Second, even for more academic research, the journals ceased being a means of communication a long time ago – more than 20 years ago for sure. New research would be unveiled in seminars, circulated as NBER Working Papers, long before anything showed up in a journal. Whole literatures could flourish, mature, and grow decadent before the first article got properly published – this happened to me with target zones back in the late 1980s, where my original 1988 working paper had spawned a large derivative literature by the time it actually got published. The journals have long served as tombstones, certifications for tenure committees, rather than a forum in which ideas get argued.
What the blogs have done, in a way, is open up that process. Twenty years ago it was possible and even normal to get research into circulation and have everyone talking about it without having gone through the refereeing process – but you had to be part of a certain circle, and basically had to have graduated from a prestigious department, to be part of that game. Now you can break in from anywhere; although there’s still at any given time a sort of magic circle that’s hard to get into, it’s less formal and less defined by where you sit or where you went to school.
I wonder if it's sustainable that major academic journals are behind subscriber firewalls. The impact of any article behind a firewall on public debate is reduced by a huge factor. If, say, the QJE got endowed by somebody to make its articles free to the public, would it shoot ahead of the AEA in impact, because bloggers would be more willing to link to its contents? How much could it recover in advertising-- or in submission fees for authors?
It would benefit the public. The progress of knowledge, too, I think.