Working Papers are NOT Working

17 August 2011

This post generated quite a debate among some colleagues at ODI: Working Papers are NOT WorkingBerk 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.