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Bhagwan Chowdhry

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It Takes a Village to Write a Scholarly Research Article

Posted: 08/25/11 04:26 PM ET

"Oh, you are a Professor at UCLA? You must really like teaching" is a comment that I, and many of my academic colleagues at research universities, hear very often when we mention to others what we do for a living. Yes, understanding complex ideas and being able to explain them simply, cogently, and in ways that students can relate to them is something that I aspire to do and put in a lot of effort to make happen.

"So, how much time do you spend in the classroom?" is often the next question I get asked. I explain that my annual teaching requirement is four quarter courses which translates to about 120 hours of classroom teaching.

"Do you have to spend a lot of time preparing for classes?" the queries continue. Yes, preparing a new class does take a lot of effort and time but it doesn't take an inordinate amount of time when you teach the same class the second or the third time. Furthermore, I often teach multiple sections of the same class reducing the time required to teaching related activities even further.

"So, what do you do the rest of the time?" A very good question, indeed.

"Research," I usually reply. If the person asking the question is not already bored or distracted by something more interesting, I go on to say that in fact research comprises a large part of my life at the university, vastly more than teaching. Most listeners completely fail to appreciate what this means and some even appear incredulous, wondering what in the world could a professor of finance and economics be researching from eight in the morning -- which is when I reach my office after dropping my kids off to school -- to around six or seven in the evening when I leave work to go back home, five, sometimes six, days a week.

Just recently, right after I landed at the Los Angeles airport, returning from a research conference where we celebrated the lifetime research contributions of my colleagues Richard Roll and Eduardo Schwartz, I saw a message on my iPhone that one of my papers co-authored with Bruce Carlin and Mark Garmaise was accepted for publication in the Journal of Financial Intermediation. I was elated. I have been a professor at UCLA Anderson School for 23 years now and received tenure 16 years ago.

So, what difference could one more publication make to cause such elation? Well, it has taken over ten years to produce a paper that is publishable in a top peer-reviewed scholarly publication. It started as some loose ideas that were percolating in my head for some years about what constitutes "organization capital" -- I wrote some notes down (which you can read here). This was in May of 2000.

Bruce Carlin, one of the three co-authors in the paper that has been accepted for publication (which you can read here), had not even started studying finance and economics -- he was a doctor performing surgeries at Washington University at Saint Louis. I first started collaborating with Mark Garmaise and we produced a working paper that we presented at a few conferences and a few universities around the world to get feedback. Then we submitted the paper for publication at a top economics journal. The decision that arrived after waiting one year or so -- rejected.

The editor was sympathetic that we were trying to break new ground with our idea but did not find the modeling of the idea compelling. So, we revised the paper taking (only) the constructive feedback provided by anonymous referees and sent it for publication to another top finance journal. The decision? The idea is interesting but the paper needs a major revision to be acceptable for publication. By now, Bruce Carlin had joined the Finance faculty at UCLA Anderson and he agreed to collaborate with us on this project to bring a fresh perspective and complementary skills. The revision was resubmitted and the decision -- rejected.

Now, we sent the paper to another finance journal (which just accepted the paper). The decision -- the idea is novel and interesting but needs a model that is deeper and one that has richer empirically testable implications. After spending over a year to produce a version that would address referees' comments suggestions, the paper was finally accepted.

So, after more than ten years since the time I began thinking about organization capital, a scholarly paper will now be published. Even though the published version carries three names as co-authors, it already has had significant input from nearly half a dozen referees, three editors, and scores of participants at conferences and seminars all over the world. And here is the punchline. The editor wrote "you were early movers here" and quoted the referee who said that despite some potential problems (such as the difficulty of measuring some of the key variables in the paper), this paper should get some credit for the novelty of the topic and hope that other researchers will pick up on some of these ideas. So after a dozen years or so, we are still just at the start line! That is what research is. That is what occupies most academics at top research universities around the world.

Now, I do not mean to suggest that all research papers take that long to publish -- some take only two or three years. After all, with a tenure clock of only six or seven years at most universities, a young scholar would have no hope of getting tenure if he or she could not publish research in that shorter time-frame. But every serious academic in the world would tell you of at least a couple of projects that have taken much longer to publish.

Some of you are surely wondering (especially if you took the trouble to read my first set of notes and skimmed the final version accepted for publication) if all that effort is worth it, both for individuals engaged in research and from the point of view of the society. For most academics, doing research is fun in the sense that was famously articulated by British mathematician G.H. Hardy in his book A Mathematician's Apology. For the society as a whole, just as it takes a village to raise a child and many children grow up to be productive members of the community, but only a few become truly notable in their contributions, it also takes a community of engaged scholars to write a research paper. While most make some marginal contributions in our understanding of the world, every now and then there are some ideas that change the way we look at the world (such as this paper published in Nature in 1953).

While we can debate the inefficiencies and biases inherently involved in the publication process and try to make changes to improve it, the process that encourages long-term collaborative and original research is what has made U.S. universities truly great. The emerging economies of China and India are now beginning to slowly emulate this.

 

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