Faculty Corner: Prof. Richard Rogerson
Last week, Prof. Richard Rogerson was kind enough to speak with me and share his thoughts on writing in economics. He currently serves as Co-editor of the American Economic Journal: Macro and Associate Editor of the Review of Economic Dynamics. He has previously served as Co-Editor of the American Economic Review and Associate Editor of the Journal of Monetary Economics, the Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control and the International Economic Review.
Here is an excerpt from our conversation.
If you're writing the Introduction of a paper for a field journal vs. a general interest journal, what should be different?
As a first approximation, almost nothing. You’re always trying to market your work as broadly as possible. So you don’t need to write a different Introduction. Just write the best Introduction given your paper.
The Introduction is your opportunity to advertise that you are doing something interesting and important. Whether the paper is for a general interest or field journal, it is your chance to tell others why it was worth your time to do what you did in first place. So you should write an Introduction that markets your work in the best way possible. Having said that though, it is important that your Introduction match the body of the paper; don’t oversell. It is not a good idea to make claims in the Introduction that are not supported in the body of the paper.
What about a job market paper? Should there be anything different about that?
You might do a little bit more of a literature review as your paper is potentially going to be read by people outside of your field. And if the literature review offers good context, it can be useful. You also get a little extra leeway in terms of length--but only a little.
What about references and citations in the Introduction?
As a general rule, it is important to have good citations: first, because they help to place the paper in context; and second, because lots of readers, especially if their paper has not been cited, can get into a bad mood if you claim to do things they already did or explain their work incorrectly. So you want to have good citations. Cite seminal papers that define the area you are working in, but do so in a way that after reading the 1st paragraph of the Introduction, a reader should be able to understand a little bit of your paper’s contribution—maybe not the exact contribution, but some sense of the issue you’re addressing.
However, you don’t want to get into “so and so did this” and “so and so did that” in the first few paragraphs of the Introduction. Citations should be very selective; if you have a lot, use footnotes so that someone reading the text doesn’t start feeling like they’re reading a Lit Review in a section that is not a Lit Review.
It is also important to explain in your own words what issue you’re addressing, why it’s interesting, and what your contribution is to the literature. When people include long quotes from others or cite too many people, it’s like they're not taking ownership of what they’re doing.
In terms of writing, what can researchers do to make the job of a journal editor easier?
People who write concisely and sharply, people who write to the point, make things easier. Especially as an editor, the first time you read, you may be reading quickly to get a sense of the paper. So if someone writes a 6-page Introduction, that takes a lot of attention; if it is 6 pages of substance, that is a lot to take in.
There’s a quote, I think it's from Ed Prescott, that there should be one idea per paper. That's not a bad rule to have. The Introduction then offers the essence of the idea. So if you’ve written 6 pages, there probably isn't 6 pages of essence; it means there is also a lot of irrelevant stuff. And the more stuff there is, the easier it is to lose track of what the essence is.
When should you start writing a paper?
Don’t wait too long before you start doing any writing because usually whatever you write will help you think about what you’re doing.
People sometimes have an idea that getting results is hard but writing is easy. So they might think, “Once I have results, I’ll write the paper in two weeks.” But it doesn’t work that way. For instance, for many students, the Introduction is an afterthought, written at the very end and in a hurry. However, it is a hugely important piece and takes more time to write than they might think.
Even if you don’t have your final results, but have a model, for example, it is not a bad idea to write up the model section. It’s just good to start getting things down on paper, to get feedback on some of that; it gets the whole process started.
Speaking of models, what is a “good” model?
I tell students there is no such thing as a good model absent context. Tell me what issue you’re addressing then talk about if the model is good for that issue.
The nature of economics is that there is no model that is good for everything. Good cannot be divorced from the issue; conditional upon the issue, you can say why is it a good model for that issue.
Of course, students should be able to articulate what makes the model good given the issue. For instance, it may be interesting to say that a benchmark model is missing something plausibly important and your model is incorporating that. You might say how extending the benchmark model in a particular way clarifies the issue. So good has to be relative to the issue.
Any last thoughts on making a paper more reader-friendly?
The worst thing is when a reader doesn’t know where things are headed.
It is a hard thing to do, but true for research in general: people need to be able to put themselves in the position of an outsider who is reading. Whenever you read your draft, read it as if you don’t know anything about what’s coming next. It is hard to be objective about our own work, but we really need to be able to step back and think, “What would I think if I had just read that Introduction: would I think it is an important paper or not have a clue to what its claiming?”
Post by Varanya Chaubey Image from Princeton University