American Economic Review: Insights is a new journal by the American Economic Association. It’s intended to replace the short paper section of the AER, and the first issue will appear this summer. Naturally, I’ve had quite a few discussion with colleagues about its likely quality: will AER: Insights be a top-tier journal like the AER, somewhere in the middle of the pack, or a flop?
Obviously, many factors affect the success of a journal. But how it starts out surely matters. Publish some amazing articles and become the journal at the top of people’s minds when they think about where to submit, which will in turn make it easier to attract high-quality articles. Publish some questionable research, and risk aversion will kick in, prompting people to submit elsewhere first and leaving you mostly with articles that other journals decided against publishing.
So I again dove into the database of Academic Sequitur. We track forthcoming articles, so even though the first issue of AER: Insights has not been published yet, we have 26 to-be-published articles in our database (the first of which were added in November of 2018, by the way!). The question I asked was simple: what percent of authors whose work is scheduled to appear in AER: Insights have published a top 5 article any time since 2000?
The answer is a whopping 67% (61% if you exclude AER articles). 58% have published in the AER, 23% have published in Econometrica, 38% have published in QJE, and 39% have published in ReStud. The overall percentage is non-trivially higher than that of any other journal except for Journal of Economic Literature.
Perhaps these numbers are not surprising to you. In fact, it may very well be a strategy that AER: Insights is consciously employing to gain early traction. And these statistics could signal that it’s difficult to get published there unless you’re well-known, at least at this point (though we don’t know what the distribution of submissions looks like). But more information is better, and this certainly makes me more likely to try for AER: Insights in the future!
Journal rankings can be controversial. At the same time, the quality of a journal in which one’s research is published is generally thought to be very important for a researcher’s career, and many researchers are thus rightly concerned about it. Here at Academic Sequitur, we came up with a new way (to the best of our knowledge) to think about how a journal is perceived by the profession. This blog post focuses on the field of economics. We start with the premise that the top 5 economic journals (AER, Econometrica, JPE, QJE, and ReStud) are really the best in the profession, on average. Then we calculate what percent of authors who published in another journal have at least one “top 5” publication. The higher than number is, the more likely it is to be a high-quality journal. In non-top-5 journals, we considered all articles published since 2018 (results are similar if we start in 2009, when the AEJs were started). For calculating whether an author has a top-5 publication, we used top 5 articles since the year 2000.
Before I show you the results, it’s important to note that one thing which can affect this ranking is the topic of the journal under consideration. If a journal’s focus is not “sexy” enough for a top 5 journal, that’s likely going to lower its ranking. Whether this is a feature or a bug I will let you decide.
So with that, here are journals that come out on top, based on the overall proportion of authors publishing at least one article in any top 5 (the rest of the columns show the journal-specific proportions).
Four interesting things about these rankings: First, the shares are really high for eight out of ten of these journals, with about half the authors having at least one top 5. To me, this pattern suggests that we definitely shouldn’t overlook the non-top-5-journals when looking for quality articles. Second, these eight journals are pretty close to each other according to this metric, suggesting that quality differences between them are not large. Third, this metric largely aligns with what I think are the general perceptions of applied microeconomists in North America, with one exception: we seem to be giving the Journal of the European Economic Association less credit than it deserves. Fourth, the rankings would definitely change if we used specific journals for comparison rather than the overall top-5 metric.
Here’s the next set of journals. Keep in mind that we didn’t perform these calculations for all journals in our database (this is just a blog post, after all). So if you don’t see your favorite journal, that doesn’t mean it’s ranked lower than these. It just means we didn’t calculate a ranking for it. But if you’d like, leave us a comment and we’ll tell you how your favorite journal ranks!
While this metric is unlikely to be perfect, it is also unlikely to be worse than citation impact measures. And its benefit for economics specifically is that it isn’t as affected by publication lags as a citation-based measure. What do you think?
Following the publication of the post on where to submit your paper, someone asked, “How do you know when it’s time to give up on a paper?”
This is a really hard question. We put a lot of work into
our papers (I’m assuming in this post that it is a completed paper) and,
despite the theoretical wisdom of “Ignore sunk costs”, it’s difficult to let go
of months or years of hard work no matter how bleak things look. But there’s
also no magic number of rejections beyond which it’s clear that you should just
give up. Here are my two cents on how to make the decision.
