Improving scholarly journals — Part 2b

by Lee Sigelman on April 1, 2009 · 5 comments

in Political science

In response to my post, “Improving scholarly journals—Part 2a” and to the earlier posts linked therein, Steve Yoder (APSA factotum and political science doctoral student at the University of Maryland) writes:

These (and the other comments from your previous posts) are all good, but I think the problem lurking at the center is a misunderstanding of the purpose of the peer-review process by (mostly) junior scholars. Most junior scholars I know have little knowledge of the journal submission process, let alone knowledge of what level of quality a paper should have when it is submitted to a peer-reviewed journal.
This speaks to a larger problem, and one that I believe has not been touched upon, that of the socialization of new scholars into and within the discipline. Having toiled both for the APSA and as a graduate student, I’ve come to realize that a sense of civic duty to the profession is rare in the Association’s members (who amongst you has attended an APSA business meeting, for example?), and I wonder if it is lacking in other political science associations as well. I’m not entirely convinced that this is a new phenomenon; perhaps lack of a broad and interested public has plagued political science associations across generations, but leaders have always arisen regardless. The problem now may be one of sheer numbers. Have the number of scholars submitting to our journals outgrown the number of willing reviewers?
In relation to socialization into the discipline, I’m not sure that most graduate students nor most junior faculty are necessarily to blame; I just don’t know that they received any training in what was expected from them in terms of professional service from their departments or from the associations. Graduate students are urged to publish, but given very few insights into what that might entail, and they are urged to review, but given no examples of what a helpful review looks like. It is little wonder that Lee must serve as grand wizard in debunking junior faculties’ publishing misconceptions at APSA’s publishing workshops every annual meeting. Sadly, this missive serves as notice rather than solution. What means beyond the sink-or-swim method inculcated these professional duties into previous generations of scholars?

Comments?

{ 5 comments }

Matt Jarvis April 1, 2009 at 1:42 pm

I’m not sure.

On the one hand, I could see this phenomenon and see its cause in graduate school increasingly becoming about the tools and less about the practice of research.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that we lack civic duty, but that few people see APSA (or ANY) business meetings as part of civic duty. Let’s be honest: most meetings are rather dull, pedestrian affairs that often don’t require most people’s presence. I’m on the Academic Senate, I serve on CSU’s social science research board, and I’ve gone to a couple of section meetings at APSA before, and much of the proceedings at most of these things are taken up with necessary but truly uninteresting events.

Also, while Steve is right on point that nobody serves to socialize young scholars into reviewing (and I would include discussant tasks at conferences here), we ARE given examples of what is publishable every issue. That journals get unpublishable works every day seems to me driven a lot more by the fact that our profession (from tenure to moving on to new jobs) seems a lot more interested in the length and “weight” of the CV than on how good a scholar the person actually is. Now, some of that is driven by “accountability,” in that it is easier to justify to a Dean that somebody is a good hire because they have published X articles in Y top journals than to say “they’re smart, trust us.” But, some of it is driven by uncertainty and is inherent. When hiring someone, you know that you are NOT sure how good they are (outside of huge names, but let’s treat them as a special case). However, a journal article serves as confirmation of their abilities, as unknown people said they produced good work. Thus, any junior scholar would be doing a MAJOR disservice to themselves if they did not “work the ladder” and try to get their work published at the best possible level of journal. It’s not that they don’t know the article isn’t APSR-worthy; it’s that they HOPE it gets accepted, because such a feather in their cap means real increases in pay and job opportunities.

However, this brings me back to Steve’s questioning whether its our preparation that has failed us junior scholars. I would say possibly, but that doesn’t explain how someone is a poor discussant or reviewer after a few years at this: we’ve all seen examples of good reviews of our work and good discussants on a panel. Yet, few seem to have taken the examples to heart. What I can’t comment on is whether reviewers were always as nasty or discussants as focused on trashing a method versus giving helpful suggestions and evoking a DISCUSSION amongst the panel. If that’s always been the case, then that suggests that socialization isn’t the problem. If it hasn’t, I’m more inclined to believe in larger social forces than our profession having fallen down independently.

Ben Clark April 1, 2009 at 3:29 pm

I think it depends on your institution and your mentors. I feel like my mentors have given my the socialization necessary to help my discipline, but others in my program are (perhaps) lacking. I think it is a combination of the individual and the institution, but in the end it seems highly heterogeneous.

Jim Johnson April 1, 2009 at 10:51 pm

Steve is right that most junior folks are clueless re: the publishing process. But they have lots of opportunities to learn. And largely they do not avail themselves of the opportunity. Virtually every major conference has a “Meet the Editors” panel. I just did one a WPSA and there were no more than 10 in the audience. The same thing happened last year at WPSA. I have also done these at APSA and Midwest with larger audiences. And I have done them at ICPSR every summer for five years at least, as well as at individual departments (ee.g., UOregon, UFlorida).

I know there is at least one journal editor at Maryland, why not have organize an informal talk by the in residence editor? I do not mean to pick on Steve, this is something that nearly any department could do. Students could ask that it be built in as a sideshow to the regular speaker series wherever they are in school. Pretty much every editor I know would be happy to do such a session.

I am certain that this is a problem that results from faculty not taking the matter seriously, but students should ‘demand’ (politely of course, given departmental politics) such things as part of their training.

JJ

Jeff Lazarus April 3, 2009 at 8:40 am

The best class I ever took at grad school was run by Mat McCubbins when he was editor of JLEO. Every week we read a submission to the Journal, and we spent the seminar time discussing its strengths and weaknesses as if we were editors. Then, one of us would be assigned to write a review, which would be sent along to the author along with the normal reviews. This class opened my eyes to both the technicalities of review process and what’s necessary to be a constructive reviewer.

But most important, it was also a great opportunity to see how the sausage is made when it comes to constructing a research project. One of the shortcomings of the way graduate sections are organized is that students only read the best of the political science literature, articles and books whose intellectual value is self-evident. There are good pedagogical reasons for this, but it gives grad students a biased view of what research looks like. I think it gives the impression that phenomenal research ideas just spring forth from the minds of scholars fully-formed, and that they do so pretty often. What’s lost is a good sense of how to get from point A (research question) to point B (published article). Though students are told to get out and publish, they’re not really given a road map of how to do it. Most are just left to figure it out for themselves.

I think that if more grad students were exposed to less-lofty and/or less-polished work on a regular basis, they would get a better sense what the points in between A and B look like and the purpose they serve. This includes the points which are located within the review process.

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