A brief history at ESSA

I’m at the #essa2013 conference and Bloemfontein and seeing old friends again have made me think of all the Economic Society conferences that I have attended over the years.

My first one was in 1997. I was a new junior lecturer at Unisa and the conference was in Potchefstroom. Having just finished Honours the year before in Potch I knew the people and place and could show my new colleagues around. I had just started with my Master’s degree and didn’t have a paper to present. The next was Pretoria in 1999. I went there with three Dutch students visiting from the VU. They and two of my other colleagues were the only ones at my graveyard session paper on “Fiscal decentralisation of road transport infrastructure and economic development”. I missed 2001, being away at Warwick and cannot remember where it was held.

In 2003 a big group of us went down to the Lord Charles Hotel in Summerset West. While the senior Profs were at the council meeting we took the bus and went wine tasting. One evening JD van Heerden offered us a lift to go out in Stellenbosch and we ended up having a great time at Tollies. I spoke about “Foreign direct investment in Africa: Do institutions and geography matter?” (Co-author Prof Wim Naudé)

In 2005 I was presenting papers everywhere: Denmerk, the UK, Japan and also at the Elangeni Hotel in Durban. I had two papers there. The first was with colleagues from Statistics, James Allison and Gerhard Koekemoer, with the title: “Convergence or divergence of South African cities and towns? Evidence from kernel density estimates”. The second with a Master’s student Martin Luus and he presented on the topic: “Economic specialisation and diversity of South Africa’s cities”. I saw McCloskey there for the first time and had to sit at high table during the conference dinner, speaking to Tony Venables.

The conference was held in Johannesburg in 2007 and I had a bunch of papers:

  • “Measuring the Export Capability of Cities and Towns in South Africa”, with Marianne Matthee.
  • “On exports and domestic transport costs: An industry viewpoint”, with Marianne Matthee and Sonja Grater.
  • “Measuring the quality of local governance in South Africa” with Jacky van der Merwe.

In 2009 we were back at the coast and this time in Port Elizabeth. Mine was the last paper in the last session, but a good one with Neil Rankin: “Agglomeration and manufacturing output: Firm-level
evidence from South Africa”. There Andrea and I went out to Barney’s the one evening to celebrate Steve’s birthday. Good times.

The 2011 conference was at the Maties campus and an excellent one. I worked with Derick Blaauw on the topic: “Micro-evidence on day labourers and the thickness of labour markets in South Africa”. This year there is a tourism paper (with Melville Saayman) and a volunteers paper (with Ferdinand Niyimbanira) in Bloemfontein.

So, thanks ESSA, it has been excellent. Good times and I have met lots of wonderful people. I recently heard someone say in a presentation: People yearn to go on a pilgrimage, but these days they call them conferences. I could not agree more.

economic society conference, essa2013

ESSA 2013

This week the Economic Society of South Africa is holding its biennial conference in Bloemfontein. The programme is a showcase for the interesting work being done in South Africa.

For the first time in a few a years a South African leads the opening plenary session. Prof Servaas van der Berg will be speaking on Education, poverty and affluence – a South African perspective. His  ReSEP group at Stellenbosch produces key socio-economic policy work. There is also a presentation about the REDI3x3 project and SAJE editor Steve Koch will speak about what the journal is looking for in an article.

There are many papers on the programme that caught my eye:

  • Prof Peet Strydom has put together a session on the history of economic thought. He will be presenting a neo-Ricardian view of income distribution, employment and growth. John Hart is discussing Hutchinson. Stan du Plessis is reinterpreting Friedman. Should be good.
  • Dori Posel and Daniela Casale is presenting some subjective well-being work. I used to do some quality of life, quality of place research and I am keen to hear their take.
  • Derick Blaauw and Ilse Botha looks at the subjective well-being of day labourers and the importance of location – combining some of my favourite fields.
  • Neil Rankin, Volker Schoer, Gareth Roberts and more collaborators have a number of different papers on employment. I am keen to go listen to their results from a randomized control trial of a youth wage subsidy.
  • I also want to hear Frederick Fourie on the NDP.
  • There are a number of Economics education papers that look promising.
  • My colleagues and myself have a few papers on the programme as well.

I have marked many more in my programme and expect to run around quite a bit between sessions. You can have a look at the programme at I spotted a few tweeting economists on the programme, so you can also follow the essa2013 hashtag on Twitter.

academic publication

How to get your research published

Last week I was on one of those “Meet the editors” panels and we had an interesting discussion about research, publication and how to get your work into journals. I thought I should share a few of the conclusions that we came to.

