October 25, 2018

UChicago Econ Paper: 'The Tyranny of the Top Five'

University of Chicago professor and a Nobel Prize–winning economist James Heckman and pre-doctoral fellow at the Center for the Economics of Human Development Sidharth Moktan, published a paper last month on the importance of publishing in “Top Five” (T5) journals for the careers of young economists.

Their paper, titled "Publishing and Promotion in Economics: The Tyranny of the Top Five," was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). It argues that economics departments across the country tend to use a job candidate’s publishing record in the so-called “Top Five” journals as a criterion in deciding whether or not to grant them tenure.

In the economic academia, the Top Five refers to the five most prestigious journals in general economics, The American Economic Review, Econometrica, The Journal of Political Economy, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, and The Review of Economic Studies.

The paper contains a formal statistical analysis showing a young economics scholar’s Top Five publication has a powerful influence on his or her likelihood of getting tenure. It also contains a survey of the perceptions of junior economists that corroborates this situation.

Heckman and Moktan find the status quo problematic, as it can incentivize “careerism.” According to their paper, the demand for young scholars to publish in Top Five journals “shapes research agendas. For many young economists, if a paper on any topic cannot be published in a Top Five outlet, the topic is not worth pursuing.”

Therefore, young economists are implicitly encouraged to only conduct research that is likely to be published by a Top Five paper. Not only is long-term or paradigm-defying research discouraged, but there is also a fear that research in the discipline can be unduly influenced by the Top Five editors’ personal tastes of topics and methodologies.

Moreover, scholars who know the editors of Top Five journals personally are more likely to get their papers published. “Editors are likely to select the papers of those they know. Network effects are empirically important,” the researchers argue in the paper.

“As Professor Heckman and I write this paper, what we want to see is that Top Five journals get de-emphasized in our discipline. But the point is not to move on to a new set of journals—say, Top 10 or Top 20—but to a different way of conducting matters, so that creativity is encouraged,” Moktan said.

Moktan finds it worrying that the Top Five have a “quality-independent” effect on a candidate’s likelihood of getting tenure, which means that a candidate whose portfolio contains Top Five publications has an edge over another who does not, even if their quality of research is controlled to be the same. Yet the paper contains empirical evidence that this may the case for many.

“It pays more [for a junior economist] to have a mediocre publication portfolio with T5 publications than an outstanding portfolio without any T5s,” the paper said.

Moktan thinks change is needed. He argues that senior economists should read papers themselves and form their own judgment on junior candidates. He also thinks that economists should encourage creative, long-term, and even risky (in the sense of potentially fruitless) research. For example, it may be a good place for economists to start by paying more attention to working papers, which are friendlier to new ideas that have yet to fully unfold into significant results.

“At the end of the day, we are just publishing our own results. What should academia do to push for a change for the better? We would like to see it sparking a broad conversation,” Moktan said.

In an interview with The Maroon, the current Department of Economics Chair Robert Shimer agrees that publishing records in Top Five journals play a vital role in a young economist’s progress toward tenure. He says it is a prevalent practice among economics departments, especially outside of the top ones, to grade candidates using a numeric formula in the tenure process; those formulas usually place a heavy emphasis on the candidate’s Top Five publications.

Contrary to such formulas, Shimer thinks an excellent economics department should not rely heavily on Top Five publication in judging a junior candidate’s aptitude. He said that no one has the time to read every piece of economic literature that is coming out, and while one’s publishing record can be a useful screener, it is the senior economists’ responsibility to read the papers carefully and form their own judgements. Shimer says it is simply part of their job to read and think for themselves, rather than delegate the job of judging a young candidate to an outside organization.

Shimer, a former editor of the Journal of Political Economy, argued that the judgment of journal editors is not consistently reliable. He noted that all journals in the Top 5 are general economic journals, and the small number of editors of each cannot fully represent different specialties and methodologies for a discipline as diverse as economics.

Shimer said that there are many papers in top journals that were rejected by the Top Five, but that rejection does not discount the papers’ quality. He recalled a research finding that the citation level of papers in other top field journals is similar to those in Top Five journals.

Furthermore, politics, bias, and personal networking all play a role in the editors’ decision on which papers to publish and which not to, Shimer said. These facts render publication in the Top Five not entirely reliable sources for distinguishing valuable research from the rest. Instead, Shimer urges economists to look at a more diverse array of journals and to trust their own reading over editors’.

“It is fundamentally a question about whose judgment to trust more,” he said. At UChicago, Shimer instills in his department that trusting the judgment of faculty members over that of the journal editors is the only way of evaluating young scholars that fit the department’s caliber.