How to write an Economics Research Paper

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A Guide to Writing in Economics Prepared by Paul Dudenhefer, Writing Tutor, EcoTeach Center and Department of Economics, Duke University December 2009 ©Paul Dudenhefer Introduction When I tell people I was for several years the writing tutor for an economics department, I am usually met with a surprised reaction. And why not? Most people associate writing with English departments and, only to a slightly lesser extent, with the other disciplines in the humanities; they do not normally associate writing with economics and the other sciences. You may be one of them. You may be asking yourself, What does writing have to do with economics? Well, a lot, as it turns out. Economists, as much or even more than other scholars and analysts, write. Although we may think of economics as involving problem sets or mathematics, the fact remains that the results of economic research are “written up.” Economics articles, especially empirical papers, consist mainly of text, not equations or tables. Assistant economics professors must publish articles to earn tenure; economic staffers at research institutes and other financial organizations write reports and other documents; economists hired as research consultants produce written reports detailing their results; members of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers write reports and briefings. The list could go on. “In talking about the economist’s craft,” says Richard Schmalensee, an economist at MIT, “it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of clear and persuasive writing.” Writing is as much a part of economics as are models and data sets. What follows is a writing manual originally written for the Department of Economics at Duke University. As such, it responds in large part to the writing demands of the undergraduate curriculum at Duke. But it also discusses writing in a more general way, for writing in economics involves a mix of general principles of writing and discipline-specific conventions of writing. Most writing manuals are prescriptive in that they tell writers what they should do: be clear, be concise, and so on. Although the present manual offers some prescriptions, the advice found herein responds mainly to how economist-writers actually write; in that 5 regard the manual is primarily descriptive. The present manual deals mainly with those genres and aspects of economics writing that involve normal prose. It is primarily designed to help students understand how economics essays and papers are constructed and the kinds of information they usually contain. It is less helpful when it comes to such things as constructing models (although writing about models is treated in section 17). The guide is thus stronger in its discussion of empirical papers than in its discussion of theoretical ones. The manual is divided into five parts. The first part, “Writing Itself,” addresses aspects of writing in general; the discussion in that part can apply to writing in any discipline. Part II, “Researching Economic Topics,” tries to explain the scholarly and analytical approach behind economics papers. The third part, “Genres of Economics Writing,” briefly surveys some of the kinds of papers and essays economists write. It is in the fourth part, “Writing Economics,” that the manual homes in on discipline- specific writing. What kinds of information are usually contained in an introduction, and how is it organized? How should one end a paper? And so on. Part V offers concluding remarks. 6 Part I: Writing Itself Let’s not kid ourselves: Writing a paper can be stressful, especially when your object is to get a good grade, which nowadays means no less than an A. To many students, getting an A is less a matter of writing a good paper and more a matter of “figuring out” what the professor or instructor “wants.” As long as writing is graded— and personally, I do not think it should be, but that is a different subject altogether—students will have to write to please an audience of one. But although writing a paper can be stressful, it can also be one of the most intellectually exciting, satisfying, and challenging enterprises you will undertake as a student. It is also a highly complex cognitive and scholarly task that requires planning and a felicitous attitude. Our writing problems often arise when we fail to acknowledge and respect the writing process for the sophisticated, unpredictable, and time-consuming endeavor that it is. In this part of the manual, I will offer a few tips that I hope will help you write a successful paper—or at least help you retain your wits as you go through the process. 1. Writing Is Thinking Let me begin by stressing something that is fundamental to good writing: we write to learn what we want to say. To some readers, that may seem obvious; but many inexperienced writers have a different—and I think debilitating—conception of the purpose of writing. For many inexperienced writers, writing, they imagine, is something you do only after you figure out what you want to say. I cannot think of a single attitude that is more antithetical to the writing process. The attitude is particularly prevalent in the sciences, including economics. “Let me get my results first,” I often hear graduate students say, “and then I’ll ‘write them up.’” Rather than seeing writing as a final step in the research process, I ask you to see it as part and parcel of the research process from the very start. In other words, writing is thinking. 