It is winter break on campus and the time of year when academics try to finish up that paper, or the revisions of that paper. There may even be some time for reading, so we want to help with some tips and tricks for getting your papers into a better quality journal.
Successful academic writing: 1% inspiration, 12.51% perspiration, 13% omission, 30% citation, 50% procrastination, 90% nonnegotiable deadlines.
— Shit Academics Say (@AcademicsSay) April 5, 2014
The advice for writing better papers comes from a recent ERSA Economic History workshop at which James Fenske presented some ideas about how to publish better economic history work in top Economics journals. His approach was to look at some famous economic history papers in top journals and see what they have in common. Talking about top-5 journals is daunting, but we believe that the principles also apply to much lower level efforts. This is advice for aiming just a little bit higher. The errors and omissions in what follows remain our own.
First off, your paper needs a good motivation. You need to explain to people why it matters. Often this means pitching it to a more general audience. The better journals have a wider readership and you have to convince them that your work is interesting. The four other specialists in your field may know that your are pushing the boundaries, but if you cannot explain it to everyone, they will not look at it. This may also mean linking to broader themes and current issues. It will depend on the field, but in the broader field of economics it means that you need to link to themes like institutions and issues of conflict, trust, social capital, human capital externalities and the roots of development.
Related to this is the context. Better journals may not care about the case of Africa, or South Africa. If you are presenting some evidence on the case of South Africa you cannot just wave your hands and write broadly about South Africa being different and interesting. The way it which it is different should be an integral part of the analysis and make for robust interesting results.
In terms of empirical strategies the that better class of journal is looking for identification of causal effects. Analyses with cross-section regression models are unlikely to get into the good journals. This requires a cool exogenous instrument, regression discontinuity designs, fixed effect controls in panel models, propensity score matching, placebo effects, RCTs, and ever and always loads of robustness checks.
With respect to the data that you use, James showed that most of the top papers in his sample used broader data sets, but there were examples of very specific country data sets as well.
James also listed a few things that you do not really see in the papers in the better journals:
- Small samples – if for nothing else, you need lots of data to use the techniques mentioned above.
- Qualitative data – better journals want robust results that generalise to answer the big questions and qualitative data are unlikely to help with that.
- Lots of new data – producing a new data set can be a big part of the work, but the better journals do not want only a description of new data – you also need the level of analysis mentioned above.
- Documentation of facts and trends. It may be the first time that someone measures whatever, but they want analysis.
- Determinants of … The top journals want hypotheses and an identification strategy.
Finally, James argued that they key to doing better work is to get more feedback. He said that people should know about you and your work. You do not want them to read it the first time in their role as third reviewer! This means:
- Going to big conferences. These are good for meeting people, but you have to go with a plan: check out the programme, send your paper before hand to the people that you want to talk to.
- Going to small conferences and workshops. Those where you have a 45 minute slot instead of a 15 minute slot, where you can meet everyone and actually get some feedback.
- Organise your own. If you do not have the money to travel, organise your own seminar or workshop, invite locals in the field – create opportunities to talk about your work.
- Make sure your work is out there to read. That means working paper series, or these days, just getting the draft online with Google Scholar or the Munich Personal RePEc archive.
- You can even try some social media promotion – if Vox.EU asks for a post, or you get a retweet by Chris Blattman everyone will know about your work.
A final word of thanks to Johan Fourie and ERSA for organising that particularly fine workshop and to James for sharing his ideas.