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Could we publish your paper?

I majored in math and physics in college. I knew all along that math was a dead end for me (in high school, I was in the U.S. Math Olympiad program and learned that there were kids who were much better at math than me. My impression of math was that in every century there are the Cauchys and Fouriers who do the real stuff and then a bunch of other guys who pretty much spin their wheels–and I didn’t want to be one of these other guys) but physics was cooler. (I ended up deciding that I didn’t understand physics well enough to continue with it, but that’s another story.)

One of the requirements for the physics degree was to do an undergraduate thesis. There was a booklet listing the faculty who would take research assistants. My junior year I went to a few of these physics professors but they told me that I should wait until my senior year when I was ready to do a thesis. Then as a senior I went back to these places and was told that they only took students who’d been working with them earlier. (To be fair, though, maybe I wasn’t trying so hard. I worked in physics labs in summer jobs all through high school and college, and while it was interesting and I learned a lot–among other things, I became an expert at programming the finite element method for thermal analysis–it never really seemed to be me.)

So I broadened my search and found a professor of political science who accepted undergraduates and did research in game theory. (Although the undergraduate physics degree required a thesis, it did not have to be in physics. And I’d taken a couple of political science classes already.) Game theory sounded interesting so I went to Prof. Alker’s office and he told me about a recent book called The Evolution of Cooperation by a political scientist named Robert Axelrod. Alker told me to buy the book, read it, and come back to him with some research ideas. I did so, and we had our next discussion a week or two later.

My ideas were a bunch of pretty technical game theoretic questions involving different prisoner’s dilemma strategies, and Alker, to his eternal credit, pointed me in a better direction. Axelrod had a chapter on First World War trench warfare: did his model make sense there? Alker pointed me to a book by Tony Ashworth–Axelrod’s main source–and also the book, Men Against Fire, by S. L. A. Marshall (see here for a recent overview), and The Face of Battle, John Keegan’s recent historical overview of combat.

These were great leads. Over the next few weeks I read these books and realized that (at least to me) Axelrod’s application of game theory to First World War trenches didn’t hold up. Alker felt that criticism wasn’t enough and pointed me toward recent political science literature on cooperative games, which allowed me to place the trench warfare example in this more general framework.

I liked my undergraduate thesis but never thought to submit it for publication for another fifteen years or so–too bad, I think it could’ve been influential back in 1986! After a couple of submissions to different journals, I didn’t have the energy to try to revise further but luckily had a convenient opportunity to put the article in a book I was writing and editing (it’s coming out next year, under the title A Quantitative Tour of the Social Sciences, edited by Jeronimo Cortina and myself). To keep it clean, I took out the alternative models and just focused the chapter on an exposition and criticism of Axelrod’s model. The book chapter is fun because I also quoted from, and responded to, some of the referee reports I got from the journals. I also posted the article on my website.

(Just to be clear: I’m a big fan of Axelrod’s book, which has been rightfully influential . Even if he overstretched the applicability of his model in one case, this isn’t meant as any kind of devastating criticism of his book as a whole.)

Anyway, a year or so ago I got an email from the editor of an Italian sociology journal saying that he liked my article and could he publish it in his journal, QA-Rivista dell’Associazione Rossi-Doria (whatever that means)? I immediately responded yes, as I had no plans to try to go through the submission-and-revision process. And so the article duly appeared. It has a nice title: Methodology as Ideology.

The funny thing is that I thought it was so cool that the journal wanted to publish my paper. No effort needed on my part! On the other hand, why was I so happy to give them my work for free? I mean, suppose I ran into somebody on the street and said, “I really like your bike–could I have it?” Would I say Yeah, sure? But with intellectual property, I’m so eager to give it away! Sure, the article was already posted on the web, but allowing someone else to publish it is slightly different.

P.S. When undergraduates want to work with me, I just about always say yes. Not that it always works out–often I’ll give a project to a student and then never hear back from him or her–but I’ll give them the chance.


  1. Francesco says:

    QA stands for Questione Agrararia which means Agricultural Question. Rivista dell'Associazione Rossi-Doria can be translated as Journal of the Rossi-Doria Association.

  2. …and Rossi-Doria was an economist/agriculturalist and Socialist member of the Italian Senate []

  3. Ubs says:

    Your bike analogy is inapt. In spite of what the media conglomerates want you to believe, "intellectual property" is not at all comparable to physical property. Among other things, giving away your paper doesn't mean you don't have it anymore, whereas giving away your bike does. If the person on the street said, "Hey, I have this magic bike-cloning machine. Can I clone your bike so that I have one too?" then maybe it would be comparable. And unless you had plans to make money selling clones of your bike, I doubt you'd have any reason to tell him no.

    "Agricultural question" is a bit too literal a translation to get the gist of it. Zingarelli defines the phrase as a separate idiom: "complesso dei problemi economici e sociali che nascono in un paese dall'esigenza di ammodernare l'agricoltura" (complex of economic and social problems arising in a country from the need to modernize agriculture), something which not coincidentally has been a major issue in Southern Italy ever since the Industrial Revolution.

    "Rivista" corresponds etymologically to "review" and is used in magazine titles in the exact same way.

  4. Dirk says:

    Oh, wow I just looked you up and we were at MIT at the same time. I wasn't nearly smart enough to major in physics or math, but still…kind of weird to find that out after I've been reading your blog off and on for a couple years.

    One distinguishing thing about MIT (then and I think now) was that much more than at other schools undergrads were really encouraged to get involved in research. Even if they don't end up pursuing academic or research careers, this experience can be a valuable part of their educations. Glad to hear you are keen on working with this generation of undergrads.