A few days ago, the Global Development Network tweeted about a paper entitled “Converting Policy Research Into Policy Decisions: The Role of Communication and the Media,” by the International Food Policy Research Institute‘s Klaus von Grebmer.
While the (short) paper focuses on food security and on the media, it made me think about what I perceive as an important problem in economics. Many academic economists seem to care only about communicating their research findings to other academic economists.
I have only once been asked to review a paper in which the authors had clearly made no effort at communicating the real-world, policy importance of their findings. I have often been asked, however, to review papers in which the results appear relevant for policy but in which the authors had made no particular effort at telling their readers why this was the case.
It is also common among graduate students of economics to equate complexity with rigor or relevance. I remember sitting in an empirical development economics class in graduate school discussing Duflo and Pande’s then working paper entitled “Dams.” Some of us, fresh out of the first-year core theory courses, wondered whether this was truly an economics paper given that there were so few equations and little in the way of theoretical modeling.
It is true that graduate economics training at Cornell greatly emphasized theory when I was there, but this point of view is still common among graduate students of economics, at least in some quarters. One need only spend time reading the anonymous forum dedicated to the job market for PhD economists to realize it: “How can this paper be published in Econometrica? There are no equations in it!” Or better yet: “Elinor Ostrom did not deserve the Nobel, I’ve never even heard of her!”
What many graduate students of economics (my younger self included) fail to realize is that theoretical or empirical rigor, even when combined with a policy-relevant research question, is useless if it is not framed adequately and if its results are not discussed clearly. In other words, how you communicate your research results is usually as important as how you came up with them.
I am not saying my writing is perfect. I am not even saying that I write all that well. My writing was frankly mediocre when graduated from Cornell and joined Duke, and it’s a wonder anyone read enough of my dissertation to decide it was worthy of an award.
What I am saying is that I have become increasingly aware of the importance of writing.
The feedback from my mid-tenure review focused on my writing, among other things. If I wanted my papers to be considered by more general interest journals, if I wanted my papers to be cited, I needed to learn to frame my research contributions better.
Concretely, this meant spending a great deal of time writing and rewriting the abstract and the introduction of my papers. A senior colleague whose opinion I highly value told me that he did not want to read about the Slutsky matrix when he read the abstract and, to a lesser extent, the introduction to my paper with Chris Barrett and David Just on price risk.
The best piece of advice that same colleague gave me was to make sure a college-educated reader who had taken nothing more than an introductory course in economics could understand what I was doing in my papers by reading the introduction.
As a consequence, one of the objectives I set out to achieve during my mid-tenure sabbatical was to become a better writer. This meant spending some time reading good writing (both fiction and nonfiction), and a great deal of time writing and rewriting my papers so as to (i) make their contributions as clear as possible; and (ii) appeal to as broad an audience as possible.
What turns research results into policy is how well these results are communicated to policy makers to begin with. And even if you don’t care about policy, who is going to want to read, let alone cite your badly written research?