Writing Economics Research Papers

I. Introduction

The single most common failure of students in writing research papers is to misperceive what is expected in a quality research paper. The normal system of teaching what is expected is generally to have you do one, more or less in the dark, and then grade you. High grades provide positive reinforcement and low grades provide negative reinforcement; after a number of papers, the vagaries of individual instructor grading aside, everyone hopefully gets the hang of it.

Our purpose in this missive is to short circuit this process by providing as much information to you in advance of your writing as we can. It presents a number of ideas we have gathered over the years from a number of sources.

A more extensive source of information on writing papers in economics is Donald N. McCloskey, The Writing of Economics (Macmillan Press, 1987) which also appears in condensed form as "Economical Writing" in the April 1985 issue of Economic Inquiry.

II. The Research Process

  • 1. Choose your topic. This topic should have an economic dimension. It should be narrow enough to permit a sharp focusing of ideas, but not so narrow as to make the acquisition of information unreasonably difficult. It has to be manageable in the time allotted.
  • 2. Acquaint yourself with the existing literature. At this stage previous work on the topic is identified and read. The chief bibliographic source in economics is the Journal of Economic Literature, a quarterly subject-classified listing of all recent articles in economics and related journals. An extensive list of other sources, including computer searches, is provided at the end of this handout.
  • 3. Think critically about the material and the topic and identify, if it hasn't already been identified, the specific focus on your inquiry. In economics this frequently takes the form of framing a hypothesis or limited set of hypotheses which are to be explored in the paper. A hypothesis is a tentative theory or supposition which is provisionally adopted to provide a focus for the research (e.g., inflation helps the younger poor but hurts the aged poor).
  • 4. Organize the research to assess the validity of the hypothesis or hypotheses. Hypotheses can be tested either theoretically (i.e., can they be deduced from accepted axioms?) or empirically (i.e., by confronting them with data) or both. Econometrics provides the standard techniques for empirical work, but , if you have no background in econometrics, other more descriptive forms of data presentation and analysis may be used.
  • 5. Make an outline. We cannot over emphasize this. Although your outline will probably have to be revised several times as the writing proceeds, this is a worthwhile investment of time. The surest way to spend a large amount of time on a poorly organized paper is to start writing without an outline. A tentative outline is also useful during the research stage. You will be surprised at how much discipline a well constructed outline will impose as you do the research and the writing. An outline will also greatly facilitate consultations with faculty on the progress of your research.
  • 6. Draw your conclusions and write a rough draft. This is the toughest step, but it will force you to put all your ideas together. At this stage weaknesses in the argument will become apparent and frequently you will gain some additional key insights during the writing. You will discover that you can improve on this rough draft a great deal if you put it aside for awhile and come back to it later.
  • 7. Write the final paper. If the other steps are done well, this step is relatively easy. You can concentrate mainly on style, organization and the elimination of weaknesses uncovered while writing the rough draft. Be sure to draw out the implications of your conclusions. An author must always be prepared to answer the "so what?" question!

III. Criteria for Grading Papers

There are four dimensions we consider in grading papers:

  • 1. Economic Content. Does the paper contain some substantive economic content? Although it may seem obvious that one should write an economics paper for an economics course, you would be amazed at the papers we have received which are political science, physics, chemistry, etc., with an occasional dollar sign thrown it. Interdisciplinary papers are fine (even encouraged) but one of the disciplines has to be economics and its representation must be more than token.
  • 2. Analytical Depth. Has the author analyzed the important issues in some depth or is the treatment superficial? Has the author sought out and included relevant facts? Does the research reflect a reasonable awareness of the relevant literature? Does the paper make clear how all the facts fits together?
  • 3. Organization and Style. Is the paper organized into coherent subsections which, when integrated, form a logical sequence of arguments leading directly to the conclusions? Is it well written? Does the introduction provide an overview of the paper and the role of each section? Are the conclusions summarized and clearly specified? Is the paper grammatically correct?
  • 4. Originality. Has the author exhibited some degree of originality or has he/she simply regurgitated readily accessible materials? Has the author clearly identified the nature of the original contribution for the reader?