7 The economist Deirdre McCloskey, in her often provocative short guide Economical Writing, explains the idea nicely. “Economically speaking,” she writes, “the production function for thinking cannot be written as the sum of two subfunctions, one producing ‘results’ and the other ‘writing them up.’ The function is not separable. You do not learn the details of an argument until writing it in detail.” Many an argument or line of thought sounds good in our minds until we try to express it in writing. It is not until we write that we discover if we really know what we want to say, and how to say it, or if what we thought were brilliant, lucid arguments are actually only confused and ill-formed ideas. With all this in mind, writing—the actual process of writing—should be held in warm regard. It is a useful tool for discovering what you want to say. 2. Writing a Paper—a Good Paper Writing a paper—a good paper—takes time. By good, I don’t mean an A paper: lots of papers get A’s that are not necessarily good. (The relationship between the grade a paper receives and the quality of the paper is a separate issue that I will not discuss here. Any good paper is quite likely to earn an A; but not all A papers are good.) By a good paper, I mean a paper that fulfills its potential, meets the expectations established by you the writer, and, most important, communicates with its intended reader. It is worth repeating: To produce a good paper takes time. How much time? I can’t say for sure, but probably more than you may realize or want to accept. To give you the right order of magnitude, for a term paper of twenty pages or so, I’m talking dozens of hours: hours spent thinking about the paper, researching the paper, trying things out on paper (free-writing, or brainstorming, or just plain noodling around), writing a first draft of the paper, revising the paper, revising the paper again, proofreading the paper—and not necessarily in the order listed here. I’m not saying that you can’t pull an all-nighter and write a 8 paper that will get an A; chances are, you have already done that, maybe several times. But I am saying that you cannot pull an all- nighter and write a good paper, a paper that represents the best that you can do. Allowing for enough time is especially critical when it comes to papers that require you to collect and analyze numerical data—what we call “empirical” papers in economics. Finding appropriate data is often a big problem. And even after the data is in hand, you must make time to analyze it. Analyzing the data can take time because computers will typically be involved. Software programs may not run; hard drives crash; USB drives disappear; and printers mysteriously stop working. (I thank Dr. Craig Newmark at North Carolina State University for pointing this out.) In addition to requiring lots of time, writing a paper involves a recursive process: one step forward, two steps back, and certain steps—drafting, researching, revising, outlining, etc.—are repeated and revisited. In junior high school and even in high school, writing was probably taught as a linear process: first you pick a topic, then you read about your topic, then you write an outline of your paper, then you write a first draft of your paper, then you revise your paper, and finally you proofread your paper, in that order. But research shows that that’s not the way the majority of adults write. Adults write using a recursive process. You may begin writing before you even know for sure what you want to write about. You may research your topic and begin writing, only to stop and research your topic some more. You may write certain parts of your paper out of order (for example, you may write the introduction last). You may write a draft, then outline it, and see that you need more material or more evidence. You may begin drafting a paper, decide you need to take an entirely different tack, and start drafting again. The combinations are too numerous to count. Give it time, and relish the recursiveness. If you do those two, you are off to a good start. Here are a few other pieces of advice to help you along. 9 Adopt learning as a goal. In our concern about grades, we often forget about one very important thing: learning. Approach the writing assignment as a chance to learn: to learn about a subject, to learn about research methods and sources of information, to learn about your writing and research habits (and whether you may need to change them). Think of yourself as a writer. Too often students think of themselves as, well, students, and they view their assignments as required tasks in which they have no real investment. The problem with that is it puts you in the wrong position in relation to what you want to accomplish. If you were taking an exam, you would do well to regard yourself as a student. But writing a paper is not about taking an exam or even studying per se. It is about writing and all that writing entails—planning, researching, drafting, revising, thinking. Therefore, do not think of yourself as a student but as a writer, an economist, a scholar. For models and inspiration, read the series of interviews with writers in the Paris Review and the testimonials of economists in Passion and Craft: Economists at Work. Surrender to the process. Researching and writing a paper is not a strict matter of completing a series of tasks that take a finite amount of time and that yield a predictable result. Researching and writing a paper is instead a recursive and sometimes uncertain and unpredictable process that refuses to fall completely under your control. The more you surrender to the process, the happier you will be. Start early. That means today. Not after this weekend’s parties, or after spring break, or after the big game, but today. How? Make a list of possible topics. Compile a