Friday, 17 June 2016

Editing the Economic Journal

I have been an editor at the EJ for a year now. These are some reflections. They do not represent any "official" communication of the journal. They are simply a way for me to document and think through some of what I have learned:

  • editing a "general interest" journal is pretty hard. Don't we all like to complain as authors? That unfair decision, this long delay. Yes, I did that quite a few times, too. Now I am at the other end - not at a top-5 journal, but a decently ranked and cited general interest one. In the two economic history journals I edited, I typically knew the literature inside out, and could call on 'friends and family' to help me out in assessing the papers (meaning faster turnarounds). This is much harder in a GE journal, where all the editors will sooner or later have to handle a paper further from their expertise
  • I think my statistics are ok, but I need to learn to take into account that fewer referees are friends and acquaintances. Editorial Express (which I love) tells me this about decision times of all submissions that crossed my electronic desk:

Mean= 32 Min=0 Max=181, Median 13, std= 36, n=190

So I took on average 32 days to make a decision; the median time was 13 days. This is the effect of desk rejections, which I try to do within a day or two. Once the paper is with referees, it is impossible to do things in much less than 40 days. The maximum time to decision I am not proud of -- 181 is way too long, but it was one of the cases where an important referee first said "yes", only to postpone several times before defaulting entirely, which meant that I had to appoint another one. If referees don't sign on, it's normally a bad sign; I should perhaps factor in the reluctance to take the paper on as a signal of quality (much as one would in a tenure case).
  • desk rejections are crucial. I handled almost 200 papers in my first year. It is not in the author's interest to have the paper rejected after 50 days when the ex ante chance is very low. By rejecting a high share (~50% in my case), I can try and do a much better job with the rest. This is also different from Explorations and the European Review of Economic History, where the desk-reject rates in my case were a lot lower.
  • there is a LOT of negative refereeing. As a QJE editor recently told me, if one only took the average of opinion received, one would almost never publish anything. He felt it wasn't like that 10 or 15 years ago... that also means that the whole process get noisier, meaning editors have to override at least some referees almost all the time to take a paper. I don't know where this wave of negativity comes from, but it is very noticeable. Referees perhaps want to be sure they don't wave through a poor paper, and impressing an editor with criticism is easier? While a lot of referees give detailed, thoughtful, helpful advice, more than a few reports read like "no, not in my backyard." I personally take a pretty dim view of strategic refereeing...
  • I encourage referees to tell me about a.) the importance of the paper - if everything the abstract claims is actually true, is this an important paper? b.) the technical correctness of findings. The invitation to referee actually asks that referees do NOT write an essay on "how they would have written the paper." I have had overwhelmingly positive reactions to that; many referees have told me that this makes it much easier to return a report quickly. I sometimes feel that there has been an arms race among referees to outdo each other with 5+ page reports, especially at top journals. This is wasteful. I may try to help the author write the best one that is struggling to come out, but of course only their name goes on it -- it is the author's paper.
  • I love being part of a smooth, collegiate operation. Economic history journals are by nature quite small, and there isn't much need for structure and coordination. The EJ is a big ship, and it is run very well, with full-time support, regular phone conferences and twice-yearly meetings. It is also very nice to be in a society-owned journal, not in the jaws of a shark-like commercial operation like Elsevier (owners of Explorations)
  • Things just don't change very fast. There is a trickle of papers that I solicited, and some people seem to have noticed that I am an editor and send me papers in my intellectual arena, but it's a bit slower than one might have hoped...
  • I think of a decision letter as a "contract", meaning that authors are in if they do what the letter requests; I don't like multiple rounds with lots of vague calls for making the referees happy. If the referees contradict each other, it's my job to figure out what is best for the paper. I have as yet not sent out the same paper more than twice to referees (original submission and resubmission).
  • I am still experimenting with how much less refereeing I do for other journals. I get a lot of people excusing themselves by saying "sorry, AE at xyz journal, so I am not doing this." Specialization is such in our field that this can lead to extremely narrow choice sets for referees. I try to keep refereeing for top journals, and papers where I obviously should say something because there are not that many economic historians with knowledge of the area. The AER just gave me one of the Excellence in Refereeing Awards -- maybe I should invest a little less there? (just kidding, where the top-5 papers go is essential to how the profession ticks).

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