First, here’s a clever trick I use to make “giving up” on a paper easier psychologically – I have never permanently given up on a paper. But I do have four papers and a lot of never-made-it-to-paper-stage-projects “on the back burner”. I haven’t worked on them for years and don’t plan on doing so unless I have nothing better to do. In other words, instead of asking the hard question of “Should I never try to publish this paper again?”, ask the easier question of “Should I prioritize other projects over this paper for now?” I always have the option to pull papers out of the “back burner” folder, but lo and behold, I keep having better projects to work on and don’t think much about the archived ones.
Of course, that still leaves the question of “Should I prioritize other projects over this paper?” open. I’ll discuss three related cases where this question becomes relevant and offer some general guidance for how to decide.
#1 Your paper has gotten rejected multiple (let’s say at least five) times for roughly the same reason, you don’t think you can do anything to address that shortcoming, and you have other, more promising, projects/ideas. If that reason is “this paper isn’t making enough of a contribution” AND you’ve revised your introduction substantially in between submissions to make the best possible case for your contribution, this may be a sign that it’s time to drop down a tier (though see some discussion below on when this is a good idea). At the same time, the contribution of a paper is hugely subjective. If the only thing reviewers find wrong with your paper is the contribution, then trying another journal within the same tier is fairly low-cost, assuming your contribution is actually within the realm of what gets published by the tier of journals you’ve been submitting to. Here, talking senior colleagues is especially helpful.
If the reason your paper keeps getting rejected is something related to the paper’s data/methodology – for example, no one believes your instrument, no matter how many robustness or placebo tests you’ve added – then dropping down a tier is also an option, but is less likely to be a successful strategy. I came close to giving up on a paper because no one seemed to like the IV. I ultimately decided to keep trying though because (a) a lot of the rejections were desk rejections, allowing me to re-submit without revising (since there was no real feedback given) and (b) I believed in the instrument myself and thought we made a good case for it. After six rejections, the paper was published.
By contrast, if your paper is getting rejected for diverse reasons, it is probably good to keep trying (though in that case I would recommend taking a close look at the writing to make sure your exposition is clear).
#2 You feel that your paper would only be publishable if you dropped to a tier of journals where your current colleagues generally don’t publish, you have other, more promising, projects/ideas. (Presumably, you think you need to drop down a tier because of numerous rejections. Otherwise, perhaps you are underestimating your paper!) For better or worse, publishing in a journal that your department really looks down on is sometimes viewed as a negative. So, if you otherwise have a good chance of getting tenure at your department (and want to get tenure at your department), you may want to put the project down and move on to something else. Two of my archived papers were archived for this reason.
#3 It looks like the path to publication in an acceptable-tier journal would be painful and you have other, more promising, projects/ideas. Maybe your case is not as extreme as the two cases above: you’ve had 3-4 rejections, you feel like you may have a shot at an acceptable but not stellar journal tier but, given the feedback you’ve gotten so far, you have a gut feeling that it would be painful for various reasons. Maybe a ref said the paper is not well-written and after taking a close look, you realize that the ref is right and that the whole paper needs an overhaul (I speak from experience). Maybe you have your own misgivings about the methodology/data and feel like an overhaul there is warranted. If you have other great projects in the pipeline with a lower cost-benefit ratio, by all means feel free to prioritize them. No one said you have to publish every paper you write.
Yes, I put “you have other, more promising, projects/ideas” in every entry on purpose. If you don’t have any other projects or ideas that have a reasonable shot at publishing at the same tier or higher than what you’ve been submitting to, then keep working on publishing the paper, even if it means a major overhaul. Use the suggestions I wrote about in a previous post on what to do after a rejection. While you wait for reviews, work on new projects and ideas and if a better one comes along and your submission gets rejected, by all means abandon the project.
A final word of caution is in order. According to my scientifically constructed chart below, our level of excitement about a project is always highest at the idea stage, when the promise seems unlimited and the pitfalls and barriers to getting there are not salient. So, if you find yourself constantly putting completed papers on the back burner and picking up new shiny ideas, stop! Go back to your best completed paper and publish it (and work on the shiny new ideas while you wait for reviews). Then repeat until you have a few publications.