bibliography of books and articles on your topic. Read about your topic, and take notes as you read. Formulate a tentative thesis. Write what you know, and what you would like to know, about your topic. Set a schedule. Do not trust that you will work efficiently and in a timely manner. Set a schedule for your writing project, and stick to it. Show up at the same time every day so the muse 10will know when to find you. Tip: Set Monday mornings as deadlines; that way, you won’t be tempted to spend the entire weekend away from your project. Understand the need for information. Information comes primarily from two sources: thinking and research. If you don’t know what to write, you have not thought enough about your topic or researched it enough—or both. Write before you are ready to write. Students often see writing as the final activity of a linear process, as the thing you do after you have conducted your research and formulated your ideas. But in reality, researching and thinking and writing are all of a piece. Start writing something—anything—before you have finished your research. Write even before you know what you want to say. Indeed, it is often only by writing that we work out and discover what we truly want to say. Important: Please keep track of your sources as you work out your ideas on paper. Do not rely on your memory When you come across a passage or a statistic you might use in your paper, write down precisely where it comes from. Accurate and scrupulous note-keeping in the pre-writing stage will save you lots of extra work and headaches later when you draft your paper. 3. The Paper as a Whole In your economics courses, you might be asked to write all manner of papers. You may be asked to review a book or review the literature on a particular topic; you may be asked to take a policy position and defend it, or to describe someone else’s position and assess its strengths and weaknesses. You may be asked to pose an interesting economic question and answer it, or to explain a real- world situation, using economic theories and concepts. You may be asked to write other kinds of papers as well. Regardless of the kind of paper you are asked to write, it may be helpful to think of the paper as having three major parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the beginning, you want to introduce your topic and indicate the purpose of the essay. If your 11essay states and defends a point of view or an interpretation—that is, if it has a thesis—you will want to state it, usually at the end of the introduction (or near the end: in many economics papers, the introduction ends with a brief paragraph previewing the sections or content to come). Depending on the length and genre of the paper, not to mention the complexity of the argument, the introduction can be as short as a single paragraph or as long as four or five (or more). As a rough guide—and only as a rough guide—figure to have one paragraph of introductory material for a five-page essay; two paragraphs for a ten-page essay; and three or more for essays fifteen pages or longer. The middle of your paper should be the longest part; it is where you fulfill the expectations you raised or keep the promises you made in the introduction. The middle is where you actually do what your introduction says your paper will do. If your paper states a thesis, the middle should be used to support the thesis, by presenting supporting evidence, usually in ascending order of importance. The end, or conclusion, is usually short, often just a paragraph, maybe two. Whereas introductions often end with the thesis statement, conclusions often begin with the thesis statement. The conclusion is where you want to restate your main point or main purpose. Depending on the assignment, your conclusion can be used to suggest lines of further research, to call readers to action, or to direct attention to larger issues. Conclusions often refer back to the introduction as a way of stressing the main point of the essay. 4. Six Principles of Clear, Cohesive, and Coherent Writing For anybody who is interested in writing clearly and with flow and coherence, I recommend buying and working through Joseph Williams’s short book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Short of that, I offer the following six principles. Most come from Williams (as do many of the examples) and can be found in similar 12or exact form in any number of good composition books. They apply to all kinds of genres, especially the kinds of documents you are likely to write on the job: memos, reports, letters, and the like. Before we discuss the principles, let’s consider perhaps when and when not you should put them into practice. I certainly would not worry about them while you are drafting a paper. When you are drafting, the aim is to get words and ideas down, period, without worrying about being correct or elegant or accurate. Thus, I would not worry about the principles when you are writing your first draft. And then even after you have a finished draft, I would not necessarily begin subjecting every sentence to the principles. No, I’d let your own sense of your text be your guide. I would treat these principles as tools to use when you or your readers think a sentence or passage could be improved. If there is a passage that you or your readers have trouble with, then just maybe one or more of the following principles can help you out. PRINCIPLE 1: Keep your complete grammatical subjects short. Readers like to get past the subject to the verb as quickly as possible. Therefore, as much as possible, structure your sentences so that they have complete grammatical subjects that are short. Here are two versions of the same sentence, the first with a long complete subject (italicized), the second, with a short one: Long subject: A full explanation of why the model cannot accommodate this particular case of omitted variable bias is given in the appendix. Short subject: The appendix explains in full why the model cannot accommodate this particular case of omitted variable bias. Needless to say, the occasional sentence with a long grammatical subject is fine and may even be desirable. But generally speaking, keep your complete subjects short. 