Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Advice on Writing from Amitabh Chandra, Editor of the Review of Economics and Statistics

The academic economics journal where I work as Managing Editor, the Journal of Economic Perspectives, is not intended as a destination for someone's latest research paper. Instead,  we ask authors to write an essay about an economic question which draws both on their own research and the work of others. We emphasize verbal explanations about the intuition underlying an argument. JEP articles are thus different in tone and focus from standard economics research journals.

Thus, it's interesting to me that the advice to authors from the editor of a top research journal, the Review of Economics and Statistics, is in some ways quite similar to the advice I would give.  David Slusky presents "An Interview with Amitabh Chandra, Editor of the Review of Economics and Statistics," in the Newsletter of American Society of Health Economists (2019: 4).  Here are a couple of samples:
What surprised you the most about being an editor of a major general interest economics journal?
I never thought that the single best predictor of getting a paper accepted, would be clear and accessible writing, including an explanation of where the paper breaks down, instead of putting the onus of this discovery on the reader.
It’s my sense that a paper where the reviewer has to figure out what the author did, will not get accepted. Reviewers are happy to suggest improvements, provided they understand what is happening and that makes them appreciate clear writing and explaining. They become grumpy and unreasonable when they believe that the author is making them work extra to understand a paper and most aren’t willing to help such an author. They may not say all this in their review, but they do share these frustrations in the letter to the editor. This is one reason that I encouraged a move towards 60-70% desk-rejections at RESTAT—if an editor can spot obvious problems with clarity or identification within 15 minutes, then why send it out for review?
Of course, all of this results in the unfortunate view that “this accepted paper is so simple, but my substantially more complicated paper is much better,” when the reality is that simplicity and clarity are heavily rewarded. We don’t teach good writing in economics—and routinely confuse LaTeX equations with good writing—but as my little rant highlights, we actually value better-writing. So this is something to work on.
Related, most reviewers want short papers (so do editors). The world has also changed, and economics is more empirical, so adding a 3-5 page “theory section” that produces uncertain comparative-statics is a waste of three pages, that has also annoyed and tired the reader. Theory is great if it can clear up clutter. But if it can’t, or worse, if it adds to clutter, then this is not being empathic about a reader’s needs. ...
What do you wish more authors did before submission?
What a great question: authors of empirical papers should do two related things. First, make sure that their abstracts are jargon free and literature free. So never include something like “Chandra and Slusky (2020)…” in an abstract for the makes the paper seem narrow and unimportant, even when it’s broad and important.
Second, make sure that the introduction of the paper clearly summarizes the question, intuition for the answer, the approach, and the findings in a way that a first-year graduate student in economics would understand. Don’t put a giant literature review into the introduction and put your reader to sleep during the first 5 minutes that you have their attention. Do not think that accessibility is a bad thing. Do not assume that math is a good thing.
Homage: I found this interview via Tyler Cowen at the always-absorbing Marginal Revolution website.