The Pandemic Economist

How economist Joshua Gans signals academic publishing changes

1/ Earlier this week the University of Toronto economics professor Joshua Gans blew up some of #AcademicTwitter with a Conversation article about writing a new book - in a single month - on the economics of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gans’ critics found the Conversation article was self-congratulatory, gendered, and not supportive of work-life balance.

2/ By the time the Conversation article was released Gans and his publisher The MIT Press each had promotion pages up for the book: Economics in the Age of COVID-19 which was part of the MIT Press series First Reads. There was even an Open Access version that invited public feedback. Gans and The MIT Press announced that an Amazon Kindle version was available immediately, and that a paperback version would be issued in November 2020 with updated material.

3/ Gans’ book illustrates how Clayton M. Christensen’s disruptive innovation - a topic of a previous Gans book (and a Smart Internet Technology CRC draft paper by me) - has migrated from Silicon Valley to #AcademicTwitter. Economics in the Age of COVID-19 shows both how this disruptive innovation ecosystem now works - and what implications it has for academic publishing in the near future.

4/ The first implication as noted in a classic economics paper by Edward Lazear and Sherwin Rosen is that academic labour contracts involve a series of competitive tournaments. This has become a core feature rather than a bug for the neoliberal political economy. Gans, Christensen, Lazear, Rosen and others each created a niche for themselves that was underpinned by a focused research program and targeted publications. Over time this meant cumulative success: they became academic superstars.

5/ The second implication is that academic research now involves a kind of time and volatility-based arbitrage. Coauthor Ben Eltham and I also discovered this in 2009 with our conference paper Twitter Free Iran (about Iran’s 2009 election crisis) which has since become our single most cited paper. Gans was able to use COVID-19’s uncertainty to write a short book - a risk-taking stance that shocked #AcademicTwitter as a form of (gendered) privilege and status attainment.

6/ The third implication is that a parallel, event-based publishing system has emerged in the past few years for academics to enact this time and volatility-based arbitrage. Some academic publishers like Cambridge and Routledge have shifted to shorter books based on current debates and topics. Electronic book publishing formats like Kindle enable more scalable content distribution. The result is a little like the poison pen letters that activist hedge fund managers would write to the boards of their target companies.

7/ The fourth implication is that - as per Lazear and Rosen above - the track records of academic researchers are going to be more stratified over time. This is exactly what Lazear and Rosen found in their work on academic labour contracts. Academic research will be even more performance based. It will be more like the quarterly, box office, chart or post-game reviews of investment managers, film directors, musicians, and sports athletes. Time and volatility-based arbitrage provides the filter for opportunity evaluation: what constitutes a ‘hit’ for the effort and resources involved.

8/ Gans’ own bio illustrates how this stratified track record is built cumulatively over time. I first became aware of his game theory work when Gans was based at the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Business School. His appointment to a named chair with the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto signalled a mastery of formal methods to analyse economic problems. Gans built a strong, cumulative narrative, from his PhD at Stanford University to his University of Toronto research agenda. It makes intuitive sense to read as a research administrator.

9/ Game-theoretic insights have their controversies, too. The English documentary film-maker Adam Curtis illustrates this in the first episode of his series The Trap which explains how game theory can reduce human interaction to zero-sum competition. However, perhaps a notable difference is that Gans’ Conversation piece shows how the different pieces of the puzzle - risk arbitrage event (COVID-19), time to write, interested publisher (The MIT Press), public consultation (Open Access edition), and distribution system (Amazon Kindle) - all work and fit together. Gans tells you how he got a new academic book quickly to market: a positive-sum outcome if you use his insights.

10/ A fifth implication is that time compression is an important skill in building a cumulative academic track record. This is at the core of Facebook’s mantra “move fast and break things” in Silicon Valley. It’s what Intel’s Andy Grove noted when he popularised Clayton M. Christensen’s disruptive innovation theory in the Dotcom era. Time compression is what enables a Professoriate academic to get more done in an equivalent time to an Early Career Academic. It’s the ‘killer app’ for the post-COVID 19 world: publish not perish.