13Here is an example from the literature. Note how in each passage, the complete subjects are short and thus you come quickly to the verb. No one has the right, and few the ability, to lure economists into reading another article on oligopoly theory without some advance indication of its alleged contribution. The present paper accepts the hypothesis that oligopolists wish to collude to maximize joint profits. It seeks to reconcile this wish with facts, such as that collusion is impossible for many firms and collusion is much more effective in some circumstances than others. The reconciliation is found in the problem of policing a collusive agreement, which proves to be a problem in the theory of information. —George J. Stigler, Journal of Political Economy, 1964 PRINCIPLE 2: Express key actions as verbs. Express key actions as verbs. That may sound obvious, but we often do not express key actions as verbs. Rather, we often “hide” key actions in abstract nouns or, as they are also called, nominalizations—noun forms of words that can also be verbs. Examples of nominalizations are analysis (the nominalization of to analyze), assumption (to assume), and resistance (to resist). Many nominalizations end in -tion, -ment, -ence, and so on. Here are some examples of sentences with nominalizations, along with those same sentences revised to eliminate the nominalizations. Note that for some words, the verb form and the noun form are the same. There is opposition among many voters to nuclear power plants. Many voters oppose nuclear power plants. Economists made attempts to define full employment. Economists attempted to define full employment. We conducted a review of the matter. We reviewed the matter. 14 The model makes the assumption that people engage in utility maximization. The model assumes that people maximize their utility. There is a need for further study of the problem. We need to study the problem further. The occasional nominalization may not present many problems to your readers. But when writing with nominalizations becomes a habit, your prose can become a chore (not to mention a bore) to read. Here is a passage with no fewer than six nominalizations. Can you identify them? Writing that demonstrates a reliance on nominalizations is often the result of a misguided desire to make an impression on readers. In case you are having trouble identifying the nominalizations, consider that same sentence without them (or at least without most of them): Writers often rely on nominalizations when they want to impress their readers. According to Joseph Williams, there is nothing that typifies the dense, occluded style of academic writing more than the use of nominalizations. If you want to be clear, try to avoid them as much as possible. PRINCIPLE 3: Begin sentences with “old” information. Here are two passages that say the same thing. Which flows better? 1a. An effective way to write sentences that “flow” is to use the rhetorical device known as conduplicatio. To repeat a key word or phrase from a preceding sentence, especially 15when the word or phrase comes at the end of the preceding sentence, is to use conduplicatio. 1b. An effective way to write sentences that “flow” is to use the rhetorical device known as conduplicatio. Conduplicatio repeats a key word or phrase from a preceding sentence, especially when the word or phrase comes at the end of the preceding sentence. Most readers consider 1b to flow better. Why? Because in 1b, the second sentence begins with a term that the reader has already encountered: conduplicatio. In other words, in 1b, the second sentence begins with old information. Clear writing is writing that flows, and the best way to create flow is to begin sentences with old information. (In other words, use conduplicatio) Old information is information— names, words, phrases, and their equivalents—that your reader has already encountered or can reasonably anticipate; it is information that refers back to something already stated. Here is an example. The old information is in boldface; the information it refers back to is italicized. The Methods of Ethics is the key to understanding Sidgwick’s work. It was his first and most important book and is fundamental to his thought in that his ethics underlie his writings on economics and politics. Sidgwick oversaw the publication of five editions between 1874 and 1893, and was in the midst of producing a sixth when he died in 1900. It occupies a central place in the history of moral philosophy. —Roger E. Backhouse, History of Political Economy, Spring 2006 Old information is not just words or phrases that have been stated before. Often, old information appears as a sentence connector or transitional word or phrase that indicates the relationship between a sentence and the one that preceded it: for example, thus, however, in contrast, moreover. The point is to begin your sentences with a 16piece of information that tells the reader how it relates to the sentences that just preceded it. PRINCIPLE 4: End sentences with new information. Just as it is wise to begin sentences with old information, it is wise to end them with new information. New information