Wasserman & Frakes have published several papers showing that as examiners gain more seniority, their time spent examining patents decreases and their allowances come more quickly. They (and many others) have taken this to mean a decrease in patent quality.
Charles A. W. deGrazia (University of London, USPTO), Nicholas A. Pairolero (USPTO), and Mike H. M. Teodorescu (Boston College Management, Harvard Business) have released a draft that pushes back on this narrative. The draft is available on SSRN, and the abstract is below:
Prior research argues that USPTO first-action allowance rates increase with examiner seniority and experience, suggesting lower patent quality. However, we show that the increased use of examiner's amendments account for this prior empirical finding. Further, the mechanism reduces patent pendency by up to fifty percent while having no impact on patent quality, and therefore likely benefits innovators and firms. Our analysis suggests that the policy prescriptions in the literature regarding modifying examiner time allocations should be reconsidered. In particular, rather than re-configuring time allocations for every examination promotion level, researchers and stakeholders should focus on the variation in outcomes between junior and senior examiners and on increasing training for examiner's amendment use as a solution for patent grant delay.In short, they hypothesize (and then empirically show with 4.6 million applications) that as seniority increases, the likelihood of examiner amendments goes up, and it goes up on the first office action. They measure how different the amended claims are, and they use measures of patent scope to show that the amended applications are no broader than those that junior examiners take longer to prosecute.
Their conclusion is that to the extent seniority leads to a time crunch through heavier loads, it is handled by more efficient claim amendment through the examiner amendment procedures, and quality is not reduced.
As with all new studies like this one, it will take time to parse out the methodology and hear critiques. I, for one, am glad to hear of rising use of examiner amendments, as I long ago suggested that as a way to improve patent clarity.