#DiversityinHigherEd – Limited by Publications

As diversity in higher education becomes more of a focal point and a means to reflect on our own institutions and practices as academics, we will be re-posting material related to these issues on the first Thursday of every month. This post is borrowed from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

How Much Does Publishing in Top Journals Boost Tenure Prospects? In Economics, a Lot

By Audrey Williams June

For academics on the tenure track, the pressure to publish at all costs and in the top journals in their field is immense. That’s because meeting that professional standard matters — a lot.

How much does it matter for academic economists? A new working paper by James J. Heckman, a Nobel laureate and economist, and Sidharth Moktan, a predoctoral fellow, provides a look. Both are at the University of Chicago.

They analyzed job and publication data of tenure-track faculty members hired by the top 35 economics departments in the nation and found that publishing in a top-five journal is a “powerful determinant of tenure in academia” and an “important predictor of professional success.” In short, the more top-five publications, the better. The outsize influence of The American Economic Review, Econometrica, the Journal of Political Economy, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, and The Review of Economic Studies is referred to in the paper’s subtitle as “The Tyranny of the Top Five.”

Here are four takeaways from the paper:

1) Junior professors are hyperaware of the top five’s ability to make or break careers.

Heckman and Moktan also surveyed more than 308 assistant and associate professors in the top 50 economics departments in the nation and asked them which of eight different areas of performance they believed most influenced tenure and promotion. The number of publications in top-five journals received the highest mean, with external letters — that often highlight the number of top-five articles published or in the works — coming in second. At the bottom, across the board: chapters and books.

Young economists also believe, on average, that at least 89 out of 100 tenure committees will award tenure to a candidate who has top-five publications over an identical candidate who has the same quantity and quality of publications in journals outside the top five.

2) The top five journals are shaping junior faculty members’ research agendas — and not for the better.

Ideally, young economists pursue topics with the goal of generating knowledge in the field. But Heckman notes, in the paper, that over the years he’s talked to many graduate students, postdocs, and assistant professors about interesting research projects only to be told “that is a great idea, but it will not lead to a top-five” publication. Data-intensive empirical projects don’t fit into the top-five mold, which gives junior faculty members little motivation to pursue them.

The top-five system, the paper says, “incentivizes careerism rather than creative scholarship.” Old habits die hard, the researchers note. Some senior economists are chasing the top five too, since their reward system — promotion, recognition, and salaries — is linked to them, the paper says.

3) Landing in a top-five journal is harder than ever.

Tenure-track economists are heeding the message that tenure-and-promotion committees are sending about publishing in key journals, but in reality the odds are against them. Space in the top five journals hasn’t grown much since 1990; meanwhile, submissions to them have increased, the paper says. The acceptance rates at leading journals dropped from 15 percent in 1980 to 6 percent in 2012. And many academics “do not practice what they preach,” the researchers write. They read and cite papers from journals outside of the top five and then turn around and use top journals as a filter to screen prospective candidates.

4) The discipline needs to find a better way to measure scholarly potential.

One way to do that, the authors say, is to add a few more influential journals to the top-five mix. But that doesn’t keep academics from judging potential “based on a track record of publications in a handful of select journals.” If departments did close reads on published and unpublished papers, that would “signal that they both acknowledge and adequately account for the greater risk associated with serious scholars working at the frontiers of the discipline,” the paper says. The researchers also propose a “more radical” shift to an open-source system that would allow new ideas to be tested and get online real-time peer review. Doing nothing, however, is a bad move: “Academic economics risks becoming (or remaining) a group of top-five plodders putting one foot in front of the other,” the authors write.


Audrey Williams June is a senior reporter who writes about the academic workplace, faculty pay, and work-life balance in academe. Contact her at audrey.june@chronicle.com, or follow her on Twitter @chronaudrey.

This post originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education on October 1, 2018 https://www.chronicle.com/article/How-Much-Does-Publishing-in/244694