The Endless Research Timeline
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
This week, we’re talking about the conditions of producing knowledge—specifically, how long it takes articles to be published.
The Endless Research Timeline
This newsletter is, officially, weekly or at least mostly weekly, but it’s been a while since I wrote you (and welcome to all the new readers). The reason is simple: I’d been anticipating that the next issue of the newsletter would discuss an article that I am proud of, letting you (as readers) see some interesting findings about cybersecurity and alliance dynamics and me (as an author) gain some free publicity.
You’ll still get to see that article, or at least I hope you will, but you’re getting something different today. One of my Twitter mutuals described part of my online presence on that site as talking about being a professor as a job, not a calling, and that’s a pretty good summation of how I feel about this gig. In the spirit of further disenchanting people about the process, let me share some notes about why I still can’t share this research with you. This is a story about why the ordinary delays of publishing means that an exciting, policy-relevant, and empirically rich paper about how the U.S. public views its commitments to NATO allies against Russian cyberattacks still hasn’t been published. It is not an exciting story—there are no villains, only a thousand little delays—but it is a story that matters.
The coin of the realm in academic promotion is publications. The style of publications that count most varies by field, but in general publications in peer-reviewed journal articles are a standard currency. Some journals are more prestigious and some are so poorly regarded you’re better off not publishing in them, but once a piece is published in a journal that is peer-reviewed it’s available to be put on CVs, annual reports, and citation metrics. (After that, you can begin to amass academic capital in different ways—cites, “buzz”, and so on. For most of us at workaday research schools, though, we aren’t going for a Nobel or a Fields or a chair at Harvard, and just having the vitae line is enough.)
Publication can take a long time. The peer review part of peer-reviewing can itself be difficult, not least because editors of journals have to find reviewers—and for many reasons, that process is in a state of collapse. Inside Higher Ed caught some flack from the adjunct caucus by observing that the status of humanities infrastructure like peer review is crumbling, but the basic point is unobjectionable: it takes longer than it used to for reviewers to agree to look at something and send in their comments. For political scientists, these delays hit extra hard because we are not a field in which peer review is speedy. In some fields, reviews are expected within a few, or even a couple, of weeks; in political science, the timeline is measured in months (although, to be fair, our articles are also longer than many STEM publications). It’s not uncommon for a first round of reviews to last three months; indeed, that’s about when I’d send an email to an editor asking if the piece was, in fact, still being actively reviewed. Since most pieces will require two rounