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Even economists get the blues

STANFORD - We know that writers often accumulate piles of rejection letters before they hit the best-seller lists and that the "overnight success" of an actor most likely follows a decade or two of bit parts in bad films. Yet we tend to think of star economists as being born, not made, springing full blown from the forehead of John Maynard Keynes to accept a John Bates Clark Medal here, a Nobel Prize there, recognition and riches everywhere.

Think again. George B. Shepherd and Joshua Gans, doctoral candidates in Stanford's department of economics, sent out letters to more than 120 leading economists (seven of them at the Business School), soliciting their experiences in submitting works for publication. What tales of woe they received in return. In academic journals, they learned, the referees who review submitted articles are as apt to deliver a knockout punch as declare a winner.

Of the 65 who answered Shepherd and Gans' query, 13 reported no rejections. One of the latter was the Business School's John Roberts, Jonathan B. Lovelace Professor of Economics. "I guess I don't write enough," he shrugs. (Roberts is too modest by far. He has published a book and more than 50 articles.) At the other end of the scale in the school - and, in fact, in the entire survey - was 1993-94 visiting professor of economics Paul Krugman. The Clark medalist confessed to a 60 percent rejection rate on first submittal. In a culture where one either publishes or perishes, it seems a miracle he lived to tell the tale.

"I assume that my rejection rate is unusually high for a generally successful economist," writes Krugman, who is now on the university's economics faculty. "I've tried to figure out why. The self- serving answer is that my stuff is so incredibly innovative that people don't get the point. More likely, I somehow rub referees and editors the wrong way, maybe by claiming more originality than I really have. Whatever the cause, I still open return letters from journals with fear and trembling, and more often than not get bad news. I am having a terrible time with my current work on economic geography: Referees tell me that it's obvious or it's wrong, and, anyway, they said it years ago."

Such mixed messages from referees are not all that uncommon. Writes James March, the Jack Steele Parker Professor of International Management: "I recall on one occasion a referee filling a two-paragraph commentary on a paper I coauthored suggesting [in the first paragraph] that the key theorem involved was trivially obvious and [in the second] that it was wrong. I thought on the whole that he ought to choose."

The paper Edward Lazear, professor of human resources management and economics, credits with winning him tenure at the University of Chicago was called "kooky" by one referee for the Journal of Political Economy. "Fortunately," writes Lazear, "George Stigler, who was editor of that paper, had kinky preferences (despite his taste for kinky demand curves). It was probably George's perverted preference function that was most responsible for that paper being published."

Delays in publication, caused by a first (or second or third) refusal, are a mixed blessing. Krugman once had a paper delayed for so long - four years - that he had to add a postscript "referring to subsequent literature." Lazear, though, considers one paper so improved by its three-year delay that he writes of the referee: "I'd like to thank him now for the pain and suffering that he put a young professor through. It was time well spent."

William F. Sharpe, professor of finance, started suffering back in graduate school, when the scholar he had chosen to head his dissertation committee read his research in progress and advised him to choose another subject.

"With considerable reluctance," he writes, "I turned to aspects of portfolio theory and capital market equilibrium. I finished my dissertation on this topic in 1961. In early 1962, I submitted a version of a derivative paper, 'Capital Asset Prices: A Theory of Equilibrium Under Conditions of Risk,' to the Journal of Finance." The paper was finally published in 1964.

"Apparently [it] was of some value," writes Sharpe, "since it was cited by the Royal Academy of Sciences in conjunction with the award of my Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1990."

The young economists who put together this compendium of real-life failures have fared better in their early careers. See Joshua S. Gans and George B. Shepherd, "How Are the Mighty Fallen: Rejected Classic Articles by Leading Economists," Journal of Economic Perspectives, Winter 1994, and the forthcoming Rejected: Leading Economists Ponder the Publication Process, George B. Shepherd, editor, Thomas Horton & Daughters.



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