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‘Food for Thought’: the Journal of Australian Political Economy

by Frank Stilwell on January 5, 2016
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It is sometimes said that ‘we are what we eat’. In a similar vein, perhaps we think what we read.

Academics spend a lot of time researching and writing, hoping to be published and read. Much of their writing is for academic journals. Do journals matter? At a minimum (I hesitate to say at worst), they are an aid to academics getting appointments and promotions on the strength of their CVs. In this respect, one might liken academics listing their journal publications to wild-west gunslingers putting notches on their guns for each successful ‘hit’,  except that in the latter case the ‘hits’ denote clearer outcomes.

There should be more to the process than this though. Indeed, there is a reasonable expectation that journals should make a contribution to the advancement of knowledge and to public education. But therein lie tensions. What is useful for communications between researchers may be relatively inaccessible to more general readers who have some potential interest in, but little knowledge of, each specific field.  Some would say, perhaps with regret, that a two-tiered publishing approach is needed – one for the insiders and one for the outsiders. Others contend that academic journals can and should serve as effective channels for communication of information and ideas between writers and a broad readership, encouraging those readers to be engaged with issues of major importance. The Journal of Australian Political Economy (JAPE) is one that clearly has the latter aim.

Started in 1976 as a means of promoting political economy as a challenge to mainstream economic theory and policy, JAPE has always been part of social struggle. The struggles have been partly on University campuses as students and dissident academics have sought alternatives to mainstream economics education. The broader struggles have been against neoliberalism and other political practices that compound economic insecurity, social inequality and ecological unsustainability.  Since its inception JAPE had a declared aim of contributing to progressive social change, specifically by providing critiques of, and alternatives to, mainstream economic thought. It is not alone in this regard, of course. Other Australian journals like The Economics and Labour Relations Review and Labour & Industry: A Journal of the Social and Economic Relations of Work also publish progressive political economic contributions, while magazines like Australian Options seek to present shorter articles on political and economic issues to a broad readership.

In recent years the JAPE editors have put considerable focus on producing special theme issues. The Winter 2015 issue, for example, focused on Heterodox Economics,  looking at how the neoclassical economic orthodoxy can be challenged by competing currents of economic thought, both in the academy and in broader social and political arenas. But other issues of JAPE continue to cover diverse issues, showcasing what positive contributions political economists are making through their research and writing on the issues of the day.

The latest issue of JAPE (Summer 2015/16) is illustrative. The topics in the new JAPE include ‘democratising work’ (looking at the political and public dimensions of work); ‘the limits of transformation’ (as analysed by Karl Polanyi); ‘green stimulus and pink batts’ (analysing the Australian government’s stimulus policy, responding to the GFC);  ‘contesting actually existing neoliberalism’ (analysing neoliberalism as a class project, not merely a free market ideology); a comparative study of economic development strategies in Cuba and Ecuador ; and reflections on ‘the Australian Economy at a critical juncture’.

Some of these newly-published articles are written by senior academics, while others are the work of research students. The latter aspect of JAPE is particularly distinctive. Most academic journals operate as ‘gatekeepers’ in the publishing process, determining who shall gain entry and who shall be stopped from publishing on the basis of anonymous referees’ reports. Few postgraduate researchers succeed in getting published in these journals, even though their analysis and ideas may be innovative. JAPE takes a more developmental approach. The standard ‘double blind’ refereeing approach is rigorously applied, but critical feedback from referees is not necessarily the end of the matter. The JAPE editors work commonly with authors to improve their written work to publishable standards, advising on how to deal with critical feedback and improve expression and presentation. Indeed, even well-established senior academics often need, and benefit from, this process!

The result of these editorial processes is that each issue of JAPE typically includes a mix of articles by ‘top gunslingers’ in the field of political economy and by younger scholars. Among the former are such international heavy-hitters as Leo Panitch, Fred Block, Susan George, Walden Bello and Geoff Harcourt. Among the latter are winners of the annual JAPE Young Scholars Award, which facilitates the development of honours theses into publishable articles. Does the mix work? The proof of the pudding is in the eating, of course. So please have a look at the contents of the latest issue, free online at www.jape.org. The contents of back issues are also freely available on the same site. And, for ‘old fashioned’ readers who like the feeling of a book on their lap, hard copies are available at a very modest price (which has not increased for over twenty five years, thereby contributing to maintaining a low rate of inflation in the Australian economy!).

What’s coming next? The Winter 2016 issue of JAPE will probably include an edited transcript of the talk on the Greek/European crisis given by Yanis Varoufakis at the University of Sydney a month ago, together with articles by younger researcher/scholars on Australian housing policy, the changing occupational composition of international migration, and the principles and pitfalls in industrial policy. A future theme issue of the journal on ‘Inequality and International Development’ has just been announced, inviting potential contributors to send submissions to the guest editors, Franklin Obeng-Odoom (franklin.obeng-oddom@uts.edu.au) and Matt Withers (Matt.withers@sydney.edu.au).

Feedback from readers of the journal is always welcome, of course, as are submitted papers. These should be emailed to the coordinating editor (frank.stilwell@sydney.edu.au).

Frank Stilwell

Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Sydney, co-ordinating editor of the Journal of Australian Political Economy (JAPE), and Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

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