The debate on Irish government and corporate tax rates rages on. Unusually, this debate is resolving into a discussion between two academics. Jim Stewart of TCD has asserted a number of claims (here, here, here) on the effective tax rate and on the rate of tax evasion and manipulation by MNC’s. Seamus Coffey of UCC has produced a report that suggests that things are not as bad as that. Not surprisingly these claims and counterclaims have been getting a lot of media attention
It is good to see academics taking a lead on this issue. However, what is of concern to me is that we are seeing a debate on what are in essence unproofed claims. That is to say, the reports and working papers seem not have gone through the usual peer review process. Peer review comes in for some justified flack. But as a mechanism to ensure some degree of bullet proofing of hypotheses, analyses and suggestions, it has enormous merit. My concern is that neither of the two protagonists in this debate have, as yet, published papers on the tax system. Checking SCOPUS, Econlit and Emerald FullText, the three overlapping databases of peer reviewed papers in management and economics, I see no publications whatsoever from Coffey, and those from Stewart are in the main on pensions and financial regulation.
Peer review in publication has a purpose. In the areas of taxation we have a number of journals of international standing that publish papers which are subject to rigorous peer review. A great part of the debate on this area appears (I am not an expert) to revolve around both the correct database to use and the interpretation of certain parts of same. Others internationally have published on these areas, in these journals. Submission, which may be happening, to these journals would achieve three things. First, it would open the debate up to a wider audience and therefore allow a wider perspective, with the result that the analyses can be placed in the literature and in the debate in a more holistic manner. Second, it would ensure that the inevitable errors of omission and commission that all authors are prone to are more likely to be caught, resulting in a more robust argument. Third, would provide face credibility to the research. Credibility in academia is a rather intangible thing. It arises from a long process of publication in peer review journals, engagement in public debate on the basis of that research, willingness to expand the debate outside the narrow peer review boundaries but within the broad scope of ones competence, and above all a solid publication record. The latter is imperative – without peer review and revisiting ones research there is a weak foundation no matter how competent the person is. Competence needs to be constantly demonstrated and as an academic the best way to do so is via the publication route. We all think our analyses are perfect, our conclusions justified and so on. It is always a shock when people disagree, and prove to you that they, not you, are in fact correct. Thats the benefit of peer review.
The researchers here have been very careful, it seems to me, in their writing, to be as scientific as possible. I for one however would be much more comfortable, given the debate and its importance, if we were discussing papers in the British Tax Journal or International Tax and Public Finance, or Journal of American Taxation Institute, or Bulletin of International Taxation or European Taxation or … you get the idea. Instead we are discussing working papers and internal reports. As academics we need to ensure that the debate on our work is carried out when we have finalised it. We all publish papers on the web, or present them at conferences. Sometimes these are as far as they go, and debate on these can and should be encouraged. But working papers and reports are a stage, not the end, of a journey. Even when a paper is published in a peer reviewed international journal it can and oftentimes is overturned later. The journey of research is constant.
We need to have debate on the issue of irish corporate tax, and there is a genuine concern about the timelags in publication. That said, the reality is that this issue has been bubbling for years and will do so for years. There is time to submit and resubmit and get published. At the end we have a more robust, more critiqued, hopefully more accurate set of findings. That is when the debate can really take off, but only if we get there.