Should you make your working papers public?


9 June 2010


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.