Service of Keep it Short: Economists Resist the Trend

August 2nd, 2018

Categories: Academia, Academics, Economics, Editing, Writing

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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11 Responses to “Service of Keep it Short: Economists Resist the Trend”

  1. ASK Said:

    Having spent the last 12 years of my career in the academic world, I found that economists are generally nervous guys who are VERY sensitive to criticism when they get it wrong. But why do I have the feeling that they are not the only academicians who write excessively wordy papers? I found there are other specialties guilty of verbosity, and in many cases, the creation of new words…words that no one appears to know the meaning of, but other specialists in the field.

    Some of the “softer” sciences seem particularly prone to this. Years ago, in a social psychology course, I once had to read 76 pages devoted to the definition of the word “function.” The slender volume was a great antidote to my occasional insomnia. I finally woke up, smelled the coffee, and dropped the course. I found it far more interesting to look at prehistoric rock strata in Central Park.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    ASK,

    You’ve pushed one of my buttons which is jargon. It’s rampant in every industry and now, social media. Grump.

    I’ve mentioned before how I asked my contacts at a company I represented if they could explain “six sigma” to me, which their company, as many others, had adapted. Not a single one of them had a clue but it was brought up constantly.

    I have admitted this before: I almost failed economics in college and the only way I passed was to read the question, figure out my response and write the OPPOSITE. My pragmatic mind could not wrap itself around the gobbledygook and conclusions that didn’t make a whit of sense to me. In my relatively short experience at the time, people just didn’t act as the textbooks reported that they did.

    I recall that a major PR association took a year or more and a great deal of “study” to develop a definition of public relations. Geesh. Great minds? I fundraise for student scholarships for an association and if it took us that long to get moving I shudder to think.

  3. ASK Said:

    I am convinced that whoever developed the “six sigma” process is a descendant of the person that wrote that 76-page book defining the word “function”!

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    ASK,

    Your response took me by surprise and made me giggle!

    I wonder if the author of “Function” became a consultant to US Senators who wanted to learn how to filibuster.

  5. Martha Takayama Said:

    This timely post is absolutely brilliant.. It is also concise’ . Verbosity and jargon are currently rampant in economics, social sciences and the arts. Equations and Greek letters add to the density of economics for the lay reader. Criticism of the arts often wallows in incomprehensible texts with little meaning except to their writer.

    My most intense training in writing directly and economically was in sophomore year Newton Plan English at Newton High School. Hemingway’s short direct sentences were often cited as positive examples. I won’t forget my text being used as an example of excess verbiage, and still often wince at my drafts.

    However, we cannot ignore the current lack of straightforward, compact, and accurate journalism, spoken or written. An illiterate Chief executive and his semi-literate spokespeople drown us in meaningless utterances. Endless time is spent rehashing details of doublespeak or in deformed terminology such as “mistruth” for “lie.” All the nonsense could be summarized in telegraphic fashion. Social media has elevated trivia, irrelevance and deception to major facts of life. Hopefully there will be a new interest in clarity of thought and minimalism in speech!

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Martha,

    How right you are about art criticism. What I read in art-focused news sites is written clearly. I can hardly slosh through some of the articles in magazines written for the general public! When I specialized in medical PR, I found that some newspaper reporters didn’t have the general public in mind. They were writing to impress physicians and clinicians! Although off-topic regarding this post, I wonder if this is what happens in many fields.

    I don’t read academic copy in any area so I can’t say whether or not any academic journals welcome concise, carefully written research reports. Speaking from ignorance–and what I glean from people such as ASK and you–I fear I wouldn’t get far in most of those texts. I’ve focused on trying to write clearly and simply and wading through tortured text is not on my wish list. I’m too impatient.

  7. Martha Takayama Said:

    You have mastered the art of writing clearly and simply. Your posts reflect this as you cover a broad range of issues with much knowledge and sharp analytical skills and concerns. They are always an informative delight.

