Guide to Reading Economics Papers
Jeffrey Parker, Reed College
In your Reed economics courses, you will often be asked to read papers from professional journals that were written for an audience of Ph.D. economists. Some of these will be fairly easy to understand; others will be rather opaque. The outline below suggests a method of extracting what I think are the essential (for class purposes) elements from papers.
- Who are the authors? Do they have an established point of view or position in a controversial debate that they would want to defend? If so, you should recognize this when interpreting the results of the paper. This may be difficult for you to know without an extensive knowledge of the literature and is often not an important issue, but when it is important it can be very important.
- What question is the paper addressing? This should be obvious from the title, abstract, and/or introduction. Identifying the target question as you begin reading should help you put the component parts of the paper into context.
- What method does the paper use to answer the question? In other words, how does the paper reach its conclusions?
- Is it a theoretical paper that deduces a conclusion from a set of theoretical assumptions? The internal logic of most theoretical papers can usually be assumed to be validated by the journal's referees and editors. The central questions about the paper may then revolve around its applicability: Are the model's assumptions plausible for the question being addressed? It is important to recognize that no economic model ever has assumptions that are strictly true. A "good" model captures some essential core characteristics of the world but ignores less important details. For you, the essential question is: Is this a good model for this question?
- Is it an empirical study that attempts to assess whether the evidence is consistent with a particular hypothesis or to estimate an important economic parameter? Empirical papers are open to question on myriad grounds because there are many valid ways to test most hypotheses. This is why there are many empirical papers addressing any important question. To understand an empirical paper, focus on its essential parts: the logic of the test, the data used, which are the dependent and which the independent variables, and the econometric methods used to estimate the model. As a student, it is most important to understand the logic of the test: What does it mean for a key estimated parameter to be positive or negative? How does the analysis distinguish between a state of the world in which the central hypothesis is true and a state where it is false? Are the estimates of the key parameters statistically significant? Economically significant?
- Is it a case study that looks in detail at one or more examples of the phenomenon under study? Is the case chosen typical of other important applications? Does the author interpret the case as an illustration of a particular theory? Are there other theories that might explain the case equally well or better?
- Is it a "meta-study" that surveys other papers addressing the question? These studies often have voluminous bibliographies that are more useful as reference tools than as objects for detailed study. Which of the studies being discussed are the most central or seminal? On what results do the central studies agree and where do they disagree? Does the preponderance of evidence support one conclusion or another?
- What are the paper's results and conclusions? How strongly are the conclusions supported by the results of the analysis? Do the authors present any "robustness checks" or "sensitivity analysis" that suggests how sensitive the conclusion is to assumptions, data, and methods used?
- How does the paper fit into the broader literature? Does this paper contradict others that find different answers to the same question? If so, what is the source of the difference in outcomes? Which, if either, paper seems to have established its case more strongly? Can we tentatively form a conclusion or are we left with considerable uncertainty about the answer to the question?
These elements can usually be extracted from a careful reading of specific sections of the paper without understanding all the details of other sections. Introduction, model specification, data, results, interpretation, and conclusion sections often contain the essential elements. As you read more economics papers, you will get better at extracting these elements.
If you are asked to summarize a paper for class, it is critical that you understand the paper's essential elements. Depending on the paper, there may be other details that are important as well, but most papers can be summarized concisely in a page (or in a five-minute presentation) by writing or talking about the answers to the questions listed above.