Journal Reform Wish List

I have been thinking recently about what changes I would like to see in the publication process in political science. There are good reasons to think that the entire system of journal publishing is broken, but that’s not what I mean. Rather, I am interested in more incremental changes that can be made, right now, in political science journals. These are changes which should promote interaction among scholars in print, decrease the incentives for always producing new research and increase the professional value works that evaluate existing theoretical and empirical claims, and might eliminate some artificial constraints on the production of good written work.

Outside of political science, most of the articles that I read are in the fields of economics, statistics, and the eclectic field-like thing called “Asian studies.” They have inspired three basic reforms that I have put on my journal reform wish list.

1. Word limit nonsense

My single greatest pet peeve is arbitrary limits on word or page length. I have spent countless hours trying to find 48 words to delete from a manuscript to get it under the 10,000 word limit, or trying to make bibliography entry lines extra long so that I get my total page length down to the 35 page max. My tricks are many: Did you know that even if are required to double space your footnotes, you can still single space the last footnote on a page, thereby reclaiming a line? No one ever notices this.

These limits are a holdover from days in which people actually read journals in physical format, so printing and mailing costs were very important and limits on submission length were necessary to keep costs down. I still receive journals in the mail, but I just pile them up and use the piles as bookends. I have no doubt that printing and postage still matter, but we must understand that these are 15th century concerns. There is no difference between a manuscript of 9,998 and 10,002 words. Artificial limits like this waste the author’s time and have no substantive or stylistic justification.

Of course, we want to avoid longwinded and wordy submissions, but we already have a technology for that: peer review! If a submission is too long but otherwise sound, make that an referee or editorial issue to be dealt with as part of the revision process. The idea that there is some number of words that indicates clear and concise, and above that hard limit the prose wordy and meandering, is patently absurd.

Is this feasible? Well, let’s look at how another discipline does it, one that is widely admired by political scientists: economics. There are five “top” economics journals, and three of them have no word or page limit on submissions.

American Economic Review, Econometrica

No limits
Journal of Political Economy, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Review of Economic Studies

If the Kyooj doesn’t have word limits, we don’t need them either.

2. Published comments and discussion

These show up from time to time in economics journals, and also sometimes in political science journals (see e.g. the discussion of fixed effect vector decomposition in Political Analysis), but they are even more common in statistics journals. For example, this piece by Imai, Tingley, and Yamamoto.

The difference between the Political Analysis comments and the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society A comments is clear. The PA commentary is essentially series of articles that correct errors in an earlier article. The JRSSA discussion is an occasion for different scholars who give their comments and reflections on the main points, the implications, and what we have learned from Imai et al.’s paper. Some are critical, and some are less so. But the point is not to correct an error, but rather to see how different scholars interpret the contribution. This has real value, and we don’t see enough of it in political science.

I should note that Perspectives on Politics does some of these comments-and-discussions things, such as the recent discussion of Tim Groseclose‘s Left Turn. I like these, but they ought to be common in all journals in the discipline, not relegated to a journal which was established specifically to allow this kind of format to exist. In the main journals in political science, comments are only of the “corrections” type. In fact, many journals will not review submissions that do not make a new theoretical or empirical contribution, so even “correction comments” are impossible.

3. Long review essays

Long book review essays are rare today. Short reviews appear in Perspectives on Politics, Political Science Quarterly, and others, and it used to be the case that you could find long review essays in journals like the American Political Science Review (for example, Tarrow on Putnam) and World Politics (see Almond on Berger). But it is now the common consensus now that book reviews—because they are not peer reviewed, and because they are so short—do not even count as publications. Review essays which undergo peer review, on the other hand, almost universally cover several books.

I’m not sure if the practice of writing long peer-reviewed essays on major books has disappeared because no one wants to write such essays, or because journals won’t publish them anymore, or won’t subject them to peer review. But I do know that in the humanities, and especially in disciplines like history which remain book fields, the practice of writing long, peer-reviewed reviews of major books has survived. And it produces incredible essays such as Victor Lieberman’s review of James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. It is a shame that this format has all but disappeared in most political science journals. Perhaps no one but Victor Lieberman could have read James Scott so carefully and with such a careful eye towards the argument and the evidence, and it does a great service to the rest of the discipline. Reading the essay helps to clarify what’s at stake in Scott’s argument and his treatment of Southeast Asian history, and raises important questions for anyone who wishes to pursue his themes.

My experience writing long review essays is limited (I have done precisely one). But that essay made a key theoretical point, and so long as books continue to be published in political science—and they will—we should give professional credit to long, serious, and peer-reviewed essays that strive to make similar theoretical contributions in response to recent scholarship. Even if they concentrate on just one major work. After all, that is the natural way to foster the rigorous and critical exchange that drives the discipline forward.

Lest I be accused of advocating something insufficiently social scientific, let me emphasize that even economists sometimes write such essays, like Edward Leamer‘s Tantalus on the Road to Asymptotia, a review of Angrist and Pischke‘s Mostly Harmless Econometrics. Whether or not we agree with the content of Leamer’s essay, the format is outstanding and political science should embrace it.

Comments 3

  1. Matthew Kocher July 24, 2013

    The word limit is a huge problem for qualitative/historical researchers. One way to handle this would be via desk rejection — editors can tell authors to come back with a shorter version before sending it off for review. I also completely agree about reviews. At this point, I see no good reason to write them and certainly no good reason to be the slightest bit critical.

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