How to talk about how awesome your work is without sounding like a jerk (in an academic paper)

Being a woman, and a woman not at a top 10 institution, in a field in which there is little to no double-blind reviewing, I have to walk a very fine line when promoting what is novel and new about my work compared to previous work.  This is especially hard because I do really innovative work that ends up getting cited a lot and taught in classes but faces a huge amount of push-back from the people who don’t think that way.  (When I put it like that, maybe I’m not the best person for giving advice given my lack of top general interest journal publications.)

Anyway, don’t say that you’re the first person to do something unless you’re an asshole at a top school.  They are always wrong.  They have always not done enough literature review.  But that doesn’t kill them whereas it is the death knell for the rest of us.  Don’t do it.  (I review a lot of papers and see this dichotomy in action– asshole reviewers are so pleased to bring their work to the attention of the famous white dudes, but are insulted that junior scholars should not know their important paper published 30+ years ago.)

When you’re an asshole at a top school, a good strategy is to do an extremely light literature that only cites top general interest journals.  That makes it look like your paper is new and innovative.  And people believe it is because your work doesn’t get sent out to the other people (women, junior scholars, people not at top 10 schools) who have worked on the same question because the editor doesn’t know they worked on it and you didn’t cite them, so how is the editor supposed to know.  Yes I am still really bitter about this.

When you’re not that asshole, you have to do a really complete literature review because if you don’t cite someone, the reviewers take offense and think you haven’t done a thorough lit review.  You can get away with not citing things that aren’t in your field (but I cite people outside anyway because they do work I think economists should know about– this is part of why my way of thinking about things is so innovative– innovation in economics is what another field discovered 30-50 years ago…).  You can get away with not citing things that got published in second tier field journals or lower, but if it was in a top field journal, it needs to be in your list of works cited.

Now, if you’re a white male asshole at a top school, you can make your career out of proving another top economist’s top general interest paper was wrong.  Or, if it’s a female top economist, all you really have to do is harshly question it.  If you’re female and you do this, it can destroy your budding career unless you coauthor with a senior top male economist or two who will take the credit and shift the blame to the bad paper author.

All of that aside… and back to the topic that inspired this post.

If you are a woman/non-famous person, how do you make it clear that your paper is doing new stuff without insulting your potential reviewers?  The answer, my friend, is data limitations.  Or, if it is much older work, new technology.  They *couldn’t* answer the question you’re answering because their dataset wasn’t good enough.  No fault of theirs.  You have something new to add because of your great luck or your hard work.  This probably explains why I am forever amassing new datasets instead of writing papers with the sets I already have.  (That and I’m a dilettante).

So, is this good advice?  I don’t know.  My career looks like a glass ceiling– I am very good at publishing at top field journals, but have yet to hit a top general interest journal.  Some of this is because other than my job market paper I didn’t send my work to top field journals until after tenure, but some of it is that I still don’t know how to play the game perfectly and my reputation is not such that I get the benefit of the doubt.  I still get desk rejects with useless comments for papers that end up getting accepted with minor revisions at similar journals.  There’s a lot of crap shooting going on.

(Disclaimer:  #notalleconomists are assholes, #notalltopeconomists are assholes.  Some are really nice and are generous with their citations and work and try to write the best papers they can because they care about economics and policy.  Others care a lot about playing the publication game.  I’m sure it’s similar in many lines of work.)

12 Responses to “How to talk about how awesome your work is without sounding like a jerk (in an academic paper)”

  1. CG Says:

    I’m extremely bad at tooting my own horn. I just had a kindly reviewer suggest that I needed to rewrite my abstract because my paper did more than the abstract said it did. This was a solo-authored paper so I got a very good friend to look it over and help me understand what I had really accomplished with the paper. It’s hard for me to see it for myself and I’m wary of making bold claims so having another set of eyes helped.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      it’s also irritating that there’s this tightrope that needs to be walked– we aren’t modest in a bubble, but because if we’re too horn-tooty we get in trouble. (If you’re in a double-blind field, at least they start from the assumption that you could be a guy! So toot!)

      I hate the patriarchy so much.

      • CG Says:

        I’m in a double-blind field. I didn’t realize economics didn’t operate that way. Haven’t they read the orchestra audition study?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Hahaha, of course they have. It was written by economists! But orchestra people, so different from rational economists, amirite?

        See, Becky Blank did a study back 20 or 30 some years ago in which she *proved* that double-blind vs. single blind didn’t make a difference at one top econ journal. Of course, there weren’t enough women submitting women-only authored articles at the time, so she included any articles coauthored by a woman as a “woman-authored” article, which we now know from recent work is actually considered to be a male-authored paper for which the woman gets little to no credit (and really, WE KNEW BEFORE that a Gruber + female coauthor paper is just a Gruber paper, with *maybe* the exception of if it is Gruber and Madrian, but I digress). So maybe her null findings were, I dunno, measurement error.

        The argument now when I question prominent men is that “you can just google the paper” or sometimes “but people are more likely to have seen papers by prominent economists so somehow that would be worse bias”? I don’t really get that latter argument. And I review plenty of papers outside econ and cannot just google the article.

        *grumble*

  2. chacha1 Says:

    I got nothin’. I am a complete incompetent at promoting myself.

  3. CG Says:

    Also, re citing other literature, I will say that when I read for the eleventh time that [thing I study and have published on somewhat extensively] isn’t well studied, and this paper is going to fill that gap, and they _cite my papers_, plus those of the other ten people who said it wasn’t well studied, I get a little irked. I think the time for saying [area] isn’t well studied may be over. Maybe there’s a way to say it that explains that this particular aspect hasn’t been covered, or these other people have done this work and now I’m going to build on it or extend it. I think there’s a tendency (possibly largely among a certain segment of the population) to summarily dismiss everyone who came before.

    I had a helpful senior person at a writing workshop say to me once that when you write a paper you’re entering a conversation. If you don’t make your paper part of the conversation (because you don’t connect with or totally dismiss others who have written on it) it’s less likely to be relevant. Not saying you are doing any of these things, but just looking for some balance in the papers I review. Rant over.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      the more papers, the more “of general interest” the topic becomes– it is a growing/flourishing/important field!

      I am not an asshole (can’t be or I wouldn’t get published, no Y chromosome), so I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me instead of completely ignoring them or knocking them down. Not true of the paper I am currently writing a review for…

      • CG Says:

        Yes–exactly. When I see those papers I try to kindly (or not so kindly if they’re really being a jerk) suggest that they bring themselves back into the conversation.

  4. Lisa Says:

    Although I understand the rationale for and benefits of double-blind review, I have trouble seeing how it would actually work. In my field of science it would be very difficult to blind reviewers because the work alone would identify the author in many cases. Maybe not as many as I would initially guess, though. Several journals in my field have been beta-testing a double-blind review process. It will be interesting to see what they learn.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I don’t always get things to review that are in my direct area of study. Those are harder to figure out! And… sometimes it turns out I was wrong when I think I might know who the author is.

  5. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Ugh. Just came across another paper published in a top field journal that the paper I just sent in my review for claims doesn’t exist (the paper I reviewed claims to be the first)… If they had gone to econlit and typed in the two word keyword for their topic of which they claim to be the first, this paper would have come up because the two word keyword is in the title of the paper. I hate guys like this so much. Do a sloppy literature review and then claim your work is novel and belongs in a top general interest journal. The paper even uses the same time period and datasets! There’s another paper on a related topic (different Y variable, different time period) that is making the rounds on twitter right now and it manages to cite all of the relevant literature, why couldn’t this one? Maybe because the paper making the rounds on twitter isn’t by super famous people so it has to.


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