  8. Lucrezia Said:

    Read Paul Krugman. Agree or disagree, he makes the subject come to life.

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    True. Exception proving the rule.

    Haven’t seen Krugman on political TV shows in years—wonder why.

  10. Protius Said:

    For many years I made my living assessing the various financial risks that my employer was taking in a variety of ways around the world when it extended credit internationally. Obviously, we were inundated with a wide variety of data and economic reporting mostly, particularly when written under the aegis of a government, seemed intended to persuade us to act as it wished we would. Some of these reports were sent to us gratis or at nominal cost, others were prepared by services to which we subscribed. Their volume seemed vast, but I don’t recall many tomes that ran over fifty pages, but I do recall our skepticism about the dubious reliability of the supporting data provided (including by our own government) to back up hypotheses. We also had our own team of economists and consulted economists in the countries where we did business.

    Unfortunately, had we read every economic report which came our way, or listened to all the economic advice the economists we had available to us gave, we would not have had time to do anything else. Rather, particularly as we included in our portfolio risks as diverse as Qaddafi’s Libya, Allende’s Chile, Iraq and Israel, Ghana and South Africa, among others, we sought to listen carefully to sources as diverse as bartenders, taxi drivers, lawyers, merchants and waiters, university professors and even an occasional clergyman or woman. By all means, we spoke with economists (and an occasional journalist), more though with those who took a hands-on, common sense, rather than an academically rigorous approach to their craft. Most of all we listened to our clients especially those we knew well. Ours was a decidedly undisciplined, intuitive approach to credit assessment, but it worked. Over time, we noticed that it was our government (State, the CIA, etc.) which was seeking our views on markets, and not us theirs.

    Then came technology, computers and the digital age, “management by objectives,” “six sigma,” and similar efforts to squeeze essentially human behavior into formulas. Somebody in some business school, probably Harvard, must have decided that tagging the elements which should be considered in making credit decisions with numeric values could lead to disciplined mathematical, hence better, equations being used to determine whether we were achieving optimum return on investment on our resources at risk. Economics is about numbers and credit risk assessment lent itself naturally to the concept.

    Someone must have forgotten about “garbage in. garbage out“ because the result was disaster. Starting in about the mid-1980’s, third world countries began defaulting on their debts. This led, again thanks to technology, to the securitization of risk assets, which were packaged in complex marketable assets which could be bought and sold in secondary markets. Likewise, the big city bankers got the regulators to discard Glass-Steagall which led to the consolidation of vast economic power in the hands of a few, too big to fail mega banks, which is where we are today. More than ever before, our country’s wealth and power is now in the hands of the very wealthy.

    Why do I find myself becoming such a Luddite? Because I was there when it happened and it did not have to. I did not play ball, and had to find a new job, but it was only slightly satisfying to learn a few years later that my old chairman had been heard moaning, “Oh, if we only had old Protius back.” The bank no longer exists.

  11. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Protius,

    “Squeezing human behavior into formulas,” which you wrote, is where I got lost in economics class. I kept thinking, “But people don’t act/think like that!” Whomever was manipulating the numbers proved me wrong where my grade was concerned–but so were they, according to your former chairman.

    All the palaver required to produce a 60 page paper smacks of obfuscation. I saw a report prepared for a very small charity that was over 70 pages long. Who is going to slosh through all of that? Who has the time? That’s what the preparer was hoping I guess–“Nobody” and “they don’t.”

    Years ago on “60 Minutes” I saw an interview with an articulate fellow behind bars wearing a prison jumpsuit. He’d bamboozled $millions out of people. He told the reporter that he landed on prospects’ properties either by helicopter or Bentley carrying a three-inch thick proposal. Only the first few pages were pertinent; the rest was almost dummy type. People fell for it until they didn’t.

    Wish you could help Washington clean up the mess we’re in now–though you’ll have to wait until this administration departs the premises.

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