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How I Published 4 Papers as an Undergrad
When I was an undergraduate, I had the amazing opportunity to coauthor four publications. These publications were not in undergraduate journals. They were real, peer-reviewed, academic journals. In fact, the journal that published my first paper recently published another one of my papers 10 years later.
I want to share how I joined these projects. I'm going to tell the stories behind each paper, and you'll notice here's a few themes among my participation. I'll let you try to find them yourself, then I'll reveal them in the end.
Ratings and Revenues: Evidence from Movie Ratings, (with Joseph Price and Jared Shores) Contemporary Economic Policy, Vol. 31, Issue 1, pp 13-21. 2013
My first publication began as a paper for my econometrics class. We had to do an empirical paper that used data and regression analysis. Most students followed the teacher's advice to just use data from the Census Bureau, but I had a different idea.
I loved movies, and I had even worked in a movie theater. But I'm sensitive to the content in films and don't watch R-rated movies. Even some PG-13 movies have content that makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes I would wonder how a movie managed to get a PG-13 rating when the content seemed more mature.
Some websites recognize that categorizing movies into just a few ratings isn't helpful for parents deciding which movie to watch. To help these viewers, they rate the movie's sex, violence, and profanity on a scale of 1 to 5 or 1 to 10. Being familiar with these sites, I decided to use the content scores to see which factors were most heavily weighted when determining the rating. I wrote a small program that scraped the data, and it made for a nice term paper.
At the time, I was working for Dr. Price, and he was interested in a related question. He saw that R-rated movies made less at the box office than PG-13 movies, and he wanted to know whether it was a causal effect. But the problem is finding good counterfactual movies. His idea was to use my paper on predicting movie ratings to find movies that were similar in content, but one received an R rating and the other a PG-13. Again, using my coding experience, I scraped data on box office revenues, and I ran the regressions. We found a strong negative effect on the R rating on revenues.
Taxing the Opposition: Cactus League Attendance and the Efficiency of the ‘Cubs Tax,’ (with Michael Davis and Joseph Price) International Journal of Sport Finance, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp 157-17. 2013
The second paper I published has a special place in my heart for the boldness it required. Dr. Price had worked on a few sports economics projects, and I had been the lead on collecting and analyzing the data.
One day, a professor at another university proposed a research question. Dr. Price forwarded the email to me and asked me to start collecting the data. Looking at the idea, I was convinced I could provide a significant contribution, so I took my bold step. I emailed Dr. Price and asked if this was a project where I could possibly be a coauthor. I was so nervous when I sent that email because I worried I was overstepping. But he replied and said that it was a good idea, then he asked the other professor if he agreed.
This worked out to be a good deal for both professors. This was a low-stakes paper that had a low ceiling. That is, even if everything went perfect for this paper, it wasn't going to get into a super good journal. It was perfect for an unexperienced undergrad to learn how research works, and having an eager student shoulder a significant burden meant that their time could go towards their more valuable projects.
The main work on this paper required me to gather attendance data at baseball games over several years. Those were available on baseball statistics websites, so I had to just write a program to scrape the sites. Of course, that was followed by regressions and writing.
While the paper wasn't very fancy, it meant a lot to me to see that my risky request paid off.
What Matters in Movie Ratings? Cross-country Differences in which Content Influence Mature Movie Ratings. (with Joseph Price and Doug Gentile) Journal of Children and Media, Vol. 8 , Iss. 3, pp 240-252. 2014
The third paper that I co-authored stemmed from my success on that first paper. I believe this began with Dr. Price attending a conference and a psychologist at another university heard about our paper. He specialized in the effects of media on children, and he was interested in using my strategy of looking at content ratings to examine how different countries approach restricting content for children.
Most countries have a movie rating system that informs viewers what content to expect. And most of these countries have ratings that restrict viewership. But the restrictions differ significantly across countries. My favorite example of this was France, which gave American Pie a TP...the same rating that Lion King got. The research question was how did countries weight the content factors, how did countries differ, and was it consistent with recommendations from child psychologists.
The work on this paper was similar to what I did on the first one. I already had the content ratings, so I just had to collect the movie ratings. Fortunately, those are listed on IMDb, so it was another web scraping job.
When you look at my CV, this is one of my weirdest projects. It's the only one not published in an economics journal. And it's not even an adjacent field like political science. But it was cool that this came from the work on the first project, and especially cool that the core idea came from my econometrics term paper.
Technological change, relative worker productivity, and firm-level substitution: Evidence from the NBA (with Grant Gannaway, Joseph Price, and David Sims) Journal of Sports Economics Vol. 15, 5: pp. 478-496. 2014
The genesis of this final paper is murkier than the other three. I believe Dr. Sims, who was one of my undergrad professors, approached Dr. Price with this idea. He wanted to see how the introduction of the three-point line changed basketball strategy. Again, since I was the go-to on sports data, I was brought on to program and scrape. A good friend, Grant, was also brought on, but honestly I don't know what he did (this is just a test to see if he actually reads this newsletter...I'll get a text if he does).
I invited you to look for common themes across these papers. I picked out three. Comment if you saw any others.
First, the most obvious is that Dr. Price is on all three papers. I was incredibly blessed to have him as a mentor. He is insanely productive and he cares about mentoring students. It's impossible for me to imagine doing any of these projects without his willingness to put up with my weaknesses. So the takeaway here is to find a professor who cares. You might be able to look through their publications and see if they have a history of coauthoring with students. Or you can do what I did: listen for who other students enjoy working with and then approach the professor.
Second, in all four my main contribution was scraping the data online. I had learned how to write scripts to collect the data, and I got really good at it. And this is something that's so easy to develop. You can learn it in a weekend, probably less with ChatGPT. It's one of my top suggestions for skills economics majors can develop now.
Finally, not to pat myself on the back, but one of the biggest factors in coauthoring was my initiative and persistence. I mentioned my boldness in asking to coauthor. But what you don't see here is the foundation I laid with my work on other projects. When I was asked to scrape data, I often collected it within 24 hours. I put in a lot of hours in the economics department--so much, that when I got to Yale, I met another student from my school and he asked, "Weren't you the guy who was always in the economics lab?" I didn't think much of it at the time, but the longer I teach, the more I see that there are not a lot of students who follow through on assignments. You can easily set yourself apart by just putting in consistent work.
I don't think everyone needs to coauthor papers. From my view, those papers played a big role in my getting accepted to Yale. But there were students at my school who went to MIT, Chicago, and Stanford who didn't coauthor at all. So maybe it wasn't that big of help. But I learned a lot, and it was a great mentoring experience.
Links I liked
Beth Akers writes about how politics is missing the mark on how to handle the student debt crisis. I’ve been meaning to read her book Making College Pay.
Unity is one of the major graphics engines for video games. For example, Pokemon Go runs on Unity. It wants to introduce a model where developers pay per install, and developers are not happy. This is an example of contract economics—developers made a specific investment in learning Unity, and now Unity is trying to extract rents from those investments. I believe I saw the gaming platforms are open to paying the fees.
Duolingo blogged about which words are the same in every language. They found two. The reason why they are the same is all economics (seriously, not the way your professor says “Duolingo is all about economics” but in the way that the way economies operate led to the vocabulary being shared).
Hey, if you made it all the way to here, you might be someone interested in the course I’m building. I’m assembling the best advice on applying for graduate school, with awesome ideas for the statement of purpose and the letters of recommendation. Newsletter readers will be the first to hear about it, so be sure to subscribe.