Should you make your working papers public?

There seems to be two points of view on this with dif­fer­ent prac­tices in dif­fer­ent disciplines.

  1. Some researchers do not make their work pub­lic until after it has been accepted for pub­li­ca­tion in a jour­nal. Until that time, drafts of papers are only cir­cu­lated to close con­fi­dants and usu­ally marked “Do not distribute”.
  2. Work­ing papers are pub­lished on web sites and in web repos­i­to­ries (such as arXiv or RePEc) as soon as they are fin­ished, at about the same time they are sub­mit­ted to a journal.

Because I work with peo­ple in lots of dif­fer­ent fields, I come across both of these prac­tices. In the first sit­u­a­tion, I don’t post the work­ing paper on my web­site until all coau­thors agree, which is not until the paper is accepted at a jour­nal. In the sec­ond sit­u­a­tion, I post the work­ing paper on my web­site (and usu­ally also on RePEc) as soon as possible.

I don’t like the secrecy model at all, but it is hard to con­vince coau­thors who have been trained under that process to change. Dif­fer­ent jus­ti­fi­ca­tions are given for keep­ing things secret, depend­ing on who I ask. Here are some of them (in bold) with my thoughts on why the stated rea­sons make lit­tle sense.

  1. It pre­vents rival research groups know­ing what you are up to, and so allows you to stay one step ahead of every­one else. Of course, if every­one does this, then it is just as likely that your rival researchers are ahead already in ways you don’t know about. The result is that there is slower progress because there is not a free flow of infor­ma­tion between research groups. Also, since you don’t know what every­one else is doing, you are more likely to miss some­thing impor­tant that some­one else is work­ing on and waste a lot of time in the process. The most effi­cient pro­ce­dure is for infor­ma­tion to be shared as quickly and com­pletely as pos­si­ble. Yes, that helps your rivals, but it also helps you, and it helps progress in research.
  2. It pre­vents other researchers steal­ing your ideas before they are pub­lished. Pre­sum­ably the fear is that the work­ing paper will be leaked and some­one will copy the ideas and pub­lish it under their own name. There is a sim­ple solu­tion to this: pub­lish the work­ing paper under your own name with a date on it, prefer­ably in a pub­lic repos­i­tory. Then there is no motive for steal­ing the idea because it will eas­ily be shown that you did it first. Keep­ing work­ing papers secret makes it more likely that some­one will steal your ideas, not less likely.
  3. The work­ing paper may change sub­stan­tially before pub­li­ca­tion. That is true, but so what? Every­one knows that a work­ing paper is sub­ject to revi­sion before pub­li­ca­tion. It should be seen as an advance draft to sig­nal to every­one what you have done, and to enable them to start cit­ing it. There is the prob­lem of embar­rass­ing mis­takes being made pub­lic. Wait­ing until a jour­nal accepts the paper reduces the like­li­hood of embar­rass­ing mis­takes, but it doesn’t remove it entirely. Every­one who has pub­lished more than a hand­ful of papers will have writ­ten papers that con­tain errors, even with the ref­er­ee­ing process. If you are wor­ried about never mak­ing a pub­lic mis­take, you prob­a­bly shouldn’t be involved in research.
  4. Hav­ing a pub­lished work­ing paper may be against the jour­nal rules. I don’t know of any jour­nal that won’t pub­lish a paper if it has appeared in work­ing paper form. Most jour­nals not only explic­itly allow it, but also allow the work­ing paper to con­tinue to appear online even after the paper has appeared in a journal.
  5. The ref­er­ees will know who wrote it. This is true. A ref­eree can use Google to dis­cover the authors of a pub­lished work­ing paper. But does that really mat­ter? The blind ref­er­ee­ing model is based on the assump­tion that ref­er­ees will give bet­ter assess­ments if they don’t know who the authors are. I’m not sure that is true, and I haven’t seen any empir­i­cal evi­dence to sup­port it. Any­way, I don’t care if the ref­er­ees know that I am the author of the papers they are reviewing.

On the other hand, there are good rea­sons to have your work­ing papers dis­trib­uted widely and early.

  1. It increases your cita­tions. The more widely the paper is dis­trib­uted the more likely peo­ple are to cite it. Fur­ther, pub­lic repos­i­to­ries such as arXiv and RePEc are free, so a lot more peo­ple have access to the papers stored there then the papers pub­lished in the jour­nals which require expen­sive sub­scrip­tions. If the paper is only being pub­lished (and made pub­lic) a cou­ple of years after the ideas have been devel­oped, it is likely that research has moved on and your paper is not so rel­e­vant and there­fore not so citable.
  2. It pre­vents other researchers steal­ing your ideas because the ideas are dated and doc­u­mented ear­lier, as explained above.
  3. It allows feed­back from a wider range of peo­ple. I get email from a lot of peo­ple who read my work­ing papers, and some of them have some use­ful com­ments that can lead to improve­ments in the paper. It would be too late if these com­ments were received after it was published.

Part of the rea­son for this post is to con­vince my coau­thors that the secrecy prac­tice is a bad idea, even if every­one does it in your field. The only way to change the sit­u­a­tion is to start pub­lish­ing work­ing papers, and try­ing to con­vince every­one else to do the same. I hope this post will help that happen.

Feel free to com­ment if you agree or dis­agree. I’m espe­cially inter­ested in any other rea­sons peo­ple have for and against pub­lish­ing work­ing papers.

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