Confession of an Economist: Writing to Impress Rather than Inform

David R. Hakes of University of Northern Iowa has written a superb account on the topic.

Think back to your first years in graduate school. The most mathematically complex papers required a great deal of time and effort to read. The papers were written as if to a private club, and we felt proud when we successfully entered the club. Although I copied the style of these overly complex and often poorly written papers in my first few research attempts, I grew out of it quite quickly. I didn’t do so on my own. I was lucky to be surrounded by mature confident researchers at my first academic appointment. They taught me that if you are confident in your research you will write to include, not exclude. You will write to inform, not impress. It is with apologies to my research and writing mentors that I report the following events.

He explains how he first co-wrote a paper and simplified the paper to a few equations. The refrees were not impressed and said results are self-evident. He and his co-author then complicated the paper by bringing more equations and it was accepted! So much so, the author himself could not understand the paper now:

While making the same point as the original paper, the new paper would be more mathematically elegant, and it would become absolutely impenetrable to most readers. The resulting paper had fifteen equations, two propositions and proofs, dozens of additional mathematical expressions, and a mathematical appendix containing nineteen equations and even more mathematical expressions. I personally could no longer understand the paper and I could not possibly present the paper alone.

The paper was published in the first journal to which we submitted. It took two years to receive one referee report. The journal sent it out to a total of seven referees, but only one was able to write a report on it. Apparently he was sufficiently impressed. While the audience for the original version of the paper was broad, the audience for the published version of the paper has been reduced to a very narrow set of specialists and mathematicians. Even for mathematicians, the paper may no longer pass a cost-benefit test. That is, the time and effort necessary to read the paper may exceed the benefits received from reading it. I am now part of the conspiracy to intentionally make simple ideas obscure and complex.

He then extends the story further. He narrated this tale to a conference only to discover that editor of the journal which accepted his paper was in the conference panel!

Great light read.

Buy yeah, you come across so many papers of this kind. You just don’t understand the need for so many equations and the fancy work. As Avinash Dixit says:

A big difference that has taken place in the last 40 years is that when I started the typical working paper, double-spaced, was 20 to 25 pages. But now they are 60 to 70 pages, and as I get older and my eye sight deteriorates especially, I find this a terrible thing. I wish people would put their ideas in a punchier, simpler way.


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One Response to “Confession of an Economist: Writing to Impress Rather than Inform”

  1. Confession of an Economist: Writing to Impress Rather than Inform « Mostly Economics « Rubber Tyres –> Smooth Rides Says:

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