrom the start of 2014, Leigh Gardner and I are editors of Economic History of Developing Regions, a journal dedicated to publish scholarly papers about the economic histories of developing countries. For our first issue as editors, we have put together a short note, now an LSE working paper, on an issue we believe requires attention: the lack of publication outputs in the top economic history journals about developing country topics, and from developing country authors. Here’s the abstract:

The internationalization of economic history is everywhere except in the publication outputs. Using a new dataset of publications in the top four economic history journals, we investigate this puzzle and attempt to explain why relatively few papers on and from developing countries are published in top journals despite the growing internationalization of economic history more broadly. We find little evidence to suggest that this is due to a bias against papers on developing country topics and by developing country authors. Developing country papers and authors also do not perform worse in citation analyses. Authors from developing countries, it seems, are less productive, or discouraged from submitting their papers to top quality journals, choosing instead local journals.

I was amazed to find that there was hardly an increase over the last decade in the number of papers on developing countries. My sense is that, at least since 2000, there is a much greater appetite and enthusiasm for developing country topics. As we mention in the paper, some of the most prominent papers in the field have been on developing country topics – think AJR (2001), Nunn (2008), Dell (2010). Networks in African, Latin American, Asian and Eastern European economic history have either been established or have seen an increase in its activities and membership.  The World Economic History Congress, held in Stellenbosch in 2012, contributed to the renaissance of African economic history and focused attention on the economic histories of developing countries in general. A survey by Baten and Muschallik (2012) shows that there are large numbers of economic historians based in the developing world.

Yet, despite all these improvements, the share of papers dealing with developing countries have hardly changed over the last 15 years. Even more worryingly, the share of papers written by scholars outside Western universities (including Japan), is tiny; only 2.2% who published papers in the top four economic history journals were affiliated to universities in the developing world.

There are several reasons for this. Leigh and I note that the priorities of scholars in developing countries are often biased towards teaching and consulting work, rather than research.  Where research do receive priority, it prefers quantity (local) over quality (international) output. Language and a preference to speak to a local rather than international audience, especially in Asia and Latin America, is also an issue. While these factors apply to all fields of research, economic history may have additional constraints. Economic history is a luxury good; the digitisation and transcription of historical sources are expensive exercises, which limits its appeal in underfunded universities. Also, economic history is, sadly, not always at the front of the queue for policy-relevant analysis; when appointments are made or funding granted, research on education, poverty or trade may seem to yield more immediate returns than investigations into the economic past.

Sparked by the rapid economic growth of nearly all developing regions, though, I suspect that, over the next decade, we will see a flourishing of interest in the economic histories of developing countries. That is why Leigh and I are excited to be part of EHDR (and why we want you to submit your paper). Most of this interest, however, will come from scholars based at European or US universities. It is here that the techniques and networks are developed that is so important in the academic publication business. (In a recent NBER working paper, Peter Temin gives a succinct overview of the development of these techniques.) But, if Economic History hopes to increase its influence, it should make more effort in nurturing links with scholars in the developing world. The immediate gains may be less visible, but the long-term benefits, for developing countries and for the discipline, may be far more rewarding.

Written by Johan Fourie

May 20, 2014 at 06:33

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