Things that make you go Grrrr: Mathematics and economics edition

From Economics Journal Watch a nice story (pdf) of someone who wrote a well considered, and expressed paper which was rejected, only to massively complicate it with otiose mathematics – whereupon it was published by the first journal it was submitted to.  Some highlights below the fold.

A  colleague  presented  a  fairly  complex  paper  on  how  firms  might  use warranties  to  extract  rent  from  certain  users  of  their  products.  No  one  in  the audience seemed to follow the argument. Because I found the argument to be perfectly  clear,  I  repeatedly  defended  the  author  and  I  was  able  to  bring  the audience to an understanding of the paper. The author was so pleased that I was able to understand his work and explain it to others that he asked me if I was willing to coauthor the paper with him. I said I would be delighted.

I immersed myself in the literature for a few of months so that I could more precisely fit our contribution into the existing literature. We managed to reduce the equations in the paper to six. At this stage the paper was perfectly clear and was written at a level so that it could reach a broad audience. When we submitted the paper to risk, uncertainty, and insurance journals, the referees responded that the  results  were  self-evident.  After  some  degree  of  frustration,  my  coauthor suggested  that  the  problem  with  the  paper  might  be  that  we  had  made  the argument too easy to follow, and thus referees and editors were not sufficiently impressed. He said that he could make the paper more impressive by generalizing the model. 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.

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12 years ago

There may be a Nobel Prize in the offing for Hakes and his colleague if they can eventually get the original version of the paper published. George Akerlof writes of his paper, “The Market for Lemons”:

By June of 1967 the paper was ready and I sent it to The American Economic Review for publication. I was spending the academic year 1967-68 in India. Fairly shortly into my stay there, I received my first rejection letter from The American Economic Review. The editor explained that the Review did not publish papers on subjects of such triviality. In a case, perhaps, of life reproducing art, no referee reports were included.

Michael Farrell, an editor of The Review of Economic Studies, had visited Berkeley in 1966-67, and had urged me to submit “Lemons” to The Review, but he had also been quite explicit in giving no guarantees. I submitted “Lemons” there, which was again rejected on the grounds that the The Review did not publish papers on topics of such triviality.

The next rejection was more interesting. I sent “Lemons” to the Journal of Political Economy, which sent me two referee reports, carefully argued as to why I was incorrect. After all, eggs of different grades were sorted and sold (I do not believe that this is just my memory confusing it with my original perception of the egg-grader model), as were other agricultural commodities. If this paper was correct, then no goods could be traded (an exaggeration of the claims of the paper). Besides and this was the killer if this paper was correct, economics would be different.

I may have despaired, but I did not give up. I sent the paper off to the Quarterly Journal of Economics, where it was accepted.

Perhaps the message is, “Don’t give up!”

12 years ago

I have always liked this anecdote from Hal Varian along similar lines

“Several years ago I gave a seminar about some of my research. I started out with a very simple example. One of the faculty in the audience interrupted me to say that he hadworked on something like this several years ago, but his model was much more complex”.I replied “My model was complex when I started, too, but I just kept working on it till it got simple!”

How to Build An Economic Model in Your Spare Time

derrida derider
derrida derider
12 years ago

Of course Akerlof is a good writer, and Markets for Lemons was an exceptionally lucid and imaginative paper. Being lucid and imaginative it was unconventional, and that’s why it was probably rejected (journal editors being selected for their respectability rather than their willingness to push boundaries).

Mind you, that editor was right – economics was changed after it was published.