Archive for August 2nd, 2018

Service of Keep it Short: Economists Resist the Trend

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662. Photo: en.wikipedia.org

We’d all do well to heed Blaise Pascal’s apology: “If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter.” It might be among the first well known quotes to recognize the benefits of taking the time to self-edit. I’m horrified at some of my first drafts bloated with superfluous words and appreciate it if I have time to revise.

Ben Leubsdorf made it clear that many academics in the economics world haven’t received Pascal’s message. Until recently they haven’t recognized the trend to share sometimes life-changing information in increasingly reduced sizes. Think social media.

Leubdorf wrote in The Wall Street Journal: “The average length of a published economics paper has more than tripled over the past four decades, and some academics are sick of wading through them.”

Photo: nature.com

He quoted MIT professor David Autor who launched a [lengthy] Twitter hashtag, #ThePaperIsTooDamnedLong, inspired by a working paper about minimum wage. He compared wading through the 94-pager to “being bludgeoned to death with a Nerf bat.”

The American Economics Association [AEA] “announced last year it would launch a journal dedicated to publishing only concise papers, at least by economists’ standards—nothing longer than 6,000 words, or about 15 double-spaced pages.” But that’s not expected to happen until next summer. One economist predicted that this approach might attract 600+ papers the first year.

That was Amy Finkelstein of MIT. She told Leubsdorf that significant papers written in the1950s by future Nobel Prize winners Paul Samuelson and John Nash covered public good and game theories in just a few pages. “Some journals today seem wary of publishing such quick reads.” In 50 years the top five academic journals covering economics upped average paper size from 16 to 50 according to a University of California, Berkeley analysis.

Paul Samuelson Photo: nobelprize.org

“It isn’t unusual for economists to include a number of statistical checks to confirm each finding’s validity, similar points made with several different data sets, lengthy reviews of past research, multiple appendices with technical details and page after page of Greek letter-laden formulas that require, well, a Ph.D. to understand.”

Katharine Anderson told Leubsdorf that the time it takes to write and read/review a lengthy paper becomes a huge commitment. The Carnegie Mellon University economist explained that these papers must make/prove many different points while academic papers in other specialties need make only one or two. Boston University’s Samuel Bazzi said that these papers include redundancies “to head off possible quibbles that might come up during the review process.”

Do you think briefer academic papers in a specialty such as economics will positively impact the quality of research or at least the dissemination of information? How is it that eminent economists in the 1950s could make their points—and win Nobel Prizes—reporting breakthroughs in 16 pages while today some need 50+? Do the blinders to essential changes in communications by this community reflect on their abilities to forecast?

Photo: economcsdiscussion.net

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