How to Play It Straight

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Every June, another thousand or so economists receive their PhDs and go out into the world, there to impinge upon our consciousness to one degree or another, employing the measuring rod of money to learn things about the world that we have built.

But first, of course, they must learn to impinge on one anothers’ consciousnesses.

It’s astonishing how little is generally understood about what technical economists do among themselves. I don’t mean that very interesting class of men and women who are using their know-how to make money. Nor do I mean those evangelists and reformers who are seeking, one way or another, to improve the world.

I mean those economists who are involved in the actual production and distribution of knowledge. I’ve been thinking about this because I have been reading a book on tradecraft directed at professional researchers.

A Guide for the Young Economist: Writing and Speaking Effectively about Economics by William Thomson is a kind of  Strunk and White for those who still must write at least a little in the natural language of their choice, a Halmos (How to Write Mathematics) for the mathematically-inclined, with a little bit of Edward Tufte (The Visual Display of Quantitative Information) thrown in.

Thomson is a professor at the University of Rochester. He is a theorist and editor of a journal. He writes with force and unassuming grace — “the quintessence of the French mind as it should be,” says his friend Maurice Salles of the University of Caen, “precision, concision elegance — Pascal rather than Derrida.”

His guide is concerned mainly with describing and manipulating formal models, not with writing up empirical work. It consists of three little essays about the activities that occupy most of the working hours of a research economist: Writing Papers, Giving Talks and Writing Referee Reports.

Much of Thomson’s advice is familiar to anyone who writes for a living; who writes, that is, with a view to contributing to a consensus. Write so that you will not have to be read. Don’t forget how you made your discoveries. Don’t forget your errors. Demonstrate the originality and significance of your contribution. Understand the function of each component of your paper. In the literature review, tell a story — don’t enumerate.

Much is unfamiliar, at least to those of us who don’t write a lot of algebra in the course of a day: Choose easily recognizable notation. Learn a good scientific typesetting software. Choose mnemonic abbreviations for assumptions and properties. Give examples illustrating novel definitions. Avoid unnecessary technical jargon. Choose the right mixture of words and mathematics in proofs. Don’t leave (too many) steps to the reader. Explore all possible variants of your results.

All these sections (and many more) are illuminated by examples, illustrated by occasional cartoons, spiced by many fine small jokes. The result is a glimpse over the shoulder of a master. “Of course you are rightly proud of the sophisticated reasoning that has led you to your findings. Nevertheless work hard to make them look simple.”

What’s the difference between a paper and a talk? “Oral presentations are more conducive than papers to discussing the paths not taken, the reasons why, and the lessons you drew from failures. The possibility of talking a little about the personal history of your work, recounting how your thinking evolved over time and how your results gained in generality, is one of the benefits of a talk over a paper.”

Indeed, he writes, “Describing your research to another person often brings out some previously unnoticed difficulty or that elusive piece that solves a puzzle. It works even when your listener knows little about your field and, even, remains silent. You feel like a fool for bothering your friend. Don’t worry. Just keep doing it (and return the favor). It happens to everybody. Ideally, of course, it shouldn’t happen in a seminar, which is why you need to practice with your friends first.”

And what’s a referee report, anyway? The referee’s task is to assess the value of a paper submitted to a journal, as an expert consulted by the associate editor with responsibility for a particular part of the field. He is protected by a promise of anonymity, even though in many cases the promise may be little more than a polite convention. (Communities of experts in many fields are quite small.)

Yet the authority of any science rests squarely on the shoulders of its referees, for any article published by a reputable journal represents not just the opinion of its author, but the collective judgment of the editor and his team of advisors (at least) that its contents are clear and credible and that its indebtedness to previous work has been adequately acknowledged.

It is this quasi-judicial system of collective responsibility for consensus, disciplined by the possibility of experiment and other forms of empirical investigation, into which an elaborate system of checks and balances has been built over the years, that permits scientists to utter those strange and amazingly powerful words — “the profession thinks….”

“You may have been asked by your adviser or another faculty member in your department to referee a paper for a journal,” writes Thomson. “It is not, however, a skill taught in any of the classes you took.” Your two main goals, he says, must be “to assess the manuscript’s suitability for publication and advise the author about improving his or her work.” The author, of course, will see your report.

“Keep in mind…” counsels Thomson, “that complete anonymity is impossible anyway and that one of the first things some authors try to do when receiving a report is to figure out who wrote it. It is something that you just have to accept.” And there is always the cover letter, which will not be passed along, in which you can raise more delicate issues, including — a not-infrequent source of tension — the relationship of the manuscript under review to your own work.

Refereeing only appears to be an unrewarding activity, Thomson writes. It is true that “essentially only one person, the associate editor, knows who produced this thoughtful report.” But by repeatedly doing a good job, “you are helping your reputation; editors talk to each other and to other members of the profession.

“The quality of refereeing is often mentioned in recommendation letters written on behalf of young researchers. Your work will eventually earn you a spot on a board of editors, giving you more of a chance to make your opinion count.”

“If you follow all of the above recommendations,” Thomson concludes, in the pleasant manner that distinguishes professors from the many other authorities, such as sports coaches and military drill instructors, who are involved in training ofessionals, “you will be pleased with yourself, your seminar audiences will be enlightened, your classmates will be impressed, your parents will be proud, and you will land a job in a top-five department. But most importantly — and here, I speak as an adviser — your adviser will be happy with you.”

Thomson is perhaps a little less forthcoming than I would have preferred on the role that mathematics plays in helping theorists think, write and speak clearly. But then in this book he is preaching to the choir. It is the rest of us who could do with some additional instruction in what economists do and how they do it.