Monday, May 29, 2006

Co-authors of Wealth of Nations?

The New Economist Blog (28 May) comments on a piece by Greg Mankiw: “why are co-authors so important?”

Why are co-authors so important for the way I work? One reason is found in Adam Smith's famous story of the pin factory. Smith observed that the pin factory was so productive because it allowed workers to specialize. Research is no different--it is just another form of production. Doing research takes various skills: identifying questions, developing models, providing theorems, finding data, expositing results. Because few economists excel at all these tasks, collaborating authors can together do things that each author could not do as easily on his own. In manufacturing knowledge, as in manufacturing pins, specialization raises productivity. (The puzzle is why Adam Smith chose to ignore his own analysis and write The Wealth of Nations without the benefit of a co-author.)

I posted the following comment on New Economist Blog: (

"The puzzle is why Adam Smith chose to ignore his own analysis and write The Wealth of Nations without the benefit of a co-author.)"

Research is slightly different from writing a report of a 12 year inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. In academic research you are usually working on original data to add to the knowledge base. Here a division of labour between the authors has the advantages you identified.

Smith was working with many 'co-authors' through his use of their earlier works in the forms of the books and pamphlets they wrote and published. Each provided a piece of knowledge that Smith used to mine the knowledge base for the data he needed to develop his own work.
Wealth of Nations contains the work of many scores of other authors. Smith did not invent, discover or create the works he used to arrive at his own conclusions. No work of such a scale is the undivided labour of one author.

In a research project, which by design are narrow, limited and non-enclydopedic, the small team of authors, each a specialist in a part if not the whole, there is an active division of labour; in Wealth of Nations the division of labour is passive (many of the authors Smith drew upon were dead, including the hundreds of references to the writings of classical Rome and Greece).

A research team too, uses the labours of passive particpants - its mandatory literature review, for example.Hence there is no 'puzzle' about Smith and his lone authorship. Indeed, some (Schumpeter, Rothbard and Rashid) accuse Smith of plagiarism, an unfair and misleading accusation in my view.


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