Thursday, 27 March 2014

Economic history in Italy: A letter to the Minister of University and Scientific Research

Re: Abilitazione Scientifica Nazionale 2012, Storia Economica (13 C/1)

Dear Prime Minister, dear Minister,

We would like to express our concern about the results of the National Scientific Qualification (Abilitazione Scientifica Nazionale) in Economic History (13 C/1). In particular, we are puzzled by the failure of a number of applicants with an outstanding track record to obtain the “qualification” (abilitazione) for Full Professor (professore prima fascia) or for Associate Professor (professore seconda fascia). These individuals are well known outside Italy for their publications, their conference and seminar presentations, their refereeing of papers for leading journals, and their collaboration in international research projects. For example, we refer to three extremely valuable colleagues, Mark Dincecco (University of Michigan), Alessandro Nuvolari (Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies) and Giovanni Vecchi (University  of Rome “Tor Vergata”), none of whom was awarded the qualification to Full Professor. It would be a terrible shame if these outcomes inhibited the full development of these scholars’ research agendas; economic history would be the poorer for it.
Another troubling feature of these results is the fact that candidates with a very limited track record of research in terms of international publications have been awarded the qualification. This is not the direction in which Italian economic history should go if it wants to secure its rightful place at the research frontier in our field.

Yours sincerely,
Robert C. Allen (New York University Abu Dhabi)

Stephen Broadberry (London School of Economics)

Gregory Clark (University of California, Davis)

Nicholas F. R. Crafts (University of Warwick)

Jane Humphries (All Souls College, University of Oxford)

Deirdre McCloskey (University of Gothenburg and University of Illinois at Chicago)

Joel Mokyr (Northwestern University)

Douglass C. North (Washington University in St. Louis; Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences 1993)

Kevin O’Rourke (All Souls College, University of Oxford)

Leandro Prados de la Escosura (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid)

Jan Luiten Van Zanden (University of Utrecht)

Jeffrey G. Williamson (Harvard University and University of Wisconsin)

Comment by Giovanni Federico, President of the European Historical Economics Society

Giovanni Federico is Professor in Economic
History at University of Pisa, and President of
the European Historical Economics Society.
This letter by twelve distinguished economic historians does not need much comment. However, some additional information might be helpful for readers not used to the byzantine procedures of the Italian university.  According to a 2010 law, professors are recruited in two distinct stages. In the first stage (Abilitazione Scientifica Nazionale), a national committee decides, on the basis of her publication record, whether a candidate is qualified (abilitato) to hold associate or full professor position in a given subject.  The qualification does not guarantee a position, but it is necessary to apply for actual jobs, which the universities will advertise in the next four years. Afterwards, the qualification would expire. There are 186 committees for as many fields (settori concorsuali), including Economic History, which must assess also candidates for History of Economic Thought. The deadline for application was  November 20, 2012  and 145 and 81  scholars applied respectively for associate and (full) professor (some of them applied for both positions). 

The CVs of  the candidates and the assessments of the committee (individual and collective) are available at  

This transparency is highly praiseworthy, a welcome change from the bad habits of the past. 
The assessments show that the committee has denied the qualification to Nuvolari, Dincecco and Vecchi, at least officially, on a technicality. Its members have stated not to be able to distinguish the personal contribution of these three authors to the co-authored papers. This mention of the personal contribution to a joint paper may seem strange in the 21st century. Indeed, it follows an old tradition of the Italian concorsi (competitions) for university positions, which prescribed that the contribution of each author must be recognizable. In fact, authors still use to add in Italian books and articles odd-looking footnotes such as 'although the work is the outcome of a joint work, author X has written Section 1,3,5 while author Y has written section 2 and 4'. Needless to say, such statements would be absolutely unthinkable in an international journal. Indeed, other committees in Economics have had no qualm to assess joint works, paying lip service to the tradition with formulas such as 'we ascertain as much as possible the individual contribution of the candidate to joint works’ or ‘we are able to assess the individual contribution of the candidate’. The committee for Economic History (with one dissenting voice) has decided otherwise and has labelled ‘non valutabili’ (impossible to assess) all the joint work without an explicit statement of the contribution. Thus it assessed only 4 out of the 18 publications submitted by Nuvolari and found them insufficient for qualifying him.

 A quick look at the candidates’ CVs can buttress the second claim of the letter – that the committee has qualified some candidates with a “very limited” number of international publications. One can define these latter as articles in the list of A-rated journals suggested by the  ANVUR, the official agency overseeing the Abilitazione, at an earlier stage of the procedure. The list (available at is not very selective. It includes nine Economic History journals (Journal of Economic History, Explorations in Economic History, Economic History Review, European Review of Economic History, Cliometrica, Australian Economic History Review, Financial History Review, Journal of Latin America and Iberian Economic History and Technology and Culture), three business history  journals (Business History, Business History Review and Enterprise and Society), four journal of history of economic thought (European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Journal of Economic methodology and History of Political Economy).

 Yet, as of November 2012, only thirty candidates to full professor out of 81 had published at least one paper in any of these journals or in any of the long list of economics journals. Only ten candidates, including the three above mentioned, have published four paper or more. The results do not change much if we use a less demanding standard, the number of publications (books, chapter of books and articles) in the Econlit database. Thirty candidates have not a single title in the data-base - i.e. have no ‘international publications’ at all. Eighteen of them have been qualified. In contrast, 5 out of the top 10 candidates in terms of Econlit publications (ranging from 18 to 35) have not qualified. As a result, the average number of publications in Econlit is slightly higher for not qualified (5.80) than for qualified (5.65).  Both criteria would yield worse results if we concentrate on economic historians only. In fact, several specialists in the history of economic thought who applied are professional economists with a substantial publication record.

Of course, the international impact is not the only yardstick for good work. Econlit might omit  relevant work by Italian authors because it covers only very sketchily the Italian journals and publishing houses. However, if this is the case, it is arguably even worse. Any author who forfeits the opportunity of letting his work known outside the native borders not only damages his own standing but makes the international discourse poorer.

Giovanni Federico.

The letter has been reported on 26 March in Corriere della Sera, one of the most important newspaper in Italy.
Read it (in Italian) here.

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