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How To Write A Good Research Paper In Economics

Last year, our department did away with a second year qualifying exam for PhD students--faculty hated grading them and after two years in the program, no one ever failed--and instead put in a research competency requirement for second year PhD students.  Here's a brief description of the requirements from our graduate school handbook:

Each student is required to complete a sole-authored research manuscript that meets high standards of scholarship and exposition. The manuscript must meet standards comparable to those used to evaluate contributed papers to major scholarly meetings though it does not have to be publishable quality. The manuscript may represent only a modest departure from published work, but it must be well conceived, justified, and communicated.

The appendix to the handbook--because all academic documents have appendices--contains a few more details about what is involved.

Yesterday, the current class of 2nd year PhD students asked me to meet with them and answer a simple question: "What the hell does that mean?" 

So I've put together some answers to questions that came up in our meeting.  First I will give you the handbook answer, then my interpretation.  Hopefully a few of you out there will find them useful.  I may add to these as I think of more.  Feel free to pile on in the comments (or ask questions that I can answer).

1) What is an acceptable topic for a 2nd year research competency paper?

Handbook: The manuscript must address a question of scholarly significance in economics, ideally in the student’s area of specialization.

Me:  Anything.  If you find it interesting, go with it.  Someone else might find it interesting too.  There's nothing worse than spending 6 months on something that bores the crap out of you.  The whole principle of academic freedom is based on the notion that you can do whatever you want and no one can do anything about it.

2) What should be in a research competency paper?

Handbook: The manuscript should clearly pose the researchable question, appropriately place it within the relevant scholarly literature, and make substantive progress towards answering the question.

Me:  An introduction, a body and a conclusion along with a bunch of technical stuff that few people will ever read.  Seriously, most research papers have a very simple to follow format: 

  • Witty Title: Subtitle--subtitle optional, but usually helps to interpret the nondescript but witty title

  • Abstract--cut and pasted from the introduction and conclusion

  • Introduction and statement of the problem--always written after the conclusion, that way you know what question you really answered

  • Background literature--the results of an extensive Google Scholar search on your keywords.  You've probably only read 50% of the papers you cite, but make sure you at least spell the authors' names correctly

  • Methods or theory--Fancy mathematical equations with key steps missing to convince the reader that you are way smarter than they are.  Always refer to these steps as 'obvious' to make sure you sound as condescending as possible

  • Data--a lengthy description of how you manipulated, mined and mangled the data to force it to fit into your specific problem.  Always give your variables cryptic abbreviations like INCLT100 (Income less than $100,000) or WTF (Wholesale trading factor).  This saves you at least three lines of text at the end of the paper and forces your reader to constantly flip pages back and forth where they might catch some of your genius they missed the first time

  • Expected results--a summary of what you think will happen when you run your models.  Always write this section in hindsight, after you already know the outcome.  It makes you look a lot smarter when you 'forecast' the correct results.

  • Results--A bunch of tables with too many numbers that few will ever look at, but dammit, it took you two months to come up with results you liked so make sure you put every single bit of work into the paper.

  • Discussion--This is where you include the one sentence summary that is the only line anyone actually reads: "The results show...".  Make sure you also cut and paste this line into the abstract.

  • Directions for future research--a listing of the real research questions you wanted to answer but couldn't because you came to the crushing realization that you aren't smart enough to figure out the 'obvious' equations in Econometrica or you figured out that all data sucks and there is no way to answer the real question at hand.

3) What do you mean by 'high standards of scholarship and exposition'?

Handbook: The manuscript must be free of glaring technical and expository mistakes.

Me:  Write poorly.  OK, not poorly, but like other economists.  Read a bunch of journal articles and follow their style.  Most economists have no formal training in writing and it shows--but at least it's consistent.  So instead of trying to revolutionize the way economists write, follow the leaders--take easy concepts and make them sound complicated.  Instead of writing "when prices go up, people buy less," write "Price and quantity demanded are inversely related."  Instead of writing "The next dollar is worth less than the last one," write, "Consumer preferences exhibit diminishing marginal utility of income" or "The indirect utility function is assumed to be quasi-concave in income."  Trust me, it's always better to sound smart than to write clearly.

4) Does 'sole-authored' mean I can't get any help with my paper? 

Handbook:  The student’s advisor may offer broad guidance in preparation of the manuscript, but may not contribute to the writing of the manuscript or offer specific editorial assistance.

Me:  Hell no.  We all get help with our papers.  Sole-authored means the paper was written by a tasty fish (rim shot).  Thank you, I'll be here all week.  Seriously, sole-authored just means that you came up with the idea, you ran the models and you wrote the paper.  You are free to ask for as much feedback on those steps as you would like.  If you feel guilty about the amount of help you got on a paper, thank everyone you've ever met and their mother in the first footnote. 

Good writing is as important as good research.

If you cannot write well, the contribution of your research may be lost to everyone except yourself. Several of the books listed at the end of this guide will help you improve your writing. In addition, the Writing Workshop is a good source of advice and constructive evaluation. Once you have the substantive information for your paper, the four critical elements of writing are organization, style, documentation, and revision.


