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Working Papers are NOT Working

This post generated quite a debate among some colleagues at ODI: Working Papers are NOT Working. Berk Özler‘s post begins brilliantly:

Working papers are the research equivalent of sweatshirts with pizza stains on them, but we wear them on our first date with our audience.

It is common practice in economics to publish working papers. There are formal working paper series such as NBER, BREAD, IZA, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper Series, etc. With the proliferation of the internet, however, people don’t even need to use these formal working paper series. You can simply post your brand new paper on your website and violà, you have a working paper: put that into your CV! Journals are giving up double-blind refereeing (AEJ is the latest) because it is too easy to use search engines to find the working paper version (it’s not at all clear that this is good. See the recent comments on Blattman’s blog, which make it look far from clear that giving up on double-blind peer-review is a good idea). But, do the benefits of making these findings public before peer-review outweigh the costs? I recently became very unsure…

The point of the post is that working papers are not ‘work in progress’ any more. Or, at least, this is not how they are seem by their readers. Used to a faster pace of communications, few readers go back looking for the ‘final versions’ of the studies. And few researchers revisit their working papers and update them with journal articles or books.

My question: Is the web changing the way we access information and learn so much that working papers are a thing of the past? Isn’t this blog, in a way, a work in progress? I often use it to test ideas. Or to see if I can put together an argument that I have been struggling with. I get comments and incorporate them to, hopefully, revisit the idea at a later stage.

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  1. This is one of the issues that has been troubling my mind for so long. First, most of the Working Papers that I have come across, never advance beyond their status as Working Papers. The issues has been even compounded with the idea of Discussion Papers as if the Working Papers are not meant for discussion. My assumption all along has been that (and I stand to be corrected here!) when a researcher sets to work on a particular issue, and he/she has done some preliminary study, he comes up with a Working Paper which is supposed to generate debate with the aim of enriching the complete study. However, of late, it is as if what the researchers go for is the Working Paper and that is it. They add that to their CV and forget about the study altogether or they go ahead and finish the study and do not care to publish a final Paper. There are some cases where research institutes try to save on publication costs, so once they publish the Working Paper, after peer review, they don’t see the need to re-work the paper to its finality.

    Now, I think this is where we are called in to come clear on these documents that fill in the shelves of most of the research institutes:
    – Working Paper;
    – Occasional Paper;
    – Discussion Paper;
    – Journal Articles.

    What are the main differences between the documents referred to above? Is peer review necessary for validation of the content of the documents? With blogging fast becoming the in-vogue mode of research communication (at least for serious researchers who are also bloggers), can we regard the blog responses are authentic peer review of our so-called ‘Working Papers on the blog’ as Mendizabal (or is it Berk ?) calls them?

    I’m yet to read the World Bank blog for the views by Özler.

    Please give me your views!

    August 17, 2011

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