Must-Read: George Akerlof (2001): Writing the "The Market for 'Lemons'": A Personal Interpretive Essay:
Rejections and Acceptance: By June of 1967 the paper was ready...
...and I sent it to The American Economic Review for publication. I was spending the academic year 1967-68 in India. Fairly shortly into my stay there, I received my first rejection letter from The American Economic Review. The editor explained that the Review did not publish papers on subjects of such triviality. In a case, perhaps, of life reproducing art, no referee reports were included.
Michael Farrell, an editor of The Review of Economic Studies, had visited Berkeley in 1966-67, and had urged me to submit "Lemons" to The Review, but he had also been quite explicit in giving no guarantees. I submitted "Lemons" there, which was again rejected on the grounds that the The Review did not publish papers on topics of such triviality.
The next rejection was more interesting. I sent "Lemons" to the Journal of Political Economy, which sent me two referee reports, carefully argued as to why I was incorrect. After all, eggs of different grades were sorted and sold (I do not believe that this is just my memory confusing it with my original perception of the egg-grader model), as were other agricultural commodities. If this paper was correct, then no goods could be traded (an exaggeration of the claims of the paper). Besides — and this was the killer — if this paper was correct, economics would be different.
I may have despaired, but I did not give up. I sent the paper off to the Quarterly Journal of Economics, where it was accepted.
I had had such a hard time getting this article published, that I was quite surprised, on a trip to England in the fall of 1973, to discover that, not only had it been read, but even with considerable enthusiasm. Since that time many scholars have fleshed out the implications of asymmetric information and its role in markets, especially Michael Spence and Joseph Stiglitz.
I close with three lessons that might be drawn from my tale. First, "Lemons" was much less of a break with the economics of the time than might otherwise be interpreted. It was the natural extension of the on-going intellectual activity at MIT. (I used the analogy of the Galapagan lizards advisedly.) Second, many people were tremendously generous at all stages, in the writing, editing, and refereeing of this paper, and also later, in exploring its further implications — thus illustrating the extraordinary commitment of academics in general, and of economists in particular, to seek truth and to advance knowledge. Finally, economics is a powerful tool, but like a microscope, it focuses attention on some aspects of reality (especially the role of prices in markets), while it also diverts attention from other aspects. The economists of the time felt that it would violate their methodology to consider a problem, such as the role of asymmetric information, that was out of its traditional focus. There are still important areas of economics that are all but uncharted because of this limited focus. It is consistent with this interpretation that Daniel Kahneman, a leader in changing the focus of economics and one of last year's prize winners, is not only a trained psychologist, but also, has special expertise in human optical illusion.