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What I learned about research strategies and authorship

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | October 16, 2017

Before I came to Berkeley, I consulted my cousins, my professors and my friends on the secrets for success in Ph.D. programs. Most suggested that you have to work hard, but not too hard, and you must have a life. They also emphasized that achievement in class is important, but the most important thing is to write and publish good papers. But what are the strategies one should follow when writing papers? What about authorship and publication outlets? After many years of experience, I have some ideas that I would like to share.

Papers start with inspiration, the process that stimulates you to do something creative. I believe that economists may be inspired by reality (desire to answer a specific problem or general puzzle that they encounter), literature, and data. Some of them are motivated by issues and others by methodology. I will explain the three approaches – reality, literature and data – based on my experience. I tend to be inspired by reality, maybe because my first serious job as an adult was a computer programmer and system analyst responsible for a payroll system. In that job, clients present you with problems (for example, how to pay certain employees a premium for unique effort), and you need to figure out the best solution.

When I came to Berkeley, I was assigned as a research assistant on a project that analyzed the impacts of new animal waste regulation in California. I was asked to suggest a basic research strategy.  I found that there was very little literature on the economics of animal waste, which was good because if we were creative then we would be noticed. Animal waste wasn’t my dream topic, but it presented an opportunity. We met with dairymen and farm advisors to learn their perspectives. I realized that they were very diverse in their technologies and banks wouldn’t provide credit for improvement of their animal waste practices. That led us to develop a rough mathematical model assessing the impact of the regulation; and Professor Ethan Hochman refined the model and linked it with the literature. We obtained farm-level data, applied the models, and after a few rejections from journals (an essential element of the publication process), we were able to publish several papers that actually helped me get my job at Berkeley.

I have followed this strategy most of my career. When someone asked me to assess the potential of drip irrigation in California, I started with a literature review (it was minimal), met with farmers and realized that people mostly used drip as a way to improve the water-holding capacity of their soil. I built a conceptual model based on this knowledge, and got data to help explain adoption patterns and estimate their implications. More recently, when I learned that governments intended to support the use of corn to produce biofuel, I started analyzing the impact of these biofuel policies on fuel and food prices and other factors, which made some noise. I realized too that when you start looking at a problem, you may need to team up with experts who complement your knowledge. For example, when I studied pesticide regulation, I collaboration Andy Gutierrez, an entomologist, and Bob Spears, a public health expert. Now that I study supply chains, I reached out to Tom Reardon who has studied the transformation of food systems around the world.

Many important scholars have been inspired by the literature. They may identify a major shortcoming in a body of knowledge and suggest an alternative. For example, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky found major important shortcomings in the economic literature on decision making under risk and laid the foundation to modern behavioral economics. The recent Nobel Laureate in Economics, Richard Thaler, built on their work, found further shortcomings in current mainstream economics, and expanded the range of issues covered in behavioral economics by developing a new policy approach based on “nudging”. Similarly, Paul Romer, the chief economist of the World Bank, found that the traditional model of economic growth didn’t give sufficient attention to innovation and learning. He developed the endogenous growth theory that emphasizes the role of positive feedback and spillover among innovations, and the important role of supporting research, development, and education in fostering economic growth. Many applied economists are inspired by availability of new sources of data. Availability of fine-scale weather data over space and time enabled Shlenker and Roberts to creatively estimate the impacts of climate on crop yields. Availability of data from a national testing program of Israeli elementary school students in Israel enabled Angrist and Lavy to write a classic paper showing that lower class size improved students’ performance. Of course, many research ideas are inspired by multiple factors – for example, a combination of a literature that cannot explain the changing reality or availability of data to solve puzzles in the literature, etc.

Over the years I realized that I do not like to do research by myself, I like to work with others: argue about modeling, discuss potential research strategies, and have fun. In this regard, the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Berkeley has been a great place for me to be.  When I arrived to Berkeley, we had a coffee-room where students and faculty exchanged ideas that led to joint papers benefiting everybody. One of the professors, Andy Schmitz, was very good at generating ideas and writing narratives, and his partners contributed to the technical aspects. Some mocked these collaborations as “the blind leading the deaf” but they resulted in many beautiful papers and launched successful careers. I felt blessed to collaborate with dozens of students, post docs and faculty members. It enabled me to achieve much more than I could have otherwise, established lasting friendships and helped my collaborators build their skills and become better scholars. Single authorship is of course fine – but do not make it a norm. I observed over the years that students with a few good papers, strongly supported by their co-authors, are likely to succeed in the job market just as much as anyone.

The issue of authorship has been with us forever. When I was a student, I realized there are many benefits to co-authoring with other students and there is nothing wrong in having a co-authored ‘job market’ paper. Now, job market presentations should naturally have only one author, with acknowledgements to co-authors. Furthermore, sometimes job market presentations may rely on multiple papers if they are related, and present a coherent vision. The most important rule I learned is that it is important to acknowledge partners generously and to avoid ignoring an important contributor. I was born a “Z,” which some academics consider as a curse but it really served me well in the army where being last relieved me from, or delayed, unpleasant tasks. If people contribute more or less equally, I believe in alphabetic ordering of authorship. Sometimes it is worthwhile to mention authors’ contributions in a footnote. Most importantly, when I write a letter of recommendation for a student and they did much of the work, I make sure everyone knows it. I always admired the professors that did the same for me.

Finally, where should one publish to have an impact and get noticed? In economics, we always have the Top Five[1]—mainstream, high-prestige journals in which everyone strives to publish. I was fortunate to have a few publications in some of these journals, which undoubtedly helped. But I realized that some of the best and most influential publications in specific fields, like agricultural or environmental economics, are actually published in field journals – like AJAE, JEEM, JAERE, and many more. The wider adoption of citations provides alternative measures to assess impact and suggest that the Top Five do not have a monopoly on quality. I actually find that economic work on important issues may have larger policy and academic impacts when published in non-economic and specialized journals, such as Science, Nature Biotechnology, and Global Change Biology, to name a few.

In one of our papers, we observed that people select their career in pursuit of Fame, Fortune and Freedom. The extent that academic jobs bring you fame and fortune is questionable – but I have no doubt that one big advantage is the extra freedom to pursue your own ideas. But there is also another ‘F’ – fun – that doing research can bring. So in retrospect, it doesn’t matter that much if you do it by yourself or with a group, if you publish in a leading general or field journal, but a good research strategy should allow you to reach your potential, and to pursue the beneficial and the enjoyable.

[1] American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Econometrica, and Review of Economic Studies

Comments to “What I learned about research strategies and authorship

  1. Thanks for the contributions in this post. I have always admired your insights and common sense. You are a great scholar and inspiration!

  2. Dear David, It is an excellent summary of research paper subject matters and authorship. I view it as quite useful and definitely makes a good resource to all those who are in the business of research and publication of their works. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Hi David,

    I liked your ideas – wish I had them 40 years ago! Now retired, I seem to have much the same philosophies on research as you have. One problem I was not good at solving was to get PhD grads to and post-docs to publish their work as soon as feasible. WE missed having some papers that could have made valuable contributions.

    Sandy Purcell

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