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  • Jo Clubb

How a Rejected Paper Won a Nobel Prize

I recently came across the story of George Akerlof and his paper on “The Market for ‘Lemons’” in Daniel Pink’s book “To Sell is Human” (more on this book in the near future).

Akerlof's manuscript centred on ‘information asymmetry’ between buyers and sellers, which can cause uncertainty that degrades the quality of goods. He exemplified the concept with the used-car market; low prices repel sellers of high-quality cars (“peaches”), leaving behind only the low-quality cars (“lemons”).

In 2001 Akerlof, along with fellow economists Michael Spence and Joseph Stiglitz, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for their analyses of markets with asymmetric information. This achievement though was in contrast to the challenge Akerlof had in getting this paper, the seminal work on information asymmetry, published in the first place.

From Rejection to Nobel Prize

It was initially rejected by three different papers. Both the American Economic Review and the Review of Economic Studies rejected it on the basis of “triviality”.

Meanwhile, the Journal of Political Economy determined that the concept was incorrect. Akerlof himself describes this particular rejection as “more interesting”. He received two referee reports arguing that many agricultural commodities, including eggs, were able to sell items of differing quality. Therefore, if his paper was correct, economics would be different. Clearly, these reviewers were not able to change their mind, despite this being crucial to the scientific process.

On its fourth attempt, it was accepted and published by Quarterly Journal of Economics (Akerlof, 1970). Akerlof describes his surprise when his paper was met with such “considerable enthusiasm”, including from scholars Spence and Stiglitz, with whom he would later share the Nobel Prize.

Reflecting on Rejection

It is Akerlof’s personal essay on this experience that provides great insight. He shares his three lessons;

  1. The work was a natural extension of those around him (at MIT).

  2. A generous community was needed to provide feedback, review the paper, and then further explore its ideas.

  3. It is important to pay microscopic attention in research (in his case, economics), but not dismiss new ideas that may be outside of traditional focus.

These lessons are a compelling argument to surround yourself with people who challenge you and consider new and differing perspectives.

While it was not presented as a lesson, I also took from the essay this notion to keep track of ideas:

“I always keep a list of potential topics, partly because an idea is usually not useful on its own, but only in combination with another, and also for psychological reasons, so that when one idea fails, I can turn without remorse to another.” - George Akerlof

I think this story is amplified through Akerlof’s personal reflection. In these times when we turn to online platforms for external validation and only see the successes of others, perhaps more of this candour is needed in science (and life).

Just this month, I had a paper rejected. I’ve previously shared the real story behind my publication on standardised soccer games that took seven years to be accepted.

Yet, Akerlof is not the only demonstration of a rejected paper that went on to fuel a Nobel Prize. There is a whole host of renowned work that was initially rejected, including the Krebs cycle, the polymerase chain reaction, and identification of the mechanism for the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). When you need a reminder of these, visit these posts on science alert or authorea!

Remember, behind every paper acceptance screenshot on Twitter, every new job announcement on LinkedIn, and every graduation picture on Instagram lies challenge, failure, and rejection.