Nick French is Professor in Real Estate and Donaldsons Fellow in Commercial Property in the Department of Real Estate and Construction at Oxford Brookes University. He is a founding member of the European Real Estate Society. He has been involved with the Journal of Property Investment & Finance since 1983, taking over as editor in 1987.
Journal of Property Investment & Finance aims to provide an international forum for the interchange of information and ideas relating to property valuation and investment. Real estate is the world’s biggest business accounting for 15 per cent of global GDP, and with an asset value higher than that of equities. The journal also explores the interface between academic research and practical application by disseminating new research findings alongside articles related to everyday professional practice. In so doing, it fulfils a vital role in the property profession, by providing an outlet for academics and practitioners to offer solutions to the many new problems in the increasingly sophisticated real estate market.
How did you come to be involved in the academic study of real estate, and how did you become editor of the journal?
I did a degree in what was in those days called land management in order to become a chartered surveyor, following in my father’s footsteps. I had no idea of the area of surveying I was going into at that stage, I thought it was all quantity surveying. Whilst studying for my degree at Reading, I found that I had both a liking of and an ability to do valuations. When my degree finished I spent a year at the students’ union doing the students’ magazine, but I wanted keep in with surveying in order to be employable. My tutor offered me some teaching, and I filled in for him whilst he went off to Singapore for a year. So I fell into it from there, and got the academic bug.
I also came on board with the journal at that time – my tutor had started it and in those pre e-mail days he needed someone in the UK to run it for him whilst he was on sabbatical, so I took over that role. The editor did everything in those days, so I got all the papers in, sent them for review and then copy preparation, and I even did the paste-up.
How well established is the subject academically?
The story in the UK is very different from elsewhere. Here, there have always been a substantial number of courses in surveying under different names – estate management, land management, quantity surveying – vocational degrees from the post 1992 universities, taught by people who had been in practice all their lives. Over the last 20-25 years it has established itself as an academic subject, which means that it’s attracted people from other disciplines, such as economics, law and finance, who come in from a different viewpoint and broaden the subject. Also, real estate is viewed as being one of the main asset classes in terms of investment so it’s taken on a more financial as well as a property management role.
So, what is the attraction of the subject to all these people?
The main aim of students is still to go into surveying, although the profession these days has a broader remit – management consultancy that happens to be on property. There’s a problem in that our students get very well paid in the real world, so it’s difficult to encourage them to stay on and become academics unless they have a vocation. Financially they would be taking a big hit as they would get paid twice as much in practice.
Other academics tend to come into the area through synergy with their research: for example, geographers find that property is one of the driving forces on the economy and therefore start researching it; economists see property as one of the principal assets and factors of production – you need property to produce and sell goods. So it’s very much established in itself as one of the principal subject areas, although some people in the more traditional disciplines might not agree.
You helped found the European Real Estate Society as a forum for property research in Europe. Can you say something about the aims and achievements of this society?
It seemed to me that a lot of people were working in their different universities in isolation. Most real estate departments in the UK are less than ten people and sometimes only three or four; in Europe it’s even smaller, with just one or two people interested in real estate. That meant that however keen people were, there were no synergies. I got the idea from a conference I attended at the American Real Estate Society some years ago. I and a colleague from Amsterdam set up the European Real Estate Society, which ironically is now bigger than its American counterpart.
In a nutshell, what is the journal's mission?
There’s two strands to what we do, both of which involve people talking to one another. On the purely academic side, we publish erudite papers that take the subject forward. Practitioners on the other hand are concerned with providing the best possible service to their clients. Often what academics do doesn’t actually tally with what practitioners need. The idea of both the Real Estate Society and the journal was to provide a forum whereby the two could meet, so that academics could understand that if they do work which is directly applicable to practice, practitioners will appreciate that and therefore use academics more. Academics are able to undertake independent research, and practitioners need to understand how this can be useful.
The other strand is to get academics talking to one another and writing papers together. A few write by themselves but most people tend to partner up with someone else, so they may see a paper and e-mail the person, and take things from there.
What is the market position of your journal compared with other real estate journals?
In the UK the two principal journals are the Journal of Property Investment Finance and the Journal of Property Research which is published by Spon’s. It depends who you talk to but within the RAE they are pretty much on par.
If you look at the international marketplace, the pure finance journals are considered to be stronger than real estate journals, possibly as a hangover from the old days of seeing real estate as a vocational degree etc. and not really academic. In America the Journal of Finance would be considered to be the best place to put a paper related to property finance, as even though it’s not a property journal it has a stronger academic history and is considered to be a better outlet.
How would you encourage someone to write for your journal rather than a finance journal?
It depends on the person and the topic. For a property researcher, the natural place to publish is JPIF, which for me personally causes a problem – generally I only publish in special issues where there is another editor involved. Some of the papers we see are pretty much just finance papers, with very detailed financial analysis using financial modelling, and may therefore be more suited to the finance journals. So it’s really horses for courses.
What I am hoping is that we get the directly applied finance papers, ones that don’t just use property data as part of the background but also say why what they have done is important for the property profession. The all encompassing test I have on papers is that the paper needs to be empirically sound and academically rigorous, but the bottom line is that if it doesn’t add anything to the picture, I don’t consider it as a good paper. It’s got to say why is this important and where we go to from here.
How does the intersection between academics and practitioners work in practice? Do practitioners dictate the research questions?