A research paper includes the following components: first, an introduction which states the purpose of the research; last, a conclusion describing what has been determined; in between, several different types of material such as background facts, literature review, analysis, policy recommendations, projections, and other relevant material. In a thesis, the components are separated into chapters; in a term paper, they are divided into sections. The use of headings and subheadings within chapters or sections makes it easier for the reader to follow the presentation.


Strive for a clear well-organized presentation of your facts, theories, and analysis. The mainstay of economic writing is the simple declarative sentence. Avoid complex constructions, hard-to-follow run-on sentences, and the royal “we” (unless you are royalty or plural).


Documentation is essential in research papers since you want to distinguish for the reader other people’s contributions from your own.

Direct quotes must be enclosed within quotation marks and properly attributed to the author. (Longer quotes may be set off in an indented paragraph instead of in quotation marks.) All paraphrasing must be identified and properly attributed to the original author, e.g., “Feldstein (1981, p. 101) argues that…”; or, “the following paragraph draws heavily on the analysis of Madden (1977, pp. 75-83).” Failure to do so is plagiarism and must be taken to the Student Conduct Committee.

Specify data sources as precisely as possible so that the reader can probe further into your topic if she/he desires. In particular, if you include a table or graph from another source in your paper, state the source (including page number).

Implicit in this discussion of documentation is the principle that you should always state the source of any prior writing you are using for your research paper. This applies even to your own work. For example, if your thesis expands on research done for a term paper, you should reference your earlier work appropriately so that the specific contribution of the thesis is clear. Occasionally students will want to prepare a single paper for two purposes, e.g. a joint term paper for two courses, or a joint thesis for a double major. Before beginning, you must consult with both instructors, so that the concept of the paper is clear to all, and the separate contribution for each instructor is clearly defined.

Documentation — Format

Most Economics faculty strongly prefer the author-date-page method of documenting sources. This method is described in detail on page 16 of the Bates College Statement on Plagiarism and A Guide to Source Acknowledgments. The following are examples of appropriate citation of references within your text:

Several writers have measured the costs of market power (Scherer, 1970, pp. 400-411).

Scherer (1970, pp. 400-411) reviews studies of the costs of market power.

Page numbers are required for all exact quotes, and citations of statistics. Page numbers are highly desirable in all other citations. When you use this citation method, the full bibliographic information on each source must appear in your bibliography. If Scherer published more than one reference in the same year, list them as “Scherer (1970a)” and “Scherer (1970b),” both in your text and in the bibliography.

The use of the author-date-page method simplifies reference in the text. Footnotes are used for substantive comments only and not for reference. They may be typed either at the bottom of each page or as endnotes on a separate page following the entire text.

With the author-date-page method of citation, the bibliography should list the year of publication immediately after the author’s name for each item.

The bibliography should include only materials that you have have read, with one exception. For example, when you write: “Tobin (1982, p. 32) shows that the evidence of Smith (1978) cannot be believed because of flawed data collection methods,” you need to include the full reference to Smith’s article in your bibliography as follows:

Smith, J. P. 1978. “A New Approach to Economics.” Economica, 49(4), pp. 302-312. Cited in Tobin (1982, p. 32).

The last phrase distinguishes Tobin from the works you have read personally.

Here are some examples of the bibliography format you should use with the author-date-page citation method. (Examples for books appear at the end of this guide)

Journal article: Baumol, William J. and Edward N. Wolff. 1981. Subsidies to New Energy Sources: Do They Add to Energy Stocks? Journal of Political Economy, 89(5), pp. 841-864.

Article in edited volume: Cagan, Phillip. 1956. The Monetary Dynamics of Hyper-inflation. In Friedman, Milton (ed.), 1956. Studies in the Quantity Theory of Money. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, pp. 25-120.

Government publication: U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1978. Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1978. (99th Edition). Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office.


All papers and theses should be typed double-spaced on 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper with 1″ margins on all sides. Special paper is not required.

The first page of a research paper or thesis is the title page, and presents the title, date, your name, the course for which the paper is written, and the instructor’s name.

A thesis also includes a table of contents showing chapter numbers, titles and the page on which each begins; it also lists appendices, bibliography, etc.

A thesis may have a preface; a term paper does not. The preface may summarize the contribution of the thesis and contain any necessary acknowledgements. It follows the title page and precedes the table of contents.

Tables, graphs and charts (unless very short) should be put on separate pages, and inserted in the paper at the appropriate place. For drafts and term papers, tables may be handwritten clearly on columnar paper. For theses, tables must be typed. Put the source underneath each table or figure.

Theses should be placed in a binder. Term papers need not have a binder. In the absence of a binder, a staple (and not a paper clip) can be used to keep the paper together.

You need to proofread your research paper thoroughly before turning it in. Take special care in proofreading tables and equations. For thoroughness ask a friend to check while you read out the numbers.


The final key to successful writing is revision. Once you have completed a first draft, set it aside for a while; then reread it with a critical eye, and rewrite to improve it.

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