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Bulletin of the ERI, 2007/08 no. 1

Contents: November 2007

Why do we write research papers?

As economists, we speculate continually about others' motivation. What about our own: why do we write research papers? There are obvious answers: because we enjoy it, and because we are paid to do it. But there is more.

Every paper is a ticket in a lottery. The prize is immortality -- of a kind. It is a lottery because none of us knows exactly how good our next paper will be.

The odds are poor. There are maybe 500 journals of economics, mostly publishing in English. If each published 40 papers a year, that would make a total of 20,000 published papers. Most will never be noticed.

Over a period of time, a minority will attract attention and significant numbers of citations, and will find their way into reading lists for a few years. A handful will be widely influential and will eventually be cited hundreds of times; they will work their way into textbooks. In the course of a decade, a few rare items may appear that will still be remembered over generations.

An Edgeworth BoxThe authors of this work will find their names forever linked with ideas and concepts: Bayesian updating, the Edgeworth box, Pigovian taxes, the Coase theorem, Nash equilibrium, the Balassa effect. That is as close to immortality as a scholar can get.

This also suggests an answer to a question that is sometimes raised: does research not get into the way of teaching? Today, it is true, a student who interrupts our thoughts with an unanticipated knock on the door may occasionally be received with less than calm good manners.

That is a fact, although a regrettable one: to remain polite and welcoming under pressure gives a truer picture of the person than the same when everything is going smoothly.

But tomorrow the same students will have the chance to learn what we found today. The day after, if our research is any good, it may inspire them to follow us into the profession.

Mark Harrison

Mark Harrison is director of the Economic Research Institute and chair of the Department of Economics