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Would You Give Up 9 Months of Your Life for Professional Prestige?

Economists attempt to quantify the value of publication in an important journal.
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What would you give for a tangible achievement that carries enormous professional prestige?

If you’re an economist, and the achievement is a paper published in the American Economic Review, the answer seems to be three-quarters of a year of your life. Or, looking at it a different way, about three-quarters of a thumb.

That’s the tentative conclusion of three economists from Erasmus University in the Netherlands. They took an offhand comment by a colleague—“I would give my right arm for a publication in the American Economic Review”—and decided to test whether, for the average member of their profession, that would literally be true.

The study raises fascinating questions about what we value, and the tradeoffs we are willing to make.

Thankfully, they found it was not. But their results, recently published in the journal Economic Inquiry, suggest economists—and perhaps other academics—place enormous value in the sort of recognition publication in a prestigious journal conveys.

The researchers--Arthur Attema, Werner Brouwer, and Job van Exel--conducted a survey of 69 of their colleagues (a small number, they concede). All had already published at least one recent article in one of six major economics journals.

In their questionnaire, they described an admittedly far-fetched scenario. If a medicine existed that would give them a day-long surge in brainpower—enough to formulate an article good enough for one of four major journals—would they take it? If so, would they still do so if they knew it would slightly reduce their lifespan?

In a finding that will no doubt please the publication’s editors, they found “economists are willing to give up more lifetime for an additional publication in AER than for the other top economics journals.”

Specifically, the average study participant was willing to give up 0.77 years for a paper published in the American Economic Review, but only 0.55 years for the Quarterly Journal of Economics, 0.42 years for the Review of Economic Studies, and 0.38 years for the European Economic Review.

Interestingly, the researchers found this willingness to give up a few months was not related to any anticipated higher income such an article might bring. "This suggests that economists ... seem to care about other, non-monetary aspects such as status and quality of the journal," they write.

A separate, only slightly less macabre question measured the value of their thumb. Right-handed economists were asked: “Suppose you can live either 20 more years without your right thumb, or a shorter period with your right thumb. How long should the latter period be such that you are indifferent between these options?” (Left-handed economists were asked about their left thumbs.)

The researchers found that, on average, study participants were willing to give up 1.02 years of life in exchange for keeping their dominant-hand thumb. Since they’re willing to give up 0.77 years for publication in AER, “we can infer that a publication is worth about three quarters of a thumb,” the researchers conclude.

Of course, the rest of us may conclude this is another example of economists trying to quantify the unquantifiable. But the study nevertheless raises fascinating questions about what we value, and the tradeoffs we are—at least theoretically—willing to make.

After all, many high-prestige jobs are also high-pressure jobs, and stress may very well take a physical toll, ultimately leading to a shorter life. Is that a fair exchange? For some, it seems the answer is yes.