Sunday, December 02, 2012

Publishing as a Craft

My post the other day created some pushback.

A former student here at Duke sent this response, mostly in agreement with my claims (not that my claims were original, either, by the way!)

Hi Mike, I wanted to send a quick note to say I appreciated your post today about difficult letters of recommendation, and what it takes to succeed in academia. As someone who is basically a parishioner in the Church of Munger, all I can say is "amen." (Also, as you wrote a letter for me I am sure I am one of the people who gave you fits as someone with promise but nothing to show for it yet. I probably still am). 

Please feel free to post or distribute these comments as you fit. Let stress some other reasons why sending out a lot of work--especially early in your career--is important. Net present value is a compelling argument. But, assume that people only care about doing good work and not about future earnings or even getting tenure. Writing a lot may be even more important for reasons unrelated to salary and tenure. You don't grow as a scholar if you are not working (normal family vacations aside). 

Main points after the jump...

1) Writing a good journal article is a craft. Unless you are uncommonly gifted, you probably can't write a good article even if you are an excellent young political scientist. Knowing how to frame an argument, how to present results, knowing what you don't need to include/present are all important skills. You only learn by doing, and by learning that reviewers, for the most part, are really smart and give good feedback. You need to write a lot so that you get more feedback from reviewers. And lots of reviewer feedback is terrible. But I can say without a moment's hesitation that many of my articles are significantly better because of outside reviewers. You need that feedback. And you get feedback from reviewers that you won't get from colleagues or an adviser. The sooner you learn, the sooner you can incorporate it in future projects.

Suppose that your lifetime acceptance rate is about 33% (or 1/3). It is almost certainly going to be lower early in your career. And I think it will be lower for three related but still distinct reasons. 

a) First, you may have a good paper that just isn't crafted well enough yet. I just reviewed an article for APSR that is trull great--except that it is twice as long as it needs to be with completely unnecessary stuff. On the first submission, I asked for dramatic cuts. When the revision came back without dramatic cuts, I actually printed the article, showed exactly how much could be cut, and scanned and uploaded these with my review. The article deserves to be published at APSR, but only if the authors listen to these comments (the editors' letter gave pretty clear guidance to the authors to follow my cuts). So, this is a clear example of not yet getting an acceptance for a deserving paper because of not yet knowing the craft. And, it could still get rejected (let me reiterate--it deserves to be published but changes are still necessary first).

b) The second reason one may have a higher early career rejection rate is working on projects that aren't very good. What started as a reasonable idea may not actually turn out to be a publishable paper. I recently reviewed a paper like this for AJPS. I am sure the authors are hard-working, smart, and well-intentioned. But the manuscript is not salvageable--the theory is unclear or possibly contradictory, the empirics don't test the underlying mechanism, and the data use observational data where experimental data is necessary. The sooner the authors realize that they need to put this paper in the file drawer, the better. I want them to succeed--and their success depends on moving to another paper.

c) The third reason one may have a higher rejection rate is sending articles to the wrong journals. Everybody wants "free" feedback from the Top 3 (even though costly in time), with the potential powerball jackpot of getting it accepted. Knowing where to send stuff is hard--you have to have a sense of the quality of your paper, the quality threshold for getting published at a specific journal, exactly what types of research each field journal publishes, and potentially the preferences/biases of editors that may affect your chances. All of these skills are developed over time.

So, early in your career you will probably get good ideas rejected because they are not yet good papers, bad ideas rejected because they will never be good papers (and you should thank reviewers for their tough love, see below), and good ideas that are good papers rejected because they just don't fit what the journal is doing. Over time, your acceptance rate goes up because you address these different problems. But, only if you are getting the rejections that allow you to update.  Message: Rejections are bad, but not getting info that allows you to update is worse.

2) Making revisions to an R&R is also a craft. Knowing how to craft a response to reviewers, both in a memo and in the text is also a skill. Reviewers make a lot of good suggestions, and some bad suggestions. The hardest comment to deal with is an excellent suggestion that takes a project in a fundamentally different direction. (See above re: recent APSR review.)

3) You need to get used to brutal feedback. Reviews mostly focus on what is wrong with an article. Even reviewers who like your work will write about what is wrong and needs to be changed. Get used to it, and learn to take it. [For the life of me, I don't understand how most of my colleagues deal with teaching evals. This is one place where we consistently get really positive feedback, especially compared to everything else we do, yet people focus on the one disgruntled student who writes something nasty rather than the rest who say wonderful things.] Also--if a reviewer doesn't understand something, there is a good chance that it is your fault as an author. Reviewers are probably reading your article way more closely than the average future reader will. If the reviewer doesn't understand, the person casually reading through almost certainly won't understand either. And the people most likely to read your work are probably grad students as they study for comps and start writing a dissertation. 

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