No, I don’t think so, because while there are some practitioners who have taken on board this idea of the relationship between them and academia, the majority are just running around getting business. Also there are now very good research departments within the companies, which means that there’s probably – I’m guessing now – about 150 property researchers (including academics) in London alone.
The research tends to split into two parts, one specifically for clients, fairly focused. Firms see this as market research and tend to do it themselves. Then you get broader questions, for example how does the property market manage itself in terms of lease structures. It’s still near market but it’s not something that an individual company would be able to do, partly because it’s beyond their ambit, but also because you need the degree of independence a university would have in order to make a statement to the marketplace.
So, who forms the practitioner market – does it tend to be the in-house researchers?
We can’t say for certain because subscriptions are by company, and we don’t know who reads it, but from talking to people it does tend to be the in-company research departments which act like the interface, picking up on the applicability of the research papers.
The journal is split into two parts: academic papers and Practice Briefings. The content of the latter is very different and they are deliberately shorter. According to the 2005 download figures, the papers that were accessed the most were the education briefing and the practice briefing – those sorts of papers have a much broader audience. And the hope is that – and has always been – if they are picking up on the practice briefings then every now and again they will look at the academic papers.
So, we have lots of different masters in our potential audience. What we try to do without having a wishy-washy compromise is to provide things for them all – the practice briefings for the pure practitioner, the research papers for the pure academics and the academically more rigorous but closer to market ones for the property researchers.
Do you also have a student audience?
The academic articles are aimed much more at post-graduate students, as would be true of most academic journals. Having said that, there’s the Education Briefings which are directly relevant to undergraduates so again it’s a mixture and you rely on the tutors to identify what’s appropriate to which year group.
What qualities do you look for in a research paper?
It’s the same as any other academic journal. In any paper, you need to be able to use and understand techniques, whether it’s quantitative or qualitative research. Wherever research is done it must be done rigorously and appropriately and drawn from previous research. If there is no theoretical background it would not go in as an academic paper. If it has merit, we may move it over to the practitioner section and rejig the way it is written.
You comment in the journal web pages about the subject’s topicality and the need for professionals to improve professional education and policing standards. What are some of the topical issues of which they need to be aware?
Topical subjects are always changing, although we have a constant need for legal briefings. We don’t have enough of these, and there are only three to five researchers in the area. The law side of things is important, there’s something called a Code of Commercial Leases which is about how people operate in the property market, and their relationships with their tenants or their clients.
In other areas, there’s something called REITs, that’s Real Estate Investment Trusts, which are a new tax efficient vehicle for investing in property indirectly: you don’t buy property, you buy shares in a company that owns property. You’ve always been able to buy shares in a property company before, but what’s different as of January this year is that you only pay tax on the dividends and not on the rent. REITs have been around in America for 20-25 years, there’s a few in Europe, they are gradually becoming normal vehicles for investing in property. We don’t know how they are going to work in the UK, and we need to do a lot of research, in fact we are just about to do a special issue on REITs. We shall be doing another special issue on capital markets, the relationship of property to the money markets.
What are the qualities you look for in a practice briefing?
It’s got to be concise and succinct and relevant, and on a subject area likely to land up on someone’s desk. For example, our next issue will publish something on how to do an evaluation of premises; not a step by step guide but just the main issues which you need to consider. We are constantly looking for papers on topics which a practitioner may come across, perhaps as a result of a request from a client.
So where is your market outside the UK?
Most of our readership is in current or ex commonwealth countries: Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Africa, although not India so much. We are gradually getting into Europe, but Emerald is going to be setting up a European real estate journal which will obviously take on board that marketplace. We have a few readers in China but again we have very few subscribers there.
We don’t penetrate the US particularly well, most of the contributions I get come as a result of the networking I do through American conferences, where I promote the journal’s international aspect – although it’s based in the UK a lot of our readership is outside the UK.
What qualities would make you want to nominate a paper for an outstanding paper award?
Anything published in the journal must have academic rigour and thorough empirical analysis. For a paper to have the outstanding award, it’s got to have that little bit extra, which is around applicability and understanding of the marketplace: why are these results important and what do they mean for the property profession, where can we go from this, and what other research needs to be done?
Can you describe the peer review process, and what the referees are looking for?
We have two different systems. For an academic paper, we will get the paper reviewed by a minimum of 2 different reviewers, although 90 per cent of papers have three blind referees. I prefer to have three as often academics disagree and with two you get one saying yes and one saying no. I decant all the comments into an anonymous sheet which I then send to the author, and hopefully with encouragement the author will resubmit, taking on board the comments. Of course, double blind means that both reviewer and author are anonymous, although both try and guess each other’s identity, and invariably get it wrong! The peer review process is very important in maintaining our reputation as an academic journal, and we have a relatively high reject rate – it must be clear that we only want to publish papers that are of a high academic standard.
The refereeing process is different on the practitioner side, generally there is no empirical research but rather a matter of judgement on how to interpret some aspect of law or a new development in the financial world.
Congratulations on obtaining a Leading Editor award! What do you think gained you this award?
Being arrogant, when I send copy in it’s the most professionally produced copy you will ever see – all the paperwork is there, and the articles are there in the order that they will appear in the journal issue. But I say that partly tongue in cheek – I’m not quite sure why I got the Leading Editor award. It may be more to do with the fact that I do know all the academics in this subject area internationally, which makes me in a good position to act as a gatekeeper for the whole process.
Professor Nick French was interviewed in November 2007.
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