Monday's Macro Memo: How to Fix the Curse of the Five

I recently came across this video link to a session held at the 2017 ASSA meetings on the ‘Curse of the Top Five’. The session was organised by Jim Heckman and involves a panel discussion with participation by Heckman, George Akerlof, Angus Deaton, Drew Fudenberg and Lars Hansen. I’m going to concentrate here on the presentations by Heckman and Akerlof.

Heckman made several points in a talk informed by a series of fascinating slides that you can find linked here. He pointed out that, although many top economists publish important highly cited papers outside the top five journals, the influence of the top five is increasingly important in promotion and tenure decisions, a point I also made here.

Why is that a bad thing? One of the most insidious aspects of the curse of the five is that it concentrates power in the hands of a small group of insiders and that makes it much harder for new ideas to emerge. Figure 11, taken from Heckman’s talk, illustrates a density plot of the number of years served by editors in four of the top five journals. The QJE, a journal dominated by Harvard, is an outlier with slow turnover in editorial control. But the influence of the other top journals is also pervasive and entry to the club depends on success determined by its established members.

A friend of mine who is a senior academic at a top business school related the following story which encapsulates much that is wrong with the current system. A junior colleague, coming up for tenure, was waiting for a decision from the AER. In a departmental discussion, the point was made that hir tenure decision would be contingent on whether the paper was accepted there. As my friend remarked; why would we delegate our tenure decision to the editor of the AER?

George Akerlof has five recommendations, all of which I agree with.

1. Editors should take more responsibility for decisions by overruling referees more often.

2. We should revert to a situation where referees are advisors rather than the current situation where they often get to rewrite the paper.

3. We should work to diminish the role of top-five publications in tenure decisions.

4. We should ‘shame’ deans who act as top-five bean counters; and

5. We must broaden the scope of areas that we deem to be intellectually acceptable to be admitted as a tenured member of our tribe.

I have two recommendations of my own for possible ways to fix the curse of the five.

First, those of us with influence on granting agencies should recommend that more than five journals be given equal weight when ranking research. In the UK, the research output of academic departments is assessed on a regular basis and referees are given guidelines in which they are encouraged to give more weight to articles published in the top five journals. That guidance should be broadened and referees should be advised instead to broaden the base to fifteen or twenty journals, selected for example, by RePEc rankings.

Second, when junior faculty come up for promotion they should be judged on their best three articles where the three articles are self-selected and, in some cases, might be replaced by a book. The current system provides incentives for junior scholars to publish large numbers of derivative works, much of which contribute little or nothing to the social good.

When I first moved to UCLA in the late 1980s, the senior faculty would read the work of our junior colleagues and make tenure decisions based on the content of their research papers. Slowly, over the years, it became more common to rely on the decisions of others by placing weight on where papers were published as opposed to their content.

I am encouraged by the positive message that arose from the ASSA panel. As the profession grows and journal space becomes more valuable, it is time to broaden the scope of those journals we judge to be the gatekeepers of knowledge. We should trust our own judgement and carefully read the work of our colleagues. That, I believe, is the right way to fix the curse of the five.

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