Do editors and referees at the best journals actually pick the best papers?

Vera te Velde discusses a new paper by David Card and Stefano Dellavigna on what gets published in top journals:

The conclusions David drew are that 1) referees are indeed good at assessing quality, 2) the process contains affirmative action for junior/less prolific authors, and 3) editors are not overconfident. Thus, the myth of unfairness is dispelled.

The assumption this story rests on is glaring and glaringly fragile: ex post citations is the relevant measure of paper quality when people assess whether papers are fairly treated.

From the perspective of editors, I completely understand why you would focus on citations. That’s how your journal gains prominence. But as a scientist, what I want and what I believe is the gold standard for fairness is that papers are published and cited in proportion to their quality. Treating citation rates as quality assumes away half of the problem.

Are citation numbers just the best measure of quality that we’re stuck with? Well I’m sure that was the reason for using it, and I’m sure citations are correlated with quality, but as they show, referee ratings are also correlated with citation numbers. Since the citation process is self-evidently biased in favor of prolific authors** (I’m sure you can prove this to yourself through introspection just as easily as I did), and since referees are several of a very small number of people who thoroughly study any given paper, it seems utterly bizarre that the former, and not the latter, would be treated as the primary proxy measure of quality (if the goal of the paper is in fact to assess fairness rather than to assess journal performance.)

If we consider referee ratings the better measure of quality, the conclusions exactly reverse and exactly confirm some of the common suspicions of the editorial process: 1) Citations are a good measure of quality but substantially biased in favor of prolific authors and multi-author papers, 2) editors are biased in favor of prolific authors, but not as much as citations are, and they are not biased in favor of multi-author papers, and 3) editors could reduce their bias by putting less weight on their personal priors.

The full piece and comments are fascinating.

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