Wednesday, 4 January 2017

English speakers have an advantage in the economics profession

If you ever thought that native English speakers have an advantage publishing in economics journals, it turns out you were right. In a new paper published in the journal Economic Inquiry (ungated earlier version here), William Olney (Williams College) looks into this question. He motivates it based on some choice quotes from editors of economics journals, like:
Robert Moffitt (former editor of the American Economic Review) said “I should also note that non-native-English speakers should work hard to get the English right and, if necessary, hire native English speakers to edit their papers. It is no doubt unfair, but editors and referees often take poor English as a signal of low quality.”
Remember that an effective signal is one that is costly, and is costly in a way that makes it unattractive to those with low-quality attributes to attempt. Good English academic writing is difficult, and is arguably more difficult for those who will write low-quality papers, suggesting that the quality of English writing in an academic paper is a good (albeit imperfect) signal of the quality of the paper. So it is unsurprising then that journal editors use the quality of English writing as a signal of the quality of the research.

Economics is a good choice of discipline to investigate the effect of native English speaking because: (1) there is a good objective ranking of publication quality (RePEc, which this paper makes use of); and (2) the highly mathematical/statistical nature of most economics publications means that English proficiency should be less important potentially than in other disciplines (so if it is important in economics, then it should be more important in other social sciences or humanities disciplines).

Olney first looks at the share of native English speakers among U.S. economics PhDs, the top 2.5% of economists (as measured by RePEc), and Nobel Prize winners. His Figure 1 is reproduced below, and the results are striking. Compared with all U.S. economics PhDs, there are a higher proportion of native English speakers in the top 2.5% of economists, and a higher proportion again among Nobel Prize winners.

Of course, that's not the end of the story. Olney then runs regression models that control for individual characteristics (among the top 2.5% of economists) and finds that:
...after controlling for other characteristics of the economist, native English speakers have a significant advantage in the economics profession. Specifically, being born in an English-speaking country increases the rank of an economist by about 100 spots. Furthermore, native English speakers have an advantage in both components of the ranking: they are more highly ranked according to quality-adjusted publications and according to quality-adjusted citations.
An advantage of 100 places in the ranking of the top 1059 economists is quite substantial. It's probably less helpful for someone at my level (my latest RePEc ranking was in the 19,000s, not helped by many of my publications (including some of my most cited ones) not being published in economics journals), even if the analysis could be extended that far.

Olney runs a battery of additional models that effectively exclude other explanations for the results, and sensibly concludes that native English speaking confers an advantage for top economists (and this is in spite of non-native English speakers at this level probably having access to the resources necessary to substantially improve their English writing).

Finally, a couple of the additional results are also interesting in their own right. When separating the sample by age, into those born before or after 1955, he finds that the positive effect of native English speaking is larger among the younger group - English language ability is becoming more important over time. Second, in that analysis he finds that male economists had an advantage in the older group, but that advantage was not statistically significant for the younger economists. Score one for growing gender equality.

[HT: Marginal Revolution, back in June]

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