is just that: information that your reader has not encountered yet or could not anticipate. Generally speaking, new information is the most important in a sentence; it thus should receive the most emphasis, and the place of most emphasis in a sentence is at the end. This principle—that of placing new or important information at the ends of sentences—is persuasively discussed by the composition expert George Gopen. In his excellent guide to writing, Expectations: Teaching Writing from the Reader’s Perspective, Professor Gopen says that if he could give writers only one piece of advice, it would be to put important or “stress- worthy” information at the ends of sentences. PRINCIPLE 5: Make the subjects of your sentences the person, place, or thing that the sentence is about. In Expectations, Professor Gopen says that the subject of a sentence should answer the question, Whose story? In other words, the subject should tell the reader who or what the sentence is about. To see this principle at work, read the following two passages. They each have the same content; but each has a different “character” as the subjects of its sentences, and each thus is about different things: Omitted variable bias has plagued studies of student achievement. It has prevented researchers from reaching confident conclusions about the best way to reform the education system. (This “story” is about omitted variable bias.) 17Educational researchers have long been stymied by the problem of omitted variable bias. They therefore cannot be confident that their studies yield reliable conclusions about the best way to reform the education system. (This “story” is about educational researchers.) Got it? Let’s see. Here are three sentences. Which sentence is best? 1. Gary Becker was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics in 1992. 2. The 1992 Nobel Prize for economics was awarded to Gary Becker. 3. The year 1992 saw Gary Becker win the Nobel Prize for economics. Answer: It depends. If I were writing a biographical note on Gary Becker, sentence 1 would be best. If I were writing a story about the Nobel Prizes awarded in 1992, sentence 2 would be best. And if I were reviewing the events of the year 1992, I’d pick sentence 3. PRINCIPLE 6: Make the first few words of your sentences constitute a limited set of concepts. If you begin your sentences with old information, you will create a passage that flows, a passage that is cohesive. But is it coherent? Maybe not. Consider the following passage, which comes from Joseph Williams’s Style. Every sentence begins with old information. But what’s the point? Sayner, Wisconsin, is the snowmobile capital of the world. The buzzing of snowmobile engines fills the air, and their tanklike tracks crisscross the snow. The snow reminds me of Mom’s mashed potatoes, covered with furrows that I would draw with my fork. Her mashed potatoes usually make me sick, which is why I play with them. I like to 18make a hole in the middle of the potatoes and fill it with melted butter. Butter is good on rolls, too. According to Professor Williams, most readers will judge the passage to be rambling, incoherent. Why? Because the subjects of the sentences do not demonstrate a consistent pattern: Sayner, Wisconsin, is the . . . The buzzing of snowmobile engines . . . The snow reminds me of . . . Her mashed potatoes . . . I like to make a hole . . . Butter is good on rolls . . . Each beginning presents readers with new information. For that reason, the passage is incoherent. Here is another passage, written in a more sophisticated style, but suffering from the same vice (it also comes from Style): The particular ideas toward the beginning of sentences define what a passage is “about” for a reader. Moving through a paragraph from a cumulatively coherent point of view is made possible by a sequence of topics that seem to constitute a limited set of related ideas. A seeming absence of context for each sentence is one consequence of making random shifts in topics. Feelings of dislocation, disorientation, and lack of focus in a passage occur when that happens. As with the first passage, most readers consider this one incoherent as well. Why? Again, look at the first few words of each sentence: The particular ideas toward the beginning . . . Moving through a paragraph from a . . . A seeming absence of context . . . 19Feelings of dislocation, disorientation, and . . . The string of words that begin each sentence is inconsistent and diffuse; thus, our attention is not focused on a limited set of ideas. Now compare that version with this one: Readers look for the topics of sentences to tell them what a whole passage is “about.” If they feel that its sequence of topics focuses on a limited set of related topics, they will feel they are moving through that passage from a cumulatively coherent point of view. But if topics seem to shift randomly from sentence to sentence, then readers have to begin each sentence from no consistent point of view, and when that happens, readers feel dislocated, disoriented, and the passage seems out of focus. Most readers judge the revised passage to be much more coherent. Why? Because the words that begin each sentence focus on a limited set of concepts: readers, topics, passage. For good measure, note too that the grammatical subjects are short. 20Part II: Researching Economic Topics An important part of writing economics papers is researching economic topics. What’s more, the way in which economic topics are researched sheds a lot of light on the way in which economics papers are written. One of the themes of this manual is that advances in economic research are made incrementally, at the margins of what we presently know or accept as knowledge. As such, the secondary literature—papers and books by economists on a given topic—figures importantly in writing economics papers. 