1. Tell us about some of the changes you have made since taking over the WBER? It seems like you have succeeded in reducing turnaround times for decisions - how have you done that?
We took over the job of WBER editors a year-and-a-half ago. As authors ourselves, we have always been irritated with the very long turnaround time that it too often takes for papers to be refereed, not un-frequently exceeding one year. This is as though what is being submitted has no current value, a blow to researchers who believe that what they do can make a difference. And it can be a serious handicap to researchers’ careers that depend on publications for personnel evaluations, especially younger colleagues for whom time in getting papers out is of the essence. We also noted that some outlets such as the American Economic Journals had made significant progress in ensuring a quick turnaround time, becoming hotspots for publication of some of the best papers, including in development. So, we took this as our first objective for the Review. What we found is that referees are in fact quite willing to give quick service, once they have decided that they are interested in the paper and have been informed of our policy. In fact, a reasonable deadline is for referees just as good as a mast, ropes, and shipmates were for Ulysses. It helps sophisticated referees discipline themselves. So, this turned out to be win-win. The turnaround time for the first round of refereeing that used to be 4 months has been brought down to 2 and 1/2. We do desk rejects within a week, with no exceptions. Since we took over, we have not had one single paper held for more than three months without a referee response. It of course means once in a while being able to call on good friends for emergency service (reminds you of something?).So, we believe, and hope, that this can make a significant difference in attracting more good papers to the Review.
2. A question from one of our readers is what the role of incentives is in getting reviewers to respond promptly. In particular, since the WBER pays outside reviewers for reports, it would be nice to know whether this payment really helps at all?
Papers submitted to the WBER are sent to two referees external to the World Bank and IMF, and to one internal. External referees are indeed paid the rather generous lump sum of $350 for the full cycle of refereeing, which typically involves two and exceptionally three rounds. In that sense, it is only slightly in excess of the $100 per turn paid to American Economic Review referees, though it is well paid for first round rejects. For that reason, we are careful in only sending to referees papers with a good chance of not being rejected on the first reading. Of the 206 submissions received between August 1, 2010, and July 31, 2011, we desk rejected 68%. The referee fee is certainly significant in attracting some of the very best referees, especially among younger economists for whom the fee is worth more than just a good dinner with friends. Indeed, we have relatively few turndowns and are able to request a four-five weeks turnaround, and can attribute this willingness to serve in part to the payment. The counterfactual here is that there is no payment for internal referees, and that it has sometimes been a real struggle to get papers reviewed in due time by this third referee for whom high powered incentives are lacking. We are of course fortunate that there is at the Bank and IMF a significant core of excellent referees committed to the Review who have been good citizens in responding to our demands. So, yes for the importance of the payment in getting good referee service, and we wish that we could have a reward system that could apply as well to internal referees. We should note that, perhaps because of the fee and Bank/IMF interest in the Review, our referees are typically exceptional in putting time and effort in their reports and in providing authors with detailed suggestions about how to improve their papers.
To complete the story on the refereeing process, of every 100 papers submitted to the Review, 32 are sent to referees, and of these half are rejected by referees and half invited to revise and resubmit. With some of those not being resubmitted and exceptional second round referee rejects, 13 of the 100 papers are published in the Review. This is our yield. Low in quantity, but high in quality.
3. Any pet peeves with submissions or with referees that it would be good for people to avoid?
Unfortunately yes. Our main two criteria in selecting papers for publication are rigorous identification and policy relevance. The two go together as we cannot have credible policy recommendations without strong causal inference. Too many of the submitted papers offer simple “determinants” that are partial correlates with no causal value, and yet are the basis for bold policy recommendations, sometimes of first order of importance for development practice. This includes a large number of cross-country panel regressions with only mechanical, and hence not credible, identification, and yet eventually huge claims of policy implications. Regarding policy relevance, papers too often address issues of nth order of importance for development, clearly not something that will change outcomes and interest readers. But the main peeve about submissions is receiving papers with insufficient work, and hence insufficiently solid results. Many authors believe that one regression makes a scientific paper. Good papers need more work. They sometimes take years to polish and numerous presentations to peer audiences before they reach maturity. Typically we want to see solid robustness checks to guarantee that the results are indeed trustworthy and can serve for policy purposes. Recommendation here would be to submit less, but better. Fewer good papers with solid work would be more likely to get your research published and subsequently noted and cited.
4. Comparing WBER to other development journals like JDE and EDCC, are there certain types of papers that you think are better suited for WBER or for those other journals - what would you say to people considering which of these three to submit to?
We keep a close watch on not only JDE and EDCC as development journals, but also on World Development and American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. So, this is a good question, as there is indeed a lot of competition for good papers. We should say that we are very proud of the collection of authors who have published in the Review. It includes many of the top names in the profession, both well established senior members and young economists looking for an audience for their work. Answering your question about why publish in the WBER should start from the demand side: who reads the Review, and whom is your work likely to reach and impress through the Review? We believe that our readers are interested in the intersection between rigorous analytics and policy relevance. This makes the Review somewhat different from JDE, EDCC, and AEJ that can go more toward pure academic research and from World Development that is more inter-disciplinary. So, we would say to people considering where to submit that, if you want to be noted for both rigor and relevance, and reach people who themselves are playing this game and policy makers looking for credible new ideas for the practice of development, the Review is a good place where to send your work.
5. What percentage of WBER papers are written by non-World Bank authors?
Based on the above, it is clear that research done at DECRG at the World Bank, and also but less frequently at PREM and in the regions, is typically well fit to meet these criteria. Internal submissions have thus always been an important bloodline for the Review. Some of the most cited papers published by the Review were indeed internal submits. The distinctive character of the Review needs these contributions. Typically, one third of the papers published in the Review are considered internal submits because they have at least one author from the World Bank/IMF. Notable is that a majority of the “internal submits” have external co-authors, showing how well Bank research economists are integrated with the development economics profession at large.
6. What are your thoughts on trying to encourage more shorter papers on development - equivalent to the 3-5 page papers in medical and science journals for example. We could imagine these being particularly useful to report on methodological issues and survey design; to report the results from experiments that have very simple succinct findings; etc.
This is an interesting suggestion. Our effort to this date has been in improving the publication of typical research papers, both in quality and timing. Now that we are fairly satisfied with this, we could think of this option. We should note, however, that WBER papers are already relatively short, and that we do publish short papers on issues of data, methods, or succinct findings. But there could be a more explicit call for the type of contributions you mention. This would have to be carefully implemented so quality and relevance are there. So, thanks for the suggestion.
7. If you were advising people on how much to referee, and when to say no to referee requests, what would you say?
First and foremost what we would advise a referee, in the name of service, is not to procrastinate in deciding whether you want to do it or not. Our greatest difficulty in shortening the turnaround time in refereeing is referees who wait forever before letting us know that they have no time to do it. Important is thus to decide whether the paper is of interest to you. Scan the text, decide, and let us know, ideally by return mail. Do not referee principally as a favor to us, but mainly to satisfy your own interest. Halfhearted referee reviews are not what is helping us improve the quality of papers published in the Review. Once you have decided that you are interested, then put your heart and mind into it and give us not only a critical assessment of the paper, but also constructive suggestions for the authors as to how the paper could be improved. Then, we will be infinitely grateful for your contributions to the Review. And you can expect reciprocity.
Thanks very much to Alain and Betty! Please let us know whether these Q&As are useful to you as readers, and if there are other journals you would like us to do this with - and other questions you would like us to be asking journal editors.
A final note of disclosure - David is on the WBER editorial board.