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Writing your paper for a scientific journal: Why, when, and how?

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Scientific journals like Nature, Science and PNAS offer broader visibility and more humane publication processes than economics journals. So why don’t development economists publish in them more? In my experience, environmental economists mostly recognize the advantages that scientific journals offer, while development economists are largely missing this opportunity. Writing and preparing a paper for a scientific journal is quite different than preparing a paper for an economics journal, but it is a skill that more development economists should learn.

Top 3 reasons to consider publication in a scientific journal

For certain kinds of papers, the “ceiling”, or the likely best journal the paper could publish in, is much higher in a scientific journal than in an economics journal. This is more likely to be true for papers where the results are the main contribution, as opposed to the methods. As the classic econ seminar question goes, why is this result not obvious? While economics journals primarily reward methodological innovations, scientific journals are actually interested in your particular numeric estimates…if they provide actionable insights.

Simon Greenhill et al. (2024; Science) explains, by briefly describing specific regulations, court cases, and government reports, that the US government does not know which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act. The authors fill this knowledge gap by applying machine learning, revealing the likely effects of past and potential future regulatory changes. The paper’s connection to a specific, current policy debate is remarkable even for a scientific journal. I don’t think this practical framing would have published as well in an economics journal, where generality, the broad relevance of a paper to many contexts, is prized.

Greater visibility at scientific journals means your paper will be read by non-economists, including policymakers, journalists, and researchers of your topic. Why? The main text of scientific journal articles is non-technical and short: approximately, the introduction to an economics journal article is the main text, and everything else goes in the appendices. The constraints on jargon and length make for better writing in scientific articles.

A third advantage of scientific journals is the publication process: fast decision times and less extensive requested revisions. If I am not rapidly desk-rejected at a scientific journal, I usually receive the first decision within two months. If the decision is revise and resubmit, the requested revisions rarely take more than two weeks of work, after which the final decision usually comes within another two months. Some economics journals are trying to become fast like scientific journals, but why wait and suffer while they attempt to improve?

When should you publish in a scientific journal?

You should publish your paper in a scientific journal if your expected ceiling is higher, if you want to be read by non-economists, and if you want a more humane publication process. Greenhill et al. published in a top 2 scientific journal: could they have published in a top 5 economics journal? I think not, as their paper is descriptive and specific. Papers fit better in economics journals when they involve causal inference, structural estimation, or insight into general economics concepts; scientific journals reward these contributions less.

Another consideration is being able to explain simply and succinctly what you did to non-economists; this is not possible for every economics paper. Finally, if your primary objectives are visibility among economists, or being hired or obtaining tenure in an economics department, then economics journals remain superior.

How should you publish in a scientific journal?

Writing your paper for a scientific journal is quite different than for an economics journal. The typical order of a scientific article is introduction, results, discussion, a short methods section, and appendices. Notice that results come before methods: you must explain your methods, intuitively and at a high level, in the introduction and in the course of presenting your results. I think my "African Fish Cartel" paper with Chris Costello does this well.

Your first figure should visualize and explain your methods as well. For my all-time favorite, check out Figure 1 of Carleton and Hsiang (2016; Science). Your Figure 1 should do three things: explain your methods visually, convey to the editor and referees that what you did was hard, and capture attention with a beautiful image. I particularly enjoy this aspect of scientific journals.

Finally notice that I said “discussion”, not “conclusion.” Scientific articles are too short to permit much restatement of methods and results, as is typically done in the conclusion to an economics article.  The discussion is where interpretation of results go (rather than in the results section). Make the implications of your results explicit: what do they tell us we should do differently in the real world, and what future research do they enable or call for? The discussion is also where the caveats and limitations to your analysis go.


Publication strategy and tactics

Scientific journals often ask you to list 3-5 potential referees at submission. The editor will often choose one of your suggested referees and choose one referee you did not suggest. You can also list 3-5 referees the editor should not send the paper to, but you must explain why (e.g., if someone would have a conflict of interest). Referees are higher variance at scientific journals because one of them might not be an economist.

The editor may reject your paper if the number of referee comments is too great, or if referees make several substantive criticisms, even if you can address all comments easily in a revision. This always feel unfair when it happens to me, but the tradeoff is it allows scientific journals to be fast (because they reject papers instead of ask for extensive revisions). Include in your paper robustness checks referees are likely to ask for, or limitations of your study referees may comment on, so that their reports will be shorter.

Some journals have “article processing charges”, so plan where that funding will come from if your paper is accepted. Scientific journals tend not to have submission fees, but especially if they are open-access, and the lead author is working in a rich country, you may have to pay up to $6,500 to publish your article after it is accepted.

I acknowledge that publishing in scientific journals is easier for environmental economists than for development economists because environmental economics research often has a natural science or biological component, which can increase the appeal to non-economists. However, an editor of Science recently called for more submissions from economists, and journals like Nature Food, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nature Communications, Nature Energy, and Nature Human Behavior all publish development economics papers. See also this previous Development Impact Q&A with one of the editors of Nature Human Behavior.

I understand medical journals may share some of scientific journal’s advantages, and could be more suitable for development economics papers with health implications than scientific journals, but I have not covered them here because I’ve never submitted a paper to a medical journal.

Final tips

·       The cover letter is important. In a few paragraphs, you have to explain why your paper is both innovative research and policy-relevant.

·       Unlike the typical economics journal, the cover letter matters because the main hurdle is to avoid desk rejection.

·       Scientific journals differentially reward papers with a flashy component: those that create a new dataset, have global or regional relevance, or develop a method that can be applied by researchers in other disciplines.

·       The quality of your writing must be higher in a scientific journal; every word counts since the papers are shorter.

·       Write for a smart undergraduate, who may not have studied economics (credit: Sol Hsiang, for this and other advice shared here).

·       AI tools like GPT-4 or Mistral are very helpful for writing and reasoning tasks; you should use them. But first closely read a few great scientific articles by economists, paying attention to how they would differ if they had been written for an economics journal. For example, compare this paper to this one, or this paper to this one.

·       Another reason to publish in a scientific journal is when doing interdisciplinary work, since a paper in these journals will be rewarding to your scientist co-authors.

·       In this blog post I have covered the “research article” submission type. Scientific journals also allow broad articles that discuss research and policy, but I’ve never written one and I don’t know how hiring and promotion committees evaluate those publications.

Gabriel Englander

Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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