Nine facts about top journals in economics

By Paul Walker 22/01/2013

These nine facts will not be of any concern to most of you, but they will be very important for a small subset of you. So those in the subset take note.

‘Publish or perish’ has been the rule in academic economics since forever, but there is a widespread perception that publishing in the best journals has become harder and much slower. The nine facts given below includes evidence confirming this perception. The number of articles published in top journals has fallen, while the number and length of submissions have risen. I would argue that this basic trend is true not just of the top five journals but of all journals. You do have to how have the incentives to publish changed over the years. Has it changed for the better? The profession should consider recalibrating publication demands to reflect this new reality.

  1. The number of yearly submissions to the five top journals nearly doubled from 1990 to 2012.
  2. The total number of articles published in the top journals declined from about 400 per year in the late 1970s to around 300 per year in 2010-12. The combination of rising submissions and falling publications led to a sharp fall in the aggregate acceptance rate, from around 15% in 1980 to 6% today.
  3. The American Economic Review now accounts for 40% of top journal publications in the field, up from 25% in 1970. In contrast, JPE, which also published about one quarter of all top-five articles in the late 1970s, now publishes less than 10% of these articles. Stated differently, in the late 1970s AER and JPE had about equal say in the gatekeeping process that determined publications in the top-five journals. Now AER has four times greater weight than JPE.
  4. The trends to the length of published articles are documented. It is found that published papers in the top five journals are nearly three times longer today than they were in the 1970s.
  5. The fifth fact is that the number of authors per paper has increased monotonically over time. In the early 1970s, three quarters of articles were single-authored, and the average number of authors in a paper was 1.3. By the early 1990s, the fraction of single-authored papers had fallen to 50%, and the mean number of authors reached 1.6. Most recently (2011-2012), more than three quarters of papers have at least two authors and the mean number of authors is 2.2.
  6. Sixth, papers published in the top five economics journals are highly cited. Among those published in the late 1990s, for example, the median article has about 200 Google Scholar citations.
  7. Seventh, citation-based rankings of the top-five journals reveal interesting patterns. Median citations for articles in The American Economic Review and the Journal of Political Economy tend to be quite similar from year to year – for example, around 100 in the late 1980s, between 250 and 300 in the mid-1990s, and around 130 in 2005. In the earlier years of our sample, articles in Econometrica have about the same median citations as those in AER or JPE. Starting in the 1990s, however, there is a discernible fall in the relative impact of Econometrica articles. Articles in The Review of Economic Studies tend to be the least cited among the top five journals, although its relative position appears to be improving in the last few years. Perhaps the most obvious feature is the dramatic increase in relative citations for articles in The Quarterly Journal of Economics.
  8. Eighth, using a regression-based analysis, it is shown that citations are strongly increasing in both the length of a paper and the number of coauthors, suggesting that trends in both dimensions may be driven in part by quality competition.
  9. Ninth, despite the relative stability of the distribution of published articles across fields, there are interesting differences in the relative citation rates of newer and older papers in different fields. In particular, papers in Development and International Economics published since 1990 are more highly cited than older (pre-1990) papers in these fields, whereas recent papers in Econometrics and Theory are less cited than older papers in these fields.

These nine facts come from a article, Nine facts about top journals in economics by David Card and Stefano DellaVigna.

Card and DellaVigna conclude their article by saying,

Overall, these findings have potentially significant implications for academic economists, particularly with regard to the career paths of younger scholars. Most importantly, the competition for space in the top journals has grown fiercer over time. The overall acceptance rate for submissions at the top five journals is about one-third as high today as in the early 1970s. This trend is independent of the trend documented by Ellison (2002) toward longer delays in the adjudication and revision process, and in fact has largely emerged in the decade since Ellison’s original investigation. Both lower acceptance rates and longer delays, however, make it increasingly difficult for any one author to achieve a given set of publication benchmarks. Authors have clearly responded by forming bigger teams, and to the extent that co-authored papers are treated as equivalent to single-authored ones, they have been able to partially mitigate the adverse effects of lower acceptance rates and longer delays.