The Back-up Plan

The journals of the American Economic Association have started an experiment that acknowledges the reality that papers move from one publication to another — and the system could save authors considerable time, and publications money. In the experiment, authors of papers that are rejected from the flagship journal — American Economic Review — can now opt to have referee reports sent directly to one of four other journals published by the association.

So far it looks like a near-Pareto improvement.  Here is more detail; by the way, editors from sociology and anthropology say that plan wouldn't work in their disciplines, though neuroscience has a reviewing consortium.


Don't many journals think that its referees are better than "that other journal"? Unless there is a hierarchy and rejections start trickling down from Nature/Science etc.

You would think the economists would know better.

Sure, transaction costs are reduced. They also could have just given you an email that your paper was rejected.

So, what else may be going on here.

Several things.

1. Say you are a competing journal to the AER, and receive an AER rejected manuscript. Will you read it with the same diligence that you would have without knowing AER rejected it? Probably not, afterall, AER rejected it.

But, what if you didn't receive the notice and AER had rejected it. Would you think you were in competition with AER, hurry up your review to beat out AER, and decide to publish it (not knowing AER rejected it.) Possibly.

2. Does this hand me down policy protect AER from criticism of having a poor manuscript screening policy or criticism of slowness in the review process.

If AER and competing journals compete by getting their review done faster, AER would stand out if it lost good articles to a journal that reviewed faster. But, if AER passes on your article sends it to someone else after they reviewed it, what is the incentive to speed up the review process?

And, what is the signal about the quality of the paper that AER so kindly send to a rival journal? Well, the signal is: it was rejected by AER, maybe I should put that to the side. But, maybe what is really happening is that AER is getting you to cover up their mistake in the review process. Once again, assume a competitive market--this time AER rejects but does not disclose, and the other journal prints, and the article turns out to be a winner. It increases the number of article sales and the prestige of the competing journal. AER's review mistake is regretted, people notice AER is not such a good reviewer, etc.

3. AER is a competitor to other journals, and is the market as a buyer, so to speak, of author's works.

Never trust the offer of a competitor to do a favor for another competitor, or supplier, without asking what's in it for them.

Also, never trust economists. Particularly game theorists or behaviouralists.

Just noticed my AER subscription went on automatic renewal unless I opt out during a 14 day window. (Just kidding).

Bill, very well put. I'll second your sentiments as this is one of the worst ideas I've heard from the profession in a long time. If only the review process worked perfectly, it would be efficiency-enhancing. Given the reality (something our profession has difficulty recognizing), all this will do is ensure that bad reviews extend beyond a single bad impact to multiple bad impacts.

I still like my own idea. Reviewing should be a several step process. The first step is a quick review of the editors (not for accuracy, but for interest) as to whether the manuscript is worth being considered further. Then a period of on-line open review by anybody interested (say for 2 months). Reviews may be anonymous or signed. Then, the editors review these reviews and decide whether the manuscript is worthy (perhaps with revision) of inclusion in the permanent "printed journal." Articles that make this final cut would carry more weight than ones that passed only the first cut.

There are many aspects of this proposal (some positive and some not), but I like it. After 30 years of having articles accepted and rejected, and reviewing others' work, I'm ready for a change.

Everybody knows about the falling leaves or trickle down theory of journal submissions. Many authors "shoot high" initially and then send their rejected papers to other lower ranked journals afterwards. Not a big deal. Indeed, editors can often tell what the original submission was by the format of the References in the paper, as most do not bother changing those upon resubmission(s).

I think the ball game here is to try to encourage people are rejected at AER to sub to one of the AEJs, where clearly these reports will be well-received, if not viewed as definitive necessarily. The AEA is still working hard to get the AEJs up in the rankings, but so far, the citations rates to them are not there, certainly not anywhere near where the AEA bosses would like or where most people think they will end up, although they may well still get there. Frankly, I think that they are scrambling a bit right now. This is not about what editors of "competitor" journals think, but about keeping subs in-house with the subsidiaries.

Why don't they just put all papers that can't fit in the printed journal on-line with the referee reports?

When they see the number of people from various fields that will look at them, and contribute to the knowledge in the field (or cross-field), the journal would probably have more requests to be put on the site.

This, of course, is good for them, good for society, and good for the authors.

So why does all the research need to end up in expensive trade journals?

Comments for this post are closed