5. Finding a Niche and Making a Contribution In order to write effective economics papers, it is important to understand how research questions and ideas usually develop in the discipline. Most research projects are extensions of or complements to the “literature,” the existing body of published articles (and books) on a particular subject. (Indeed, as you will read about in the section on introductions, many economics papers begin by engaging the literature on the topic at hand.) Regardless of the subject that interests them, most economists first become intimate with the literature on the subject, paying especial attention to the questions asked, the data used, and the models and estimation techniques employed. What are the major issues? Why is the subject important? What problems have previous researchers encountered? How have they attempted to circumvent or minimize them? What are the standard models used in the literature? Are the results consistent from study to study, or are they mixed? Where is more research needed? As economists become more and more familiar with a body of literature, they begin to understand ways in which the existing studies can be improved or extended. They begin to notice opportunities to “make a contribution” to the literature. A contribution can take many forms; the most common involve some adjustment to one or more of the three elements just 21mentioned: the question, the data, or the model and technique. An economist may, for instance, use the same model and data that a previous paper uses but ask a different question. Or she may use the same model and ask the same question but test the model with different data. Or he may take the same data but test a different model, one perhaps with different assumptions or variables. Or an economist may develop a theoretical model of an economic phenomenon that differs from other models. There can be many more “contributions” than those mentioned here. A few examples from actual research papers may be helpful. An honors student at Duke became interested in the effects of spending on public education. She noticed that most studies compared results from countries as a whole; very few looked at a single country and the effects of spending on the several school districts that make up the country’s educational system. So that was precisely what she examined. Here’s another: In a 2005 article published in the Journal of Public Economic Theory, Huseyin Yildirim modeled the decision to volunteer for a large public project, such as projects to create open-source software. He took a model devised by two previous researchers and modified it by changing the way in which certain kinds of information (e.g., a volunteer’s “cost” of contributing to the project) were treated. For a final example, a 2008 paper by V. Joseph Hotz and Mo Xiao explored the effect of minimum standards of quality on the child care industry. The two authors pointed out the potential biases that plagued the results in previous studies; using a richer data set than had been available in the past, Hotz and Xiao sought to avoid the potential biases in earlier studies by including fixed effects and by controlling for a number of important variables. It is worth repeating that none of the economics papers just described was made out of whole cloth; instead, each picked up where others had left off. The same is true of the vast majority of economics papers. Whether it is “improving” an existing model, using richer data, or asking a slightly different question, most 22research in economics operates on the margins of an existing body of work. A final note. Most scholarly economics papers do not address urgent matters of the moment. In part, that is because the discipline, rather than current events, determines what gets researched. In addition, scholars simply cannot go whichever way the wind blows: scholarship is too complex and time-consuming to respond quickly to a particular issue, and many scholars are financially committed to multi-year investigations that do not permit them to drop their present research agenda to pursue another. If you want to study, say, the impact of a law passed in the last year, you may likely find little in the secondary literature. If that is the case, your literature review will have to use articles whose subject can only approximate yours. 6. Locating and Getting a Handle on the Secondary Literature Many students begin researching a topic in economics by searching Google Scholar or some other general electronic database. There is nothing wrong with that method if one has an understanding of the research on the topic as a whole: who the leading authorities are, what the important issues have been, how research on the topic has evolved. Truth be told, very few students have such an understanding—and how could they? They are new to the discipline. I would therefore like to propose a different model of researching economic topics, one that takes advantage of resources that help one get a handle on the literature on a topic and that can make searching an electronic database much more effective. The number of scholarly articles written on economics is large and is growing larger by the year. Pick any subject—public goods, family economics, business cycles—and the secondary literature on the topic is bound to be enormous. To give you an example, take the last topic, business cycles: a search of the electronic bibliographic database EconLit—which will be 23

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