Ed Dolan's Econ Blog

Good Economic Research Needs Good Translation to Have Any Real Impact on Policy

Recently Bill Gardner, a contributor to the healthcare policy blog The Incidental Economist, posted a piece titled “Disseminating Research: Translators Needed.” His comments are relevant to economics in general, not just healthcare policy. I would like to pass them along and add some of my own.

Gardner writes:

Most research papers are rarely read, few are cited, and very few directly influence the policy decisions that they are meant to inform. How can we  get our data out of the journals and into the public square?

Articles in specialist journals are largely inaccessible to non-specialists, even other scientists. The field needs translators, great researcher/writers like Atul Gawande, who can take research findings and restate them in a way that connects the data to the concerns of the educated lay reader.

Gawande is a practicing surgeon who is a staff writer for the New Yorker. I’m not sure who the equivalent would be in economics. A few years ago, the Daily Beast published a list of the 15 top economics and financial journalists. It included people like the David Leonhardt, who heads up the new Upshot venture for the New York Times. He is one of the best economics writers around, but, like most of those on the list, he is a professional journalist and neither a PhD or a practicing economist. The exception on the Beast’s list is Paul Krugman, although some might consider him too partisan to qualify as a “translator.”

Gardner suggests:

Perhaps everyone could become his or her own translator, writing about their research on blogs and other social media. This proposal, however, collides with the contempt many researchers hold for social media.

David Grande and his colleagues (including the physician/writer Zach Meisel) surveyed researchers about their perceptions of social media: “Researchers described social media as being incompatible with research, of high risk professionally, of uncertain efficacy, and an unfamiliar technology that they did not know how to use.”

Our discipline does have some distinguished academic economists who blog regularly. For example, Onalytica’s list of the top 200 economics blogs includes, in addition to the list-topping Krugman, Brad DeLong, Mark Thoma, Greg Mankiw, John Taylor, James Hamilton, and Menzie Chinn to mention just a few. (“Just a few,” as in, please, don’t take offense if I’ve left out you or your favorite econ blogger.)

Perhaps the best model for a “translation” platform, though, is  Vox promises “research-based policy analysis and commentary by leading scholars.” Its intended audience is “economists in governments, international organizations, academia and the private sector as well as journalists specializing in economics, finance and business.” Just the formula Gardener is looking for.

Why don’t more economists translate their own work and disseminate it through the social media? Gardner sees two main barriers.

The first is that of comparative advantage. If you’re a good researcher but only an average writer, your rational choice is to stick to research. That is true in any field, but especially so in economics. As we all know, by the sixth grade, the smart kids are already sorting themselves into categories of “good with words” and “good with numbers.” Guess which pool economics mostly draws from. Our profession not only has lots of people who are good researchers but only average writers; it also has plenty who are mediocre researchers and truly lousy writers. Even the latter have a comparative advantage in research. Economists who are better writers than researchers are few and far between.

The second barrier is building an audience. Anyone who has tried  blogging knows that it takes time to build an audience. The opportunity cost of doing so is a major deterrent to economists who are close enough to the comparative advantage crossover point potentially to be comfortable moving back and forth.

Gardner thinks his discipline, health services, should do more to help would-be “translators” build an audience for their work. Beyond the laudable efforts of Vox, and the supportive services provided by blogger groups like Economonitor (thanks, Nouriel), what could the economics profession do?

Let’s start with our main professional group, the American Economics Association. That organization is not entirely unaware of the need for translators. In 1987, the AEA started the Journal of Economic Perspectives, the goal of which is to “fill a gap between the general interest press and most other academic economics journals.” It does a good job as far as it goes, but it is a monthly journal, dating from the pre-blogging era, with room for only a limited number of articles and not all that big a readership.

My suggestion is that the AEA sould add a “blog” tab to the top of its home page. The tab should list the blogs of any AEA member who wants to submit a link. Furthermore, the AEA could require every economist who wants an article published in any of the AEA journals to submit a “translation” of the article, in plain-English blog style, just as every article now requires an abstract. If submitters don’t feel up to providing the blog version, they should have to pay a fee of $1,000, which the AEA would use to hire a professional economics writer to do the job for them.

What a resource that would be! A plain English translation of every single article in all the AEA journals! Pretty soon, every journal would be doing it.

Economics departments could do a lot to help, too. A quick check reveals that all of the top economics departments in the United States have sophisticated websites with abundant information on their people and programs, but none of them provides direct links to “translations” of their research into language accessible to policymakers, journalists, or the general  public. What could econ departments do?

  • Put a tab somewhere on their front page that would link directly to the blogs, op-eds, or other popular writings of their faculty.
  • Establish a blog of the department’s own to which it would encourage (preferably: require) faculty to submit translations of their current research. Encourage grad students to write for the departmental blog, maybe even requiring blog versions of dissertations. To encourage better writing, assign grad student blogs as required readings to undergrads and penalize the authors if more than half the readers fall asleep before finishing.
  • Establish a Twitter account, with a link on the departmental home page, and use it regularly to publicize popular versions of faculty research. @MITEcon is an example, although I was surprised to see the account had only 237 tweets since it was published three years ago. Stanford Business School is on Twitter, but not the econ department. I can’t find accounts for several other leading departments. If they exist, they should be easier to find.

The bottom line: The situation is getting better. Vox, the Journal of Economic Perspectives, the individual efforts of the minority of top economists who also blog, and good economic journalists, with or without PhDs, are all helping to get current research to the general  public. But more can be done. Simply to recognizing the importance of the translation function, as Bill Gardner has done for healthcare policy, would be a good place to start.





2 Responses to “Good Economic Research Needs Good Translation to Have Any Real Impact on Policy”

TomJune 16th, 2014 at 9:32 am

I know you said not to be offended if you left out *my* favorite econ blogger, but I really think Ed Dolan deserves a mention.

windrivenJune 16th, 2014 at 5:58 pm

What a remarkably simple but useful proposal! While by no means a professional economist, having some facility with words I have tried to bring economic principles into discussions of health care policy (an area of particular interest to me) and will redouble my efforts in that regard.

One difficulty with translating broad economic concepts for a general audience is that sometimes general audiences have unrealistic expectations of the predictive power of economics. A further complication is that sometimes economists themselves fuel these unrealistic expectations by freely mixing political prejudices with economics. Yes Dr. Krugman, I am thinking of you as poster child for this tendency.

But perhaps that is the nature of the beast. The educated mind is expected to be able to read a broad range of argument and separate the wheat from the chaff – or at least to identify sources with relatively high proportions of wheat and give those sources more weight.