I've long felt that its a fallacy that there exists a fine-grained Platonic ideal of "goodness" for researchers (so too for papers), but its an even bigger fallacy is to expect that decision makers would abide by such a scale even if it existed. In my experience, job offers are job offers, just as paper acceptances are paper acceptances. Trying to analyze such results at a finer or deeper scale is unlikely to reveal many useful truths.The whole comment, well worth reading, can be found somewhere in here.
There seems to be in the previous comments (mostly from anonymous commenters) the idea that getting a job is like those contests many of us did back in high school -- you get more points than the next person, you get the prize. This idea, in my mind, requires some underlying assumptions. First, that merit can be precisely measured -- if you get a high enough score, you get the corresponding job, and anything else is a failure of the system. Second, merit [for a position at a top research university] corresponds explicitly to quality of research, and again, using other considerations is a failure of the system. (I should point out these ideas are in no way novel; indeed, this argument seems to arise constantly in debates on undergraduate admissions, regarding admission of underrepresented minorities/legacies/athletes and so on.)
I think both assumptions are invalid in the setting of faculty hires. First, even if you think research quality is the sole criterion on which to base a hire, how do you measure it? Number of papers? Number of citations? Practical impact/number of actual users? Convene a panel of experts to assign a score? There can be, and will be, disagreements; in some cases, only the test of time will tell. Of course it's often easy to separate "the top" as a rough equivalence class, but going beyond that to a rank ordering is often difficult, especially when comparing people in even slightly different research areas.
Second, I don't think research output alone is the sole measure for a faculty position. Obviously, there's teaching, advising, and administration to consider, but there are other less tangible issues as well. Joining a faculty is like joining a team, and the question is what person can best help the team -- the quality of a team is not merely the sum of the quality of the individual members. Will the potential hire collaborate with others, fill in an area where the department needs someone, or offer useful leadership? Can they fit into, and enhance, the department culture? And yes, the question of is this someone everyone can get along with for a couple of decades also comes to mind. Certainly research quality is a primary consideration -- really the primary consideration -- but most or all of the people brought in for interviews have passed a very high bar for research already, and the other issues can come into sharp focus in the late hiring stages. People might skip such considerations for a suitably good researcher -- I imagine many departments, for instance, would take a Turing award winner, even if the person had a destructive personality, assuming the benefits would outweigh the costs. (I don't actually know of a case like that, but the issue has come up, as a purely theoretical issue, in discussions on hiring in the past.)
This may not be the way some people wish things would work, but it's counterproductive to not recognize that this is the way it generally works -- as Stefan suggests. Further, I strongly suspect that the idea that a pure "merit-based" system, whatever that means in this context, is the universally right approach to faculty hiring is based on assumptions that are faulty in both theory and practice.
[Interestingly enough, I recall a similar topic comes up in the Justice class I posted about before; I'll have to review those lectures!]