My research philosophy


A picture is worth a thousand words. To learn about somebody’s research, it is more informative to look at what they do (look at the quantity and quality of publications and working papers listed on their CVs) than to hear what they say (read research statements and proposals). Thus you can stop reading here, and instead look at my publication list and the histories of my papers. But in case somebody finds it useful, I will keep writing about my research philosophy.

Finding topics

My research is primarily driven by internal and scientific curiosity. If I find something interesting, I work on it. To me, research is leisure, and I am fortunate to be able to spend most of my time playing (working). At the beginning of a project, I don’t worry about publishing in a top 5 journal or in any journal. Many ideas are crappy and I abandon later. Some projects develop and get published. It’s rewarding when a good idea gets published in a good journal, but I derive most of my utility from making scientific discoveries, so I don’t worry too much about journals. In the long run, most papers, including fashionable ones written by famous people at the time, will be forgotten. In one of his blog posts, Fumio Hayashi mentions that in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a famous economist named Harry Johnson, but after he died, people stopped citing his papers. I had never heard of Johnson until reading Hayashi’s blog, but apparently he has published 526 papers, none of which I know. In a different post, Hayashi mentions that he was lucky that he didn’t face much competition in the 1980s because after rational expectations and micro-founded models took over macroeconomics, the old and contemporary Keynesians lost their human capital and exited the publication game. Therefore I don’t chase fashionable topics, which can quickly become irrelevant. (Who still write papers on endogenous growth, zero lower bound, financial crisis, wealth inequality, or COVID?) Instead, I tend to work on mathematical or methodological topics, which are less eye-catching but tend to have a longer shelf life. In particular, I like that theorems are eternal. However, within economics, I am mostly interested in macroeconomic and financial phenomena, using the general equilibrium approach.

Writing papers

I think a typical economics paper is far too long. It is hard to change a custom, but I wish we could write shorter papers that are to the point, avoid long introductions and literature reviews, cite papers by numbers instead of last names, and leave extensions and robustness checks to future research. I think the economics profession will be far better if we could adopt some customs in other sciences like mathematics or physics, where the points I raised above are the norm.

Finding coauthors

Coauthoring is like getting married. You don’t want to get married to a random person. You want to date and experiment before getting married. The division of labor within a particular project need not be equal, just like we specialize in household chores according to our comparative advantages, but in the long run the coauthorship must be mutually beneficial. I often write papers with students, but before promising to make them coauthors, I test their intellectual independence, work ethic, and time-management skill. I don’t want to work with people who just wait for directions or who don’t deliver.

Posting working papers

I only post working papers to arXiv, which is great because it is open to anybody and the user has full version control. There is no club like NBER. See also Federico Echenique’s post.

Presenting papers

I don’t go to many conferences. I am an introvert and don’t necessarily enjoy having superficial social interactions with strangers. (My wife, who is a medical doctor, describes me as preoccupied with numbers and math, lacking empathy, not understanding jokes or other people’s feelings, and sensitive to light and sound, though I think many serious scientists are like that.) I prefer spending time writing another paper to traveling for another seminar. In addition, because my research tends to be niche, it is hard to get useful comments. Thus when I write new papers, I mostly advertize them to my research network. But if somebody finds my research interesting, I am happy to travel anywhere to present.

Publishing papers

As mentioned above, I don’t worry too much about the journal outlet. I send what I think are my best papers to the best journals, and send OK papers to OK journals. If a paper that I think is great gets accepted at a top journal, that’s great, but most of the time my papers get rejected, so I move on to other journals until they get accepted. My advisor John Geanakoplos once told me: “All great papers get rejected”. I thought of Black & Scholes (1973) and Akerlof (1978), but I am sure he had in mind his collateral equilibrium paper, which perhaps took more than 20 years to publish.

Reviewing papers

I have countless of unpleasant experiences with referees. Some move the goal post at each round. Some are not experts in the subject matter and do not understand the contribution, yet pretend to be experts. Some dismiss theoretical work entirely, writing “this is a theory paper and not general interest”, and some cause trauma. There are also many reasonable and professional reviewers, to whom I am grateful. I would like to be one of those, so when I work as a reviewer or editor, I try to limit major revisions to only once, to limit my suggestions to things that are doable with reasonable effort, to provide concrete references, and not to ask for extensions or robustness checks. I hope we can all do so.

Applying for grants

I am not good at applying for or getting grants, for a few reasons. First, my research is technical and not necessarily appealing to policy makers. Second, I have difficulty writing what grant agencies would like to see. (Recall Julius Caesar’s quote: “What we wish, we readily believe, and what we ourselves think, we imagine others think also”.) Third, I prefer writing papers to grant proposals. I think the world would be a far better place if grants were allocated based on publication records (perhaps weighted by the quality of outlets and discounted according to the time elapsed since publication). That way we don’t need to waste our time writing and reviewing grant proposals, and taxpayers’ money will be spent on supporting innovative researchers instead of welfare economists. Besides, ground-breaking research, unlike \(\epsilon\)-modification of existing research, is often unpredictable, so it’s not something that we can propose. But I need research funding, so I should put more effort.


Regardless of writing or reviewing a paper, my mission is to contribute to the progress of science, and all other considerations are of second order importance. One of the historical figures that I admire most is Chiune Sugihara. Sugihara was a talented Japanese diplomat who served as the vice-consul in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1939-1940 to spy the Soviet Union. When Jeweish refugees from Poland arrived in July 1940, Sugihara asked the Japanese Foreign Ministry for permission to issue transit visas so that refugees could escape Europe. When his request was denied, he ignored the order anyway and wrote visas all day until the closure of the consulate in August 1940, which saved more than 2,000 lives. His disobedience cost his career, but I admire him for doing the right thing.