“Let’s Write a Paper”

22 January 2008 at 6:21 am 4 comments

| Nicolai Foss |

I have noticed that an increasing number of colleagues build up and afterwards desperately try to manage increasingly large portfolios of paper projects. It is very common to have paper portfolios that encompass more than 20 ongoing projects. At any rate, that’s about the size of my own current portfolio.

I have also noticed that a lot of these paper ideas don’t seem to ever come to be written, or, at best exist in a fragmentary form.  I can relate many anecdotes (some from personal experience!) relating to substantial regret over set-up costs (aka pissing your would-be co-author off). It is possible that this may increasingly become a management problem, certainly on the level of the individual scholar, but perhaps also on the level of university managers (mainly dept. heads).

The question is: Is this (personally and socially) wasteful?  The basic problem is that in order to end up with a suitable amount of published papers a certain amount of exploration is necessary.  Co-authoring papers is a Hayekian discovery process. It is pretty hard, perhaps particularly for younger, unexperienced colleagues, to make reasoned decisions on how many papers one should initiate and with whom (given the costs of experimentation, i.e., set-up costs, the risk of ruining your reputation, etc.).  Reputation mechanisms work imperfectly. Big, but lazy, guys may exploit this, hoping for the rookie to do the job. Problems of procastination and melioration may complicate the decision problem. Etc. 

From another point of view,  however, not much has really changed. Whereas scholars in the past may have spent much time discussing research issues over the lunch table, etc., the publication pressure that most of us are subject to nowadays means that many discussions that would previously have simply ended over the lunch table are now turned into paper ideas.  If that is the case, the process appears much less wasteful — and, importantly, in need of less intenvention by well-intentioned, but (naturally!) misguided university bureaucrats.

Entry filed under: - Foss -, Entrepreneurship, Papers. Tags: .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alf Rehn  |  22 January 2008 at 8:24 am

    I fully sympathize with this sentiment, and although one at times weeps over the number of drafts, scribbles, outlines and so on that one can find in the drawers, I don’t think this is wasteful. All writers, regardless if they write science fiction, woolly social theory, comics or hardcore economics, have these kinds of ephemera and unfinished drafts around. But there is an interesting difference.

    For fiction writers, these various minor texts can be published in a number of venues — magazines, literary reviews, anthologies and so on. For academics, the venues are more limited (journals or edited books), and the demands for form in these is usually pretty homogeneous (even though a book chapter can be somewhat more “free-form” than a journal article). Obviously, one can publish things in a blog or on a website (or in a working paper series), but these are often seen as less-than-serious.

    Maybe there should be more venues where short notes, random ideas, the odd formula or even research design could be published? Maybe the problem isn’t that we don’t finish everything we start, but that we believe that the unfinished doesn’t have any value?

  • 2. Joe Mahoney  |  22 January 2008 at 9:06 am

    Nicolai, I think you underestimate the importance of lunch.

  • 3. Peter Klein  |  22 January 2008 at 10:13 am

    In the past many of these brief items would end up in the comments-and-replies section of the appropriate journal. Unfortunately these sections are slowly disappearing (along with the book-review sections) in many of the leading social-science journals.

  • 4. Bo  |  23 January 2008 at 5:04 am

    While I do agree with Nicolai in principle, I think this is less of a problem in reality. It would seem that we all have different preferences, tolerances and, accordingly, strategies for writing and publishing papers. Some (like myself) seem to find it difficult to say no to work on new (to me potentially interesting) ideas, whereas others have no problem simply saying NO (at least to working with me…). I know of several professors who simply work on 2-3 papers at the time and do not take on new projects before these papers are “under review”. So which strategy is better? It depends on the person, of course, but perhaps also on the stage of the career of the researcher. I know of several PhD students who work on multiple projects (some even outside their dissertation topic) concurrently and then wonder why they do not seem to be able to finish on time, let alone publish anything before they submit…Tenured faculty are in unique positions to work on multiple (and wacky) ideas even if they do not get published, whereas junior faculty may need to be more pragmatic about the process…

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Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment: A New Approach to the Firm (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
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Peter G. Klein, The Capitalist and the Entrepreneur: Essays on Organizations and Markets (Mises Institute, 2010).
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Nicolai J. Foss and Paul L. Robertson, eds., Resources, Technology, and Strategy: Explorations in the Resource-based Perspective (Routledge, 2000).

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