Just as some background, the panel consisted of SAJEMS editor Pieter Buys along with Melville Saayman (TREES) and Matthijs Bal (Vrije Universiteit) who are section editors at a number of journals in tourism and industrial psychology / organisational behaviour, respectively.

So everyone probably knows the process: You submit your work to the journal and the editor has a quick look. Then he or she assigns it to a section editor. The section editor appoints 2 or 3 reviewers. And hopefully everything goes well from there.

What is a “dealbreaker” and could lead to rejection of the paper by the editor or section editor?

  • If your work falls outside the scope of the journal. 
  • If the editing is sloppy.
  • If the contribution is not clear.

The first point means that you have to write for a journal and its audience. Don’t just pick a journal from the ISI list and give it a try. Read the author guidelines, work through a number of issues and see what they are about before submitting your work. This also makes the letter to the editor quite important – Pieter said that he reads them – you have to explain how your work is of interest to this particular group of readers.

If the grammar is bad and the references incomplete it can easily lead to a desk reject. We all have to remember that journals receive many submissions and have pipelines full of approved articles. They don’t have to work through sloppy manuscripts to search for good ideas. I know how I get irritated by post-grad students sending me unreadable documents – editors and section editors will not waste reviewers’ time with draft versions of research. You have to submit your best effort.

These basics will get you past the editor, but the section editor is the expert in a particular field and wants to know if your well-written manuscript makes a contribution. You may feel that the contribution is in the eye of the beholder, but the fact is that you can make his or her decision easier by spelling it out. Let’s assume that you started out with a contribution-level idea – the challenge is explaining it to readers. It should be clear as day, right there in the introduction. Highlight how your work informs the big questions in the field.

The dreaded third reviewer
Then you need to hope that the section editor picks good reviewers. Everyone has a story about a completely unreasonable third reviewer who wants a completely different paper. There is not much that you can do about this. A really good abstract, introduction and accurate key words / JEL codes (for topic, case/application, method) can help the section editor pick reviewers that knows the field and can sensibly look at your work. If the section editor does not quite understand what the paper is about, they end up picking names from the list the journal keeps (and when did you last update your research interests on the list of reviewers?)

How long should you wait before you follow up on a submission? 
With some journals you can check electronically, with others you can ask whether they have at least appointed reviewers after two months or so.

What if you gets the reviews back and they recommend major revisions, to the point of asking you to do a different study?
The panel felt that you should engage with the section editor or editor that you are corresponding with: Explain the changes that you have made and acknowledge the limitations.

More on the contribution
Matthijs also made a few comments specifically about the contribution of the paper. These points are not really related to how you present finished work, but to how you conceptualise and do the work in the first place.You have to start by asking what are the big questions in the field and how can you make a small contribution to answering them. Testing a particular theory or model for the first time in the South African context, is not a contribution. Revisiting big questions with more sophisticated statistics is not a contribution. The South African application only becomes interesting if there is a clear case that South Africa is somehow different – and that difference should be accounted for in the analysis, not just argued in the introduction. Using more sophisticated techniques is only a contribution if the way of modelling something has been a big question in the particular literature. These day the better journals are not keen on cross-sectional designs, mono-source and mono-method papers. He nicely argued that this does not mean that everything should be new, but that it should be interesting. You have to ask what can everyone learn from this work.

Finally, if you don’t have one yet, grow a thick skin. Rejection is part of the publication process and considering all its vagaries, you should not take it personally. Just revise and resubmit. Never give up, never surrender.

econoblogosphere,, social media

More on publishing and social media

So I make the presentation in the previous post at the conference, but the people were not convinced. “Doing research and promoting it on social media will take too much time…”

But yesterday I read this nice post at The Monkey Cage blog on The promise and perils of sharing work in progress. Allow me to quote a bit:

Some significant part of being (viewed as) “successful” in academia is being visible to your peers.  Yes, the actual quality of your work matters more, but visibility counts for something.  In tenure decisions, departments often want evidence that you are “known” in the field.  There are lots of ways to build visibility—going to conferences, networking, etc.—but most all of them involve sharing your work, even in its early stages.

Social media is the way to go! I am going to follow the advice:


academic publication, econoblogosphere, Economics, publish or perish

Publishing, perishing and social media

I have been going on about this for a while now and this week I am taking my social media story to a conference at the Maastricht School of Management. The conference has the theme: Revolutions in education: New opportunities for development.

My point is that it is getting tough to publish. Even your local society journal wants clean identification of causal effects. The quick reply to such worries are to do better work. I argue that that is necessary, but may not be sufficient. You also need to work on your reputation for doing good work and collaborate with people who already have that reputation. It is at this point that the social web can come to the rescue.

Prof Wim Naude and I will soon launch an online survey about this. Stay tuned for some empirical results.