Publishing and Promotion in Economics

The Tyranny of the Top Five

Anecdotal evidence suggests that career advancement in economics is strongly influenced by publishing in the Top 5 economics journals. Despite wide acknowledgement of the T5’s influence among academics themselves, actual evidence on such influence is sparse, and the discussion about the incentives generated through this practice are lacking. The Tyranny of the Top 5 project fills this gap in the literature by documenting the existing incentive structure in academic economics, and by discussing how excessive reliance on T5 publications to filter quality can interact with existing editorial practices (particularly in the T5 house journals) to perversely influence both the direction and quality of scholarship.

We explore these deficiencies in the literature through four lines of inquiry, each addressing a different facet of the problem:

  1. First, we document the degree to which publications in the T5 influence tenure decisions relative to publications in comparably high quality non-T5 journals. Analysis of longitudinal work-history data for tenure-track faculty hired by the Top 35 departments reveals that T5 publications significantly increase the probability of receiving tenure and decrease time-to-tenure. The influence of non-T5 journals pales in comparison. (See Figure 1)
  2. Second, we corroborate our empirical findings with results from a survey of tenure-track faculty hired by the T50 departments. We find that junior faculty are acutely aware fo the power of the T5. They (correctly) believe that T5 publications are the most important determinant of career advancement (see Figure 2), and that publication in the T5 has a quality-independent effect on tenure and promotion decisions (see Figure 3).
  3. Third, we use data on citations to evaluate the adequacy of the T5 as a filter of quality. We find considerable intra-journal heterogeneity and inter-journal overlap in citation distributions of T5 and non-T5 journals, indicating that the mere placement of an article in the T5 does not sufficiently predict the quality of an article, and that the field of economics ought to seriously question its use as a screening device.
  4. Lastly, we investigate editorial practices in the T5 journals and find that editorial term lengths are unregulated in the T5 house-journals (see Figure 4), and that these house-journals tend to allocate large shares of their journal space to articles published by individuals affiliated to the journal editors.

The joint existence of the T5’s powerful influence, unregulated editorial terms, and professional incest leads to the concentration of power in the hands of a small group of editors and generates incentives that distort the direction and innovativeness of future research. Our findings should spark a serious conversation in the profession about how to develop implementable alternatives to judge quality research. Such solutions would necessarily need to de-emphasize the role of the T5 in tenure and promotion decisions, and re-distribute the signalling function among more high-quality journals. However, a proper solution to the tyranny of the T5 needs to address the flaw inherent in judging a scholar’s potential for innovative work based on a track record of publications in a handful of journals selected based on aggregate measures of journal impact.



Figure 1: Predicted Probabilities for Tenure Receipt in the First Spell of Tenure-Track Employment (Logit)

Note: This figure plots the predicted probabilities associated with different levels of publications in different journal categories. The predicted probability is defined in Equation TA-2 (Equation TA-2 uses parameter estimates from Equation TA-1). White diamonds on the bars indicate that the prediction is significantly different than zero at the 5% level.

Figure 2: Ranking of Performance Areas Based On Their Perceived Influence On Tenure and Promotion Decisions

Note: This figure summarizes respondents’ rankings of 8 performance areas. Responses are summarized by type of career advancement: tenure receipt, promotion to assistant professor, and promotion to associate professor. The bars present mean responses for each performance area. Respondents were given the option to not rank any or all of the eight performance areas. As a result, the number of respondents vary across the performance areas.

Figure 3: Probability That Candidate with T5 Publications Receives Tenure or Promotion Instead of Candidate with non-T5 Publications, ceteris paribus

Note: This figure summarizes respondents’ perceptions about the probability that a candidate with T5s is granted tenure or promotion by the respondent’s department instead of a candidate with non-T5s, ceteris paribus. Responses are summarized by type of career advancement: tenure receipt, promotion to assistant professor, and promotion to associate professor. The bars present mean responses for each performance area. White diamonds indicate that the mean response is significantly different than 50% at the 10% level.

Figure 4: Density Plot for the Number of Years Served by Editors between 1996-2016

Source: Brogaard, Engelberg & Parsons (2014) for data until 2011. Data for subsequent years collected from journal front pages. Note: The plot presents the density for the number of years served by editors of each journal between the years 1996 and 2016.

Project Team


James J. Heckman

The University of Chicago

Sidharth Moktan