Finding Facts & Ideas
How do you find facts and ideas that address economic issues?
Students can search databases to identify essays, books, government documents, newspaper and magazine stories that address economic issues. Economists have published essays and books to make their ideas available for use by others and works are often available online and through library subscriptions.
A student who wants to study a particular topic, say, the "price of gasoline," might search for this phrase in several of the databases to identify essays, books, and other materials that bear on the topic. Using related terms like "energy prices," "petroleum products," and "price of crude oil" will yield related materials. The references published in academic works often lead to further reading. Building a good bibliography—a reading list—on a topic and reading key materials to understand what others have written about a topic is an essential first step in an investigation.
Essays published in formal academic journals have typically been carefully reviewed by two or more other scholars who are expert in the subject matter as well by the editor of the journal who is also usually a successful scholar. The process of evaluation is called peer review. Essays that have passed through peer review are likely to be of high quality.
Formal essays are careful to include references to other published works used in developing ideas. Each essay makes an original contribution to an on-going stream of essays, creating a cumulative body of work from many scholars that, taken together, represent what is known about economic phenomena.
By going to the references listed at the end of an essay, a reader can see what's needed to read backward to see where ideas first appeared and how they have developed. Some electronic indices noted below identify subsequent publications that include a reference to an article a reader has identified. The forward-looking citations allow a reader to read forward to see where an idea has gone.
Peer-reviewed essays normally document carefully the logical chain of deduction, the steps used in a mathematical derivation, and the data and methods used in a statistical investigation so that other scholars can replicate the evidence provided. Sometimes the details are in appendices.
The Journal of Economic Literature (JEL) publishes review essays, that is, essays that summarize, integrate, and critique dozens and sometimes well over a hundred essays on a given broad topic. Reading a review essay is a convenient way to get acquainted with what is known on a topic and where controversies arise. JEL also publishes reviews of recent books in economics, an annotated list of new books, and a list of current dissertations from North American universities.
Although some economic journals publish only highly specialized essays, that is essays that require a significant amount of prior knowledge in order to be understood, some journals and books are accessible to a wider audience. One such publication is Challenge: The Magazine of Economic Affairs.
Students use the following tools to identify publications that address specific topics in economics.
"EconLit is the AEA's electronic bibliography of economics literature throughout the world. EconLit contains abstracts, indexing, and links to full-text articles in economics journals. It abstracts books and indexes articles in books, working papers series, and dissertations. EconLit also provides the full-text of JEL book reviews. EconLit is available at libraries and on university Web sites throughout the world."
There are several ways to use EconLit. A general search on subject terms will yield a list of publications that relate to the topic, although some of the items may be tangential. Once a relevant article is in hand, EconLit will identify other works by the same author, help locate items in the first essay’s reference list, and search on terms used in the first article.
Many libraries provide access to the EconLit database through campus networks.
JSTOR is an online service that makes available articles for economics journals as well as journals in other disciplines. It presents the articles as page images of the original print and allows searching of the full-text of the articles for the full back file of each journal. Some publishers do not make the most recent years available so as to retain a market for their direct subscriptions. JSTOR is available by subscription through academic libraries. For example, all issues of the American Economic Review from 1911 to within three years of the present are available on JSTOR.
"This guide is sponsored by the American Economic Association. It lists 2,100 resources in 97 sections and sub-sections available on the Internet of interest to academic and practicing economists, and those interested in economics. Almost all resources are also described.
Those searching the Internet for economic information might also wish to try the Economics Search Engine (ESE). It indexes 23,000 economics web sites from around the world. Searches with it only return their contents."
"RePEc is the largest bibliographic database dedicated to Economics and available freely on the Internet. Over 1.2 million items of research can be browsed or searched, and over 1 million can be downloaded in full text! This site is part of a large volunteer effort to enhance the free dissemination of research in Economics."
Scholar is not limited to economics but is often a useful tool for locating publications in economics. It provides a count of the number of times an item has been cited by other works in the Google database and allows forward-looking to see where the historic work has been cited. Because Scholar includes works from many disciplines, a search on scholar tends to return some extraneous material along with useful things. Not all of the works in the Scholar database have been through a peer-review process and for this reason the quality of the work is less assured.
PAIS selectively indexes many journals, books, government documents, and materials from trade and interest groups that report information about policy issues. Many libraries make this service available to their patrons. When economists write about issues of public policy for a wide audience, a government agency, or an interest group, the work is likely to be indexed in PAIS. PAIS includes material from over 120 countries.
Economists who write for US government agencies are likely to have their work indexed by the Government Printing Office. The GPO catalog is available online and with other search engines through many libraries. Many agencies are particularly important in creating and publishing economic data, including the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Federal Reserve Board. The Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis maintains a website of economic data called FRED. Fedstats provides a gateway to statistics from over 100 Federal agencies.
Access to News and Wider Interest Publications
Lexis/Nexis is a library subscription service that provides access to a large volume of literature from newspapers, government documents, and legal materials. ProQuest is another provider of electronic indices to libraries by subscription. It indexes many national and international newspapers, magazines, and other publications.
Blogs are an informal method of discussing economic ideas. Craig Newmark ranks blogs written by economists. Among leading blogs are Brad Delong's Semi-daily Journal, Freakonomics Blog and Crooked Timber among many others. Gregory Mankiw has a blog for the introductory economics course at Harvard. The Economist offers a blog on current economic issues and the New Economist is a blog by a macroeconomist in London. The BBC produces two sets of podcasts on economic issues: World Business News and Business Daily.
Economic Policy Think Tanks
A number of independent research enterprises sometimes called think tanks have Internet websites that develop varied points of view about current policy debates. Steve Gardner at Baylor University provides a partial list with weblinks. Some of the better known independent institutes are The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, The Brookings Institution, The National Bureau of Economic Research, and The RAND Corporation.
Authors of original essays on topics relevant to and similar in style to articles appearing in a journal should submit their manuscripts to the editors for consideration for publication. Submit an essay to only one journal at a time. Each journal publishes its own submission guidelines and usually makes them available online as well. Typically, about one-third of submitted manuscripts from all sources are accepted for publication. Revising a manuscript in light of comments from other economists who have published related essays improves an essay's prospects for publication. Manuscripts may be presented to a wider audience at professional meetings before publication. The Opportunities page notes associations that encourage undergraduates to present their essays and notes journals that publish essays written by undergraduates.
In addition to the work they produce for other economists and the textbooks they write for students, economists also write popular books including broad reviews of global developments and focused works on specific policies, as well as novels.
As students gain skill by studying economics, more of the literature will be useful.