I was busy interviewing for jobs at the AEA Meeting this past weekend, so I missed lots of cool stuff (including the apparent hijacking of the blogging panel by an angry undergrad!). Among the things I missed, the new code of ethics for publishing in economics was almost certainly the most important. Basically, when you publish a paper in an AEA journal, you must now disclose A) all significant sources of financing for the research, and B) all significant financial relationships with parties who might have an interest in the research. These requirements are similar to what researchers face when publishing in medical journals.
The new guidelines are an attempt to counter allegations that the economics profession has been "captured" by various special interests. The idea is that if people see that an economist who publishes a paper supporting policy X is also being paid by a company or foundation with an interest in seeing policy X enacted, then people will be more likely to take the paper's recommendations with a grain of salt. This, it is thought, could lead to better policy, by preventing special interests from being able to essentially buy peer-reviewed academic articles to bolster their lobbying efforts.
Will these guidelines improve policy? Some are skeptical. There is a real question of how important peer-reviewed articles are to actual policymaking; after all, a lobbyist can cite a white paper from a think tank like the Heritage Foundation more easily than it can cite a dense, math-filled Econometrica paper. On the other hand, peer-reviewed journal articles may have a more subtle influence, spread out over a longer period of time - Keynes' "slaves of some defunct economist" idea.
But I think the important question is: Will the new guidelines hurt anything? I can't see any way that they could. To argue that the rules will make us worse off, you basically have to argue that more information will make the marketplace of ideas less efficient. I guess that's a possible argument to make, but it seems kind of unintuitive. In general, it seems to me that more sunlight can't be a bad thing. And if a policy has potential benefits and no obvious downside, why not do it?
There are a few who disagree, of course. Tyler Cowen thinks that the new rules will backfire on the journals:
[The new code of ethics] will hurt researchers who work in finance...How many people will basically just stop publishing in the top journals?That nearly made me laugh out loud. Stop publishing in the top journals?? Surely you're joking, Mr. Cowen...
Anyway, kudos to the AEA. They did the right thing.