Benjamin Franklin wrote, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” (though the earliest origin of that idea dates to Christopher Bullock in 1716, apparently). Most academics would agree that paper rejections also belong on that list. My 10 published papers have been rejected a total of 29 times. I also have two “archived” papers that were collectively rejected eight times before I gave up on them and four working papers that so far have been rejected seven times (two are now revise-and-resubmit, so the rate of rejection is decreasing). So I have a total of 44 rejections. I have ZERO papers that got a revise-and-resubmit at the first journal I submitted them to (= each of my papers has been rejected at least once). I’m not even counting conference and grant rejections.
Paper rejections come in many shapes and sizes: your
run-of-the-mill “Nice paper, but not enough of a contribution for this journal”
or “Too many little things wrong” rejections; a reviewer finding something
genuinely wrong with your manuscript; boilerplate desk rejections; a half-page
report from a lazy reviewer who clearly hasn’t read your paper; and the
frustrating “I just don’t believe your results” rejection. Rejections don’t
feel good, but given that they are inevitable, it’s important to learn how to
deal with them and move past them as quickly as possible. Below, I provide some
suggestions that have worked for me.
First, allow yourself to take a few days to “mourn” the decision.
A few days of inaction after a rejection won’t make much of a difference. I
typically don’t even read the referee reports closely until it’s been a few
days because I’m not confident in my ability to take in the feedback objectively.
By all means, trash-talk the referees to your colleagues (people at your
institution almost surely won’t be asked to review your papers), join the
“Reviewer 2 must be stopped” group on Facebook (especially if you don’t know
what “Reviewer 2” refers to), have a drink or two (please drink responsibly),
do some exercise, work on another paper, or binge-watch that show you’ve been
waiting to see. Do be careful how you discuss your reports online or at
conferences because you never know who your reviewers were or who might know who your reviewers were.
It is hard not to take rejections personally, but in the
vast majority of cases, they are not. The reviewers rejected your paper, they
did not reject you as a person or a researcher. Even the comments about your
paper may not have anything to do with the quality of your paper. Some
reviewers might strongly dislike a particular methodology or research area,
others may have had a bad day or week, and some may operate in toxic
environments where unnecessary harshness is disguised as “honesty”. Your
reviewer may have been a graduate student doing a referee report for the first
time or a senior professor drowning in service work. Almost everyone has a “Reviewer
2” story, including some of the best researchers, and you are not alone. If a
reviewer seemed particularly unfair, talk to a senior colleague about appealing
the decision. However, appeals are definitely not the standard way to deal with
Next comes the time for actual work. Unless the journal
rejecting your paper was your last stop before you were going to abandon
efforts to publish it, try to return to the reports within a week of the
rejection and look at them objectively. It can be tempting to either (1) ignore
the reports completely and send the paper back out as soon as possible or (2) treat
the reports as a revise-and-resubmit and try to address all the reviewer’s
comments. Neither approach is generally a good idea, for two reasons.
First, you may get the same reviewer again. In some fields,
reviewing the same paper twice is not acceptable, so you may get a different
draw in that case. But in economics and surely some other fields, it’s not
uncommon for the same person to review the paper two or more times at different
journals. In such a case, the best you can hope for if you didn’t change
anything in your paper is that the reviewer will return the same report to the
editor. But it’s also possible that the reviewer will be annoyed that you did
not take into account any of the comments they worked hard to give you and
treat your paper more harshly than the first time around. In short, you want to
avoid giving the impression that you thought the comments so worthless that you
did not address even one.
Second, even if you’re 100% sure you’re not going to get the
same reviewer, it’s highly unlikely that the reviewers’ comments were
completely idiosyncratic or idiotic. If you ignore a comment that you could
have addressed and a subsequent reviewer has the same concern, your paper could
end up rejected again for avoidable reasons. Despite all the “Reviewer 2”
stories out there, I think the overall peer review process is far from
completely broken, so it’s also very unlikely that all the comments are useless
and wrong. In short, the best way to treat the reviewer reports following a
rejection is as an opportunity to make your paper better.
