Write Your Economics Papers More Clearly. It Pays Off in Influence.

May 02, 2019

Two studies published in the last year show that more readable economics papers get cited more. One study examines the readability of the introductions of papers in the top economics journal, The American Economics Review, and finds that papers with the least readable introductions are significantly less cited in subsequent years. The finding holds when you adjust for a range of other characteristics of the papers (such as if one of the authors is at an elite university or has won a Nobel prize). The other study finds that more readable abstracts among papers published in Economics Letters are linked to more citations later on. More readable writing, as defined by these studies, has simpler words and shorter sentences.

Many researchers would like for their results to impact the world, and there are a wide range of ways to facilitate that impact, from writing op-eds and blog posts to briefing policymakers directly to serving on committees that advise on policy. (Citations are arguably not a direct measure of impact on the world, but they do indicate influence over a body of research, and insofar as research affects policy, it is often the full body of research, not an individual study, which matters.) Of course, each of those impact-facilitating activities takes time. As one economist wrote, “time spent on writing is time taken away from reading another article or running another regression.” And not all economists have the temperament for a whole host of dissemination and impact-building activities. When an interviewer asked a development economist, “What’s your theory of change” for “how your work does change the world,” the economist answered, “I think of myself primarily as a scientist… I’m obviously very interested in development policy, but that’s not what my role is.”

Despite all these caveats, writing clearly so that others can more easily access your work and interpret it correctly has got to be the absolute minimum bar for seeking impact. Furthermore, clear exposition is a signal that you understand the phenomenon you’re writing about. As Glen Wright writes in his translation from what academics say to what they mean, often “Is impossible to summarize simply” is code for “I don’t understand.” Not everything can be summarized briefly—certain findings have deep nuance—but just about every finding can be summarized clearly and even simply.

Counterintuitively, the correlation may be the opposite in the hard sciences. A study of more than a million abstracts in chemistry, physics, and other fields, found the papers whose abstracts had more words that could be found in a standard English dictionary— i.e., non-jargon words—had significantly fewer citations. Why? One possibility may be in the audience. The economist Friedrich von Hayek, in the speech he gave when receiving the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974, made this point:

I must confess that if I had been consulted whether to establish a Nobel Prize in economics, I should have decidedly advised against it… The Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess. This does not matter in the natural sciences. Here the influence exercised by an individual is chiefly an influence on his fellow experts; and they will soon cut him down to size if he exceeds his competence. But the influence of the economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally. There is no reason why a man who has made a distinctive contribution to economic science should be omnicompetent on all problems of society—as the press tends to treat him till in the end he may himself be persuaded to believe.

Many hard scientists principally speak to their peers, whereas many matters of the economy are of direct interest to the broader public. In economics, there is a return—in citations—to writing in a way that a broader audience can comprehend. So write clearly.

(You can check the readability of your own writing with a free online tool or in Microsoft Word. This blog post reads at an eleventh or twelfth grade level.)


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.