Categorizing and Ranking Graphs in the American Economic Review Over the Last Century

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Description: The American Economic Review (AER) is one of the most prestigious journals in the field of economics. First published in 1911, the journal has published articles covering every aspect and topic in the field. AER articles are not just in-depth prose; they might also include tables, diagrams, and graphs. In this paper I ask two primary questions: First, do most graphs in the AER use data or are they somc kind of diagram or illustration of a theory or concept? Second, what kinds of graphs—lines, bars, pies, etc.—do economists use to help visualize their arguments in the AER? And third, are those graphs of generally high quality? To help shed some light on those questions, I collect, catalog, and—using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform—rate every graph in the first volume of the AER from 1911 to 2017. I find that the share of graphs that use data fell over the first half of the century and then increased from about the early 1980s to today. I also find that economists use a lot of line charts—of the more than 2,600 graphs in total, more than 80% are line charts. Finally, I find a U-shaped curve in perceived graph quality, falling to a low in the early-1960s and rising over the past several decades, on average reaching a level only slightly higher than in the first issues. This research is the first step in understanding how economists use data visualization to communicate their work and can help provide a basis for effective strategies that will enable better communication of that work.

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