When deciding whether to address a particular comment, I ask
myself two things: (1) How likely is this comment to come up again? and (2) How
easy is this for me to address? The higher the comment is on this
two-dimensional likelihood-ease scale, the more you should jump at the chance
to address it. Whether something is likely to come up again or not is the
hardest question to answer. Here, thinking about comments you’ve gotten at
conferences or asking colleagues for their feedback on a particular comment can
be really helpful. Rigorous self-honesty helps too: with some introspection,
most of us will be able to identify comments where the reviewer really does
have a point. Once you’ve identified all the relevant comments, start
addressing them one by one. Where to stop can be difficult to tell, but if you
start with the comments that rank high on ease and/or likelihood, you can stop
at any point with the knowledge that you’ve addressed the most important ones. For
me, a good rule of thumb is that the paper should be ready to go back out
within 1-3 months or less of not-full-time work (this is probably equivalent to
about 1-3 weeks of full-time for me). Anything more than that is likely to be
excessive in most circumstances.
I’ll wrap up with two specific suggestions. If a reviewer
comment makes it seem like she or he misunderstood something about what you’re
doing, try to see if you can make that part of the paper clearer. You have the
privilege of knowing your paper better than anyone else, so what seems clear to
you may not be to the average reader. If there is a comment that seems likely
to come up again but would be really difficult to address, you have a few
options. You can add a brief explanation as to why doing X would be difficult, possibly
as a footnote, possibly as a suggested avenue for future research. This signals
to reviewers that you are aware of X. Relatedly, you can hint that you could do
X but it’s outside of the scope of the current paper. That allows a persistent
reviewer to insist on seeing X in a revision but reduces the likelihood that
they reject the paper because you didn’t already do X.
In the end, these steps don’t necessarily make rejections
more pleasant, but they do move your paper closer to published!
There are many high-quality
journals out there and choosing which one to submit your paper to can be a
daunting task. Below, I offer some suggestions.
A great starting point is your manuscript’s
reference section. Identify the papers most closely related to yours and tabulate
the journals that published them. Think of a few more distantly related papers
that may not have made it to your references and add the journals they are
published in to your list. If your list is short or, by contrast, there are too
many options, look at your advisors’ CVs for guidance. If you are still not
happy, look at CVs of colleagues working in related fields.
Once you have identified at least
five potential journals, go to each journal’s website and ask yourself: how often does this journal publish work
similar to mine (in terms of subject, research methods, etc) relative to other
journals on my list? The less frequently a journal publishes papers in your
research area, the lower your chances of acceptance. If the journal rarely publishes
related papers, you may want to try somewhere else first.
Are there exceptions to this
rule? Yes. If the journal has a new editor who works in your area, your chances
are probably higher than historical publication information may indicate.
Browsing the editorial board of a journal can thus help you assess your
publication chances as well. The best sign is if your paper cites the work of
at least one of the editors in a positive light. Not only does this mean they
are more likely to handle your paper, but they are also likely to view it more
favorably than someone outside the field. (Unless you’ve tried to disguise a
bad paper as a good paper. But you wouldn’t do that, of course.)
Next, you want to ask yourself,
how quickly does each journal process the average submission and how much time
do you have? If you’re approaching a milestone like tenure or if there are many
other people working on the same topic and you’re worried about being scooped, you
may want to prioritize journals that turn papers around quickly. Sometimes
journals publish these statistics (e.g., number of days to first decision).
Other times, you may have to ask colleagues about their experiences with
Another obvious consideration is the ranking/visibility of
the journals on your list and your own goals for the paper. If you are trying
to get tenure, prioritize the journals that are more valued by departments
where you could plausibly get tenure (my suggestion is to not put all your eggs
in one basket and ignore the idiosyncratic preferences of your current
department unless you have a really really good reason for doing so). If you’re
trying to maximize the impact of your work, consider which journals are most
respected by people in your field. These are often correlated with general
journal rank, but there may be some divergence.
Finally, think about how much rejection you want to take. On
average, the more competitive the journal you have chosen, the longer it will
take to publish the paper and the more likely you are to receive negative
feedback. I’m personally of the opinion that the rejection process can be used
productively and would thus recommend toughing it out if you have time, but this
approach may not be right for everyone. For better or worse, rejections are
inevitable for all of us, and learning how to deal with them is part of the academic
career. More on that in another post!