What happens when a journal reviewer gets out of bed on the wrong side? In a foul mood, they might reject a perfectly good paper over breakfast – leaving the author unpublished, purely due to bad luck.
In economic language, this arbitrary interference in the selection process is called “noise”, and according to a recently presented paper, it may lead to the rejection of papers simply because their authors are from less prestigious universities.
Early career economists with a PhD from an institution that is not among the world’s top 100 universities for the discipline are one-third as likely to be published in one of the top five economics journals as those with a more prestigious alma mater, two scholars have found.
Sergey Popov, a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, and Sascha Baghestanian, a junior professor in economics at Goethe University Frankfurt, modelled the impact of rising submission and rejection rates in journals of economics.
With more submitted articles to handle, reviewers have less time to assess their quality, said Dr Popov.
“The other thing [journals] do is employ less capable referees. This lowers the precision [of assessment],” he added.
A less precise reviewing process increases the influence of “noise” in the process – for example the reviewer’s mood, personal preferences with respect to writing style or the particular topic of the paper – that is not related to genuine scholarly quality, said Dr Popov.
When the quality of the paper matters less, weaker authors have more chance of being published through sheer luck and top scholars have to work harder to ensure their talent shines through, argues “On publication, refereeing, and working hard”, presented last month at the European Economic Association’s annual congress in Mannheim.
With more noise in the process, journals will be more likely to judge submissions using the reputation of the author’s university as a proxy for quality, with troubling consequences for early career researchers at lower-ranked institutions.
This tallies with previous findings by the same authors published last year. Looking at the careers of 100 top economists, they found that academics’ PhD-granting university and the institution where they landed their first job had a big impact on early career success.
If a researcher who graduated from a university ranked in the world’s top 10 for the discipline has a 30 per cent chance of being published in a prestigious journal, one with an alma mater outside the top 100 only has a one in 10 chance, found “Alma mat(t)er(s): determinants of early career success in economics”.
“Economists from lower-ranked alma maters tend to be discounted significantly across all fields, suggesting a potential inefficiency in the dissemination process of scientific thought,” it warned.
While the authors have so far looked only at publishing in economics, Dr Popov said that the findings could apply to any field where competition to be published was increasing.