IV. Rules for Papers

  • 1. The papers should be in a publishable format. Each one should contain a title page, the body, the footnotes or end notes (if any) and a bibliography. A table of contents is not required, but should be considered. Usually the construction of a table of contents facilitates the organization of the paper.
  • 2. A paper which is done jointly for an economics course and another non-economics course will be acceptable only when the two faculty members involved have cleared the topic and method of approach in advance. (See below on how to acknowledge that the paper is being done for two courses.) In general a single paper for two economics courses will not be acceptable, but exceptions are possible when it makes clear educational sense.
  • 3. If you do not want the comments to be written on your original, enclose a photocopy with it. In this case, comments and the grade will be written on the photocopy.
  • 4. Discussions about your paper with the faculty member supervising your research are encouraged throughout the research process. It is not necessary to "go it alone." For these discussions to help they should be initiated early in the research process.
  • 5. Each professor will have his/her own rules for penalizing late papers. You are responsible for knowing the rule.

V. Acknowledging Sources

Be particularly careful to acknowledge all the sources you consulted during the preparation of your paper. Any conventional work such as Kate Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses and Dissertations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955) spells out the conventional rules of scholarship, but for economics classes you must acknowledge the following sources as well:

  • 1. Unpublished work, including that of other students.
  • 2. Previous papers of your own, if written on a closely related topic.
  • 3. Significant guidance received from other faculty members or students.

This last requirement is not meant to discourage discussions about paper topics with other faculty members or students, just as requiring footnotes and bibliographies is not meant to discourage the use of written sources.

Previous papers of your own and help you have received from other faculty and students are best acknowledged in an unnumbered footnote immediately preceding footnote #1. For example:

This paper is an extension of an earlier paper, "The Role of the Propeller in European Economic History," written for Economics _________ during the spring term 1988. I wish to thank Professor ______________ for suggesting this topic, helping me clarify the issues, and showing such remarkable self-control when he heard of my conclusions.

Don't acknowledge the help (however modest) you may get from the faculty member supervising your research. Flattery will get you nowhere.

VI. Footnotes and Bibliography

Plagiarism, the dishonest use of another's intellectual labor, is a serious offense and will be treated as such. While the Student Handbook fully describes the policies of the College in cases of plagiarism and cheating, an additional handout on how to avoid plagiarism by proper acknowledgment of sources is available from the Economics Department. If you are in doubt about what is plagiarism and what isn't, pick one up.

You are urged (but not required) to simplify your life and ours by using the author-date method of acknowledging sources. In this method, each written source is identified in the text (rather than in a footnote) by the author's last name and the year of publication. Footnotes are then needed only for material not considered important enough to be included in the text.

The rules given below for using this method are similar to those in A Manual of Style, 12th edition, published by the University of Chicago Press (1969, pp. 384-388).

  • 1. Both author and date of publication are typically enclosed in parentheses:
    My conclusions differ from those of an important earlier study (Friedman and Schwartz 1963).
  • 2. The citation should stand just before a punctuation mark. If this is impractical, it should be inserted at a logical break in the sentence:
    Since the Arab oil embargo at the end of 1973, numerous papers (Bergstein 1974; Krasner 1974; Varon and Takeuchi 1974) have assessed the probability of successful cartelization of other primary commodities.
  • 3. If the author's name has just been mentioned, it need not be repeated in the citation:
    According to Armington (1969), products distinguished by place of production are not perfect substitutes.
  • 4. Refer to a particular page, section, or equation as follows:
    (Keynes 1936, p. 156) (Tobin 1963, sec. 3) (Kemp 1969, eq. 6.12)
  • 5. For works with more than one author, use the full form of citation for two or three authors, but an abbreviated form of four or more. A work by three authors would be cited:
    (Little, Scitovsky, and Scott 1970)
  • 6. But instead of:
    (Sneezy, Dopey, Happy, Grumpy, Sleepy, Bashful, and Doc 1988)
    (Sneezy, et al. 1988)
  • 7. If you refer to two or more works by the same author published in the same year, distinguish the work as follows:
    (Armington 1969a) (Armington 1969b) etc.
    The Journal of Political Economy uses the author-date method. Check it for further examples.

Your bibliography should list all references cited in the text plus other sources you consulted but did not cite. A guide to citing electronic sources is available at Colby College and at the University of Florida.

This material has been adapted from Colby College Department of Economics: http://www.colby.edu/academics_cs/acaddept/economics/papers.cfm