The Great Editors

After 18 months and repeated promises from the journal editors, I had no referee reports and reluctantly withdrew my article.  I had never withdrawn an article before but this was the second time I had been ill-treated at this journal.  I thought about venting my anger here but remembering Ayn Rand’s dictum that justice is about rewarding virtue more than punishing vice I decided to take the high road and reflect on some truly great editors.

Top of my list is Sam Peltzman at the Journal of Law and EconomicsIn my experience, JLE referees are very good but none better than Peltzman himself.  Peltzman reads submissions and usually returns his own comments.  Every paper I have ever submitted to the JLE has been improved because of Peltzman’s comments.

Aaron Edlin at the Berkeley Press Journals.  I’m a big fan of the BePress journals; referee reports in 60 days, submit once and be evaluated for four journals simultaneously, electronic submission and referee reports and an opportunity to ask the referees questions anonymously.  The technology wouldn’t work without a great editor, however, and Edlin writes very thoughtful, intelligent comments, he also has a good sense for quality and what is important.

Robert Higgs at the Independent Review.  No one helps an author improve not just the quality of argument but the quality of writing more than Bob Higgs.  Working with him is always a pleasure (note that I am assistant editor at the Review as well as a contributing author).  The Independent Review is not a top academic journal but it’s an intelligent blend of philosophy, politics and economics that is accessible to laypeople as well as to academics. 

Ed Glaeser, Robert Barro, and Lawrence Katz at the Quarterly Journal of Economics.  I’ve published several papers at the JLE, the BePress journals and the Independent Review but I have only rejections to show for my submissions to the QJE.  Nevertheless, I hold the editors in high esteem because they read submissions before they go to referees and they send back quick responses.  It’s one thing to be rejected with a stupid report after 12 months it’s quite another to be told, interesting paper but not for us, try at journal X after just 3 days (I have heard that Barro used to reject papers in hours but this made people mad so now he holds them for at least a few days).  The QJE is the most interesting journal in economics today.   

The great editors are productive and generate quick turnarounds and they share some other virtues.  The great editors have personality and verve and it shows in their journals – the journals I have mentioned are not just collections of articles they are a reflection of the editor’s vision about what economics is and where it should be going.  Finally, unlike many others, the great editors in my view don’t model themselves as bouncers whose job is to prevent the riff-raff from penetrating the sanctum sanctorum.  Instead, the great editors encourage bold ideas and work to raise the marginal product of their authors and of the profession. 

Comments are open if you want to nominate some of the other great editors.


Renee Stulz from Ohio State used to be the editor of the Journal of Finance and did an amazing job. He seemingly read every submission from beginning to end and the letters from the editor were more detailed and useful than the referee reports.

Unfortunately he was forced out as editor, and the finance profession has been regretting it ever since.

Oh, and my best guess for the 18 month mistreatment would be the JPE. I honestly don't understand why anyone submits to that journal any more. There is nothing fun about receiving an incompeternt referee report written by a third year grad student from Chicago after 8 to 18 months. Not that I am bitter or anything :-).

Sorry to stray, but what is meant by referee reports? Thanks.

My favorite editors are at They've accepted and published every one of my papers in under 24 hours without giving me any grief, let me make revisions later (while preserving old versions online), and best of all, made my papers available for free to the whole world, instead of just rich universities.

Manny Knill also did a great job as an associate editor of IEEE transactions on information theory.

And Brad, a referee report is a review of a submitted paper by an anonymous peer academic. They're used to help editors decide which papers to accept.

These problems are certainly not restricted to economics! My crypto papers seem to get a wide range of comments, about 1/3 completely missing the point of the paper, 1/3 giving moderately useful editing help, and about 1/3 giving some kind of actual information (like "I think your formula here is wrong, here's why" or "You should reference the paper by Whoosit in the Journal of Obscure Results in Urdu.").

my question : is the referee system still adapted to the times..

I have to disagree strongly about JLE. I (and many of my peers) have had the same, negative, "18 months and two stupid ref reports" experience. (All of these papers have subsequently been published in journals of comparable quality, with much shorter time lags, and better commentary from reviewers).

I think if every journal reduced it acceptance rate so that it had only a 1 year backlog of accepted papers, it would be a good thing. There are too many papers, which while often true enough, are simply uninteresting (eg, like the hard sciences, where every bit of trivia is published). The bottom line is, good gatekeepers are valuable and thus rare, so most journals are blather, especially as the cost of distribution declines.

Regarding European-based journals, I would think that Backhaus at the European Journal of Law & Economics is doing a very good job. It seldom takes more than three months to get competent referee reports.

Also, Geoffrey Hodgson at the newly founded and (I think) quite promising Journal of Institutional Economics appears to be a very efficient editor. Three reports are standard, and they come quickly (about two months).

"referees are not paid"

Well, maybe they should be. Doesn't AER pay 75$ to it's refrees?

Electronic submitting and tracking is speeding things up a bit,
for whatever reason.

Last time I reffed for AER, they did not pay. I hear some finance
journals do. I have never been paid for refereeing an article
anywhere. Some journals do have some neat incentives, such as,
reduced submission fees if papers are gotten back on time (JEDC).

I am not going to diss anyone in particular, but some of what I
am reading here sounds like claims that are made by journals,
not necessarily their actual performance.

I have run into some pretty godawful slow book editors in my time.

Having made some vague, negative remarks, let me praise
somebody. It is not always the editor who is responsible
for a journal's success, however authors are treated. The
Journal of Economic Perspectives must be viewed as one of
the most successful of recently started journals, now in the
top ten in citation rates and widely read by many economists.
It has had many editors since its inception.

However, the main person responsible for what the JEP is today
is its Managing Editor, who has been with it since its start,
Timothy Taylor. I have some disagreements with Tim, especially
his insistence on paginating by issue rather than volume, which
seriously screws up referencing, but he deserves the credit more
than all the top editors put together for the indisputable
success of the JEP.

BTW, while I know that Aaron Edlin is getting papers back
quickly, or reasonably quickly, I am still waiting to see
people citing papers published in those journals to any
noticeable degree. It has not been happening so far. He
is not a Tim Taylor, not yet anyway.

While I've only published 1 piece at the Independent Review (I hope to publish more there in the future), I can confirm your commendation of that journal's editor, Robert Higgs.

The Journal of Financial Economics also has a $550 submission
fee for nonsubscribers and a $500 submission fee for subscribers.
Excuse me while I vomit in the corner rather than applaud the
practices of that particular journal.

Guess I cannot leave that last sentence standing. It is simply
ridiculous. We editors see strange things that few would conceive
of, but not so bad as to be out of "your worst nightmares." Proof
yet again that journal editors can be major fools.

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