Should top journals publish rapidly written papers on Covid-19?

This is a slightly inward-looking question at a time where many lives are at stake, but it is not an unimportant one. Publications give both incentives and – maybe more importantly – some level of accreditation. At a time where a lot of material is circulating, accreditation seems very important.

Traditional economics articles tend to study phenomena that are in the past. We do this very well, and some of these inspire the thinking about the future. But providing input into problems that are evolving is the ultimate test whether our thinking and methodology is useful in situations that are somewhat novel and where we do not know the outcome yet when we write our models and analysis.

Articles on new topics that are rapidly evolving will not be the same as those that we traditionally write. They will have to be written faster, they will have to rely on less-than-perfect data (the data is always better after the fact) and they will not be as polished. They might still be more exciting in the sense of having a much tougher test: the future will quickly show how well they did. Given the wealth of quickly written papers in a crisis, there should be a way to showcase those whose methods are most rigorous and whose approach reflect that highest standards of the profession – adapted to the constraints that a rapid response necessitates.

Top journals should create some “rapid response” sub-journal, that leverages their vast expertise in refereeing and their reputation, but imposes somewhat different standards on rigor, exposition and data quality. Such new top-5-fast-track journal would have to move fast, up-or-out, and will inevitably publish papers that turn out to make wrong predictions. The test for a paper should be: do they build on the best of the current knowledge/methodology in our profession, do they rest on the best current data, and are they providing interesting new insights or methodologies. All somewhat adjusted for the speed at which they need to be written. It cannot bog down reviewers, so the feedback has to be one-round and brief.

This process does not ensure that the published papers will turn out to “right” in the end, just that they reflect the best input we can provide at the moment. Some of the current articles might still be baked too fast for such a journal. But the best will not. I was positively surprised by the massive amount of work that economists across countries have put into the current crisis, and I think it is important and valuable. We should put mechanisms in place that quickly allow the most interesting/advanced papers to come out. Speed is not a value per se, but in a crisis like this it is of essence.

Philipp Kircher, Professor of Economics, previously managing editor and chairman of the Review of Economic Studies