Thursday, May 19, 2005

Myths and Myth-sters

I wrote about publishing, and the work of being an academic.

Some of the questions that came up were about whether I was just a typical old fogey, everything-was-harder-then, "we had to walk barefoot two miles through snow to get to the interet" guy.

Some reactions to my earlier post:

Stephen Karlson
Paul Brewer
Chris Lawrence
Michelle Dion

Here are five myths, or what are in my opinion myths. They really are empirical questions. I give answers, but I haven't researched them closely.

Myth 1: There is no relationship between work and publishing record. It is all luck, connections, and mystical "ability"; either you have it or you don't.

Garbage. Any moron can write stuff and get it published. Many do. It may not be good, but at most universities that doesn't matter at all. The old saying is that "Deans can count, but they can't read." There are quite a few "major" universities that have social science departments that just attach weights by journal quality and pages published to figure out raises. But the modal number of citations of articles in Web of Science? 0, bagel, bupkes, nada. Publishing stuff just takes patience and hard, focused work. You just have to face the terrors of the blinking cursor, instead of eating muffins and reading the NYTimes on the pretext you have to stay informed.

Myth 2: It has gotten harder to get published.

Oh, please. If anything, it has gotten easier. The number of journals has increased much faster than the number of professors in American universities in the past two decades. The number of papers published per year has gone up dramatically.

Myth 3: Okay, but then it has gotten harder to get published in "top" journals.

Gag me. Sure, the acceptance rates at top journals has gone down, but there are two things to consider. (a) the quality of the papers published by the top journals has not gone up. If anything, they publish more junky, narrow schlock than ever before. If you talk to journal editors, they say they would love to get more good papers, even the kind of papers they expected routinely 5 years ago. It is just as likely, or even more likely, for a GOOD paper to get published now as it was 20 years ago. (b) relatedly, the papers sent out for review by junior people today are shockingly, apocalyptically bad. No attempt at lit reviews, worthless narrow data sets, cases selected on the dependent variable, no model of any kind, the wrong method. As grad students, everyone gets patted on the head for the sake of building self-esteem, and then when you have to go out into the big bad world people are MEAN to you. Boo hoo. I get papers to review that wouldn't get a B in one of my undergrad classes. My reaction is not friendly.

Myth 4: Boy, a what big dickhead you are, Kgrease! Surely it is true that it has gotten harder to publish in the top journals. There are just so many more people trying to publish in the "big three", or whatever you mean by "top" journals.

Yeah, that may be right. Here's the thing. Suppose it's true that people are working hard, and well, but that it has gotten harder to publish in the three top journals. What would you expect to see? You would see LOTS of publications in lesser journals, field journals, that sort of thing. And some junior faculty do exactly that. I will listen to those people. I disagree with them that it is harder than before, for the reasons above. But at least they are clearly working. I have heard SO MANY other excuses, and I am sick of them. "Journals are biased against conservatives, so there is no use writing journal articles." No, journals are biased against lazy whining half-wits who write crap, so you should just go kill yourself. Usually when I ask for evidence of the supposed bias, the biasee has not one instance of rejection. They just failed to try. Another example: Political theorists say it is impossible to publish in the APSR. But theorists in my department have published several papers in APSR in the last few years. The key is just not to suck.

Myth 5: Kgrease, you know so much, teach us what to do!

(Notice this is listed as a myth, and is therefore false. Read on at your peril)
Here are my rules:
(a) If you have five papers you have presented at conferences, but have not yet sent to journals, you ought to just abandon pretence and buy an inflatable doll. All you are doing is pleasuring yourself. You ain't working. Finishing is work. Starting a paper and having dinner with friends at conferences is fun, but not work. I specifically look at the ratio of conference papers to published papers on c.v.s I receive for junior people when we have a position. If the ratio is >3/1, I put them in the reject pile. In academics, like in every sport, finishing is what matters, and finishing is what so many people, even smart people, cannot do.
(b) Junior people should have three (3) papers being considered at journals at all times. If one gets rejected, turn it around immediately and get it back out there. A paper on your desk is rotting. A paper on a referee's desk, or editor's desk, is germinating. If a paper gets accepted, you need to send out another new paper immediately. Don't sleep until you do. Spend the time between hearing about papers from journals in writing new papers. Don't spend all your time checking your mail and dreaming of what might be. Nobody cares about the labor pains. They just want to see the freakin' baby.
(c) Every idiot has ideas. Lots of them are good. Not all of them turn into good papers. You can't tell until you work on them a long time. If an idea turns out to be not that great, write it up and send it right away to a second-tier journal. Fairly often, a referee will see something you didn't. Several of my publications in "top" journals started as fairly sucky papers sent to lesser journals, and got TURNED DOWN EVEN THERE, with useful referee reports.
(d) If you are publishing less than two papers a year, you are not working enough. If you are NEVER sending papers to top journals, you are not working deeply enough. And if you are hoping your department will promote you because of your shiny personality, you are in the wrong business. This is a tough business.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

"You just have to face the terrors of the blinking cursor, instead of eating muffins and reading the NYTimes on the pretext you have to stay informed."

Why are you attacking muffin eaters? You big meany!

Anonymous said...

I agree that no one cares if you have to work teaching summer school because your salary is low and you school won't be giving raises so they can hire a new football coach. But the flip side is that if your area of study is not "en vogue" you are unlikely to find funding. Americanist have a pipeline of cash flowing their way, it doesn't mean every Americanist will get tenure, but the opportunities to publish are not the same for all disciplines.

This is not whining, but simply pointing out a reality that should be part of the calculation when deciding what field to go into.

mungowits said...

Let's be careful.

TENURE may well be harder than it was before, particularly at top places.

Let me just come out and say it: If Duke had been stupid enough to hire me when I went on the market in 1984, the chances of me getting tenure at Duke would have been zero.

I was a unique combination of self-importance and ignorance, basically completely useless. After two years knocking around, I did learn some things. And my time with Mel Hinich at Texas taught me what it is like to be a scholar, and have real intellectual standards. My professors in grad school had tried desperately to do that, but I was just too stupid to listen.

So, (1) Tenure (as opposed to writing and publishing SOMETHING) may well have gotten harder, and (2) I myself would have been denied tenure, and rightly so, the first time around.

Anonymous said...

Point well taken, but I was under the assumption that the discussion concerning publishing revealed that it is the proxy for tenure. i.e: If you don't publish, no tenure. If its harder to publish, its harder to get tenure.

Now if the situation is actually one where publishing may not equate to tenure, then what does? And therefore, why publish? (other than the self-satisfaction of putting ideas out there, but there's a lot more lucrative professions that allow this).

mungowits said...

The difference is between tenure SOMEWHERE and at a "top" place, whatever that means.

Tenure at top places: harder than it was.

Tenure somewhere, because you worked hard and published: piece of cake.

I just have no sympathy for the people who publish NOTHING, because getting tenure is hard. That's a non sequitur.

J Hall said...

Thanks for the kick in the behind. Just polished off a paper and sent it off and started a new one.

HispanicPundit said...

I love it when you show your conservative side like this!!!

vegreville said...

Here is a paper with some data:
The slowdown of the economics publishing process

It argues that at least in economics, it is taking longer to get papers published. More and longer reviewing rounds and so on.

The paper is written by the an editor at Econometrica, one of the leading economics journals and published in Journal of Political Economy, one of the other top outlets.

I agree though with most of your post, though.