Scientific-funding bodies are increasingly under pressure to use journal rankings to measure research quality. Hiring and promotion committees routinely hear an equivalent argument: ‘this is important work because it is to be published in prestigious journal X’. But how persuasive is such an argument? This paper examines data on citations to articles published 25 years ago. It finds that it is better to write the best article published in an issue of a medium-quality journal such as the OBES than all four of the worst four articles published in an issue of an elite journal like the AER. Decision-makers need to understand this.