This year's awards inspired this thought: The awards for the best papers in the various flavors of the American Economic Journal constitute at the same time a compendium of failures by editors and reviewers at the "top five" general journals. Surely all of the papers that won these awards passed through at least one top five journal and probably most passed through two or three, yet here they are, chosen as the best paper in a journal one level down, a restrospective recognition that they should have placed higher.
Of the four papers, I only know one of them well: the one about the take-up of disability insurance by Manasi Deshpande at Chicago and Yue Li. When I first saw Manasi present the paper, it struck me as one of those papers with "top five" written all over it. It is clever, well-executed, and provides compelling evidence about a substantively important and understudied topic. The fact that the paper did not place in a top five journal does not move in the least my own view that it surely should have.
How did it not land in a top five journal? While this is not the case for Manasi's paper, one can imagine that in some cases the version of a paper that ends up winning an AEJ paper award is so much improved relative to the last version submitted to a top five journal that it was reasonable for that last top five journal not to request a revision. Perhaps. More broadly, though, the lesson I would have the reader draw is that there is a non-trivial stochastic component in journal placement. Yes, there are inframarginal papers that would get into a top five no matter what, but there are also many papers that, with one draw, get into a top five, and with another draw, get into the AEJ or the Journal of Labor Economics, or the Review of Economics and Statistics or the International Economic Review or some other near-top general journal or strong top field journal. Tenure decisions should proceed accordingly.