Publishing and promotion in economics: The tyranny of the Top Five

  • It raises the entry costs for new ideas and persons outside the orbits of the journals and their editors. An over-emphasis on Top Five publications perversely incentivises scholars to pursue follow-up and replication work at the expense of creative pioneering research, since follow-up work is easier to judge, is more likely to result in clean publishable results, and is hence more likely to be published. This behaviour is consistent with basic common sense: you get what you incentivise.
  • As of the time of the writing of this column, 667 organisations and 13,019 individuals have signed the San Francisco Declaration of Research Assessment, a declaration denouncing the use of journal metrics in hiring, career advancement, and funding decisions within the sciences. Economists should take heed of these actions. We provide suggestions for change in the concluding portion of this column.
  • The current practice of relying on the Top Five has weak empirical support if judged by its ability to produce impactful papers as measured by citation counts.
  • We show that network effects are empirically important – editors are likely to select the papers of those they know.
  • Reliance on the Top Five as a screening device raises serious concerns. Our findings should spark a serious conversation in the economics profession about developing implementable alternatives for judging the quality of research. Such solutions necessarily de-emphasise the role of the Top Five in tenure and promotion decisions, and redistribute the signalling function more broadly across a range of high-quality journals.
  • A more radical proposal would be to shift publication away from the current journal system with its long delays in refereeing and publication and possibility for incest and favouritism, towards an open source arXiv or PLOS ONE format.