Yestermoment

Martin Osborne, the first Managing Editor of Theoretical Economics has just completed his term and handed the reins to George Mailath.  Martin is the last of the original co-editors to complete his final term and on the (private) TE Editorial Message Board he offers this reflection on the making of the journal.

TE has been—and continues to be—very much a collaborative project. With a few days to go before my term as editor ends, I want to acknowledge the contributors and outline their role in the development of the journal for those of you who may not be aware of the journal’s history.

TE emerged from a project initiated by Manfredi La Manna. In the late 1990s (or maybe the early 2000s—I have been unable to find a record), Manfredi proposed starting low-cost economics journals to compete one-on-one with a long list of high-priced Elsevier offerings. His plans were extremely (even absurdly) ambitious, and although many economists signaled their support, none was willing to commit to work on the project. None, that is, until Manfredi found David Levine and George Mailath. Manfredi had been looking for someone to act as an editor of a journal he hoped would compete with JET. As I understand it, David and George suggested instead that they form an Executive Board with the aim of searching for an editor. David and George soon recruited Drew Fudenberg, Patrick Bolton, and Ariel Rubinstein (with whom Manfredi had been in touch previously) to join the Board.

In October 2002, after no doubt getting turned down by their top picks, they asked me if I would become the editor. We quickly recruited Bart Lipman, Narayana Kocherlakota, and Georg Nöldeke to serve as coeditors, and for two years worked with Manfredi on the “Review of Economic Theory”. For a variety of reasons, we parted ways with Manfredi in mid-2004 and started designing and setting up an Open Access journal. The team initially consisted of Patrick Bolton, Drew Fudenberg, David Levine, George Mailath, Bart Lipman, Georg Nöldeke, and myself, and was soon augmented by Ted Bergstrom, Jeff Ely, Preston McAfee, and Ariel Rubinstein (who re-joined the group, having left the La Manna project before the rest of us). A huge amount of work was involved; everyone played an important role.

One of the major tasks in starting TE was setting up a nonprofit corporation to run it. This task was handled by Bart and David. David had previously set up such a corporation to run his “Not A Journal”, but even with the benefit of that experience, a huge amount of work was involved. In Bart’s role as Treasurer, he also conducted the tricky negotiations necessary to get a credit card authorizer to deal with us. Eventually he found a company that specialized in small operations. Although that company appeared a bit disorganized—at some point it has us down as “Theological Economics”—it served us flawlessly during our pre-ES days.

Another major task was soliciting papers. That involved finding papers, reading them, discussing them, and selecting the ones that were potentially publishable. And then, usually, finding out that the authors had submitted them to Econometrica. Bart, Jeff, and Drew were particularly active in evaluating papers. Collectively, we read over 250 papers; Bart alone posted comments on more than 200 of them.

A final task that proved to be especially difficult was the choice of a name. The list we considered was long; it was very hard to find a reasonable name that was not close to the name of another journal or book series and also had an acronym not close to the acronym of another journal. Dozens of creative titles were proposed. Three of the more colorful were Theoretical Economics Arsenal (acronym TEA, proposed by Jeff Ely), Ecotheoretica, and Ekonomiko (both proposed by Preston McAfee; Ekonomiko is Esperanto for economics). One thousand three hundred and thirty messages after I opened a thread to decide on a name, we voted for “Theoretical Economics” (which, incidentally, was one of the two options I suggested in my original message).

We were extraordinarily fortunate that just as the journal was starting, a new version of the Open Journal Systems software became (freely) available. This superb system allowed us to automate almost all the the “administrative” tasks of running a journal (tasks that, I might add, are still performed manually at many other journals). You may think that software quality is an incidental issue that has little bearing on the activities of a journal. I disagree. In fact, because it obviates the need for an editorial assistant, superb software like the OJS system allows Open Access journals to be financially viable—even ones without a rich aunt like the Econometric Society.

Once we started publishing, the generosity of another group of people came into play—authors. We owe the success of the journal in no small part to the generosity of the authors who submitted to TE papers that could have been published in Econometrica. Submitting a paper to TE now is, I hope, a natural step for the author of a outstanding paper. But despite the commitment of the coeditors that the project would succeed, submitting a paper to TE in 2005 entailed some risk, and we are certainly grateful to the authors who took that risk in order to support Open Access. Submitting a paper to TE in 2004, when we were not yet certain we would go ahead, entailed a much greater risk; we were certainly encouraged that Bill Zame was willing to take that step.

A key determinant of the reputation that the journal has earned is the quality of its editorial work. The decision letters written by the first group of coeditors—Jeff Ely, Ed Green, and Bart Lipman, joined by Debraj Ray in 2008—were better than any others I have seen. Even rejected papers received very close attention. The efforts of this initial group of brilliant coeditors were critical in establishing a reputation for the journal.

One measure of the extent to which the initial group worked together is the number of postings on this Message Board. Between 2004 and July 2009 (when the journal was taken over by the Econometric Society), the coeditors (Jeff Ely, Ed Green, Bart Lipman, Debraj Ray, and myself) and the other members of the Executive Board (Ted Bergstrom, Drew Fudenberg, David Levine, George Mailath, Preston McAfee, Ariel Rubinstein, and Joel Sobel) posted over over 5,000 messages here.

Finally, the coeditors who have served since TE’s takeover by the Econometric Society—Gadi Barlevy, Faruk Gul, Johannes Hörner, and Nicola Persico—have upheld TE’s standards of editorial excellence with enviable energy, and our outstanding Associate Editors have provided us with high-quality evaluations within timeframes matched by few other journals.

It has been a great pleasure to coordinate this very hard-working group, which has transformed TE from an idea to the success it is today. I am delighted to hand over my role to George Mailath, who will surely lead the journal to new heights!

Martin Osborne was a truly outstanding Editor.  He vastly understates his own role in building the editorial software that makes the journal run so smoothly.  In my opinion the open source software that we use for free and that Martin painstakingly customized is far superior to the commercial systems used by all of the major journals in economics.  Do not believe it when it is said that open access journals can only survive on large fees by authors.  TE is a top-class journal and it is incredibly cheap to run.  Do not believe it when it is said that a new open access journal faces a chicken and egg problem.  The people behind TE believed in it and made it happen.  People wishing to start open access journals would do well to copy what TE did.

(photograph taken by Ariel Rubinstein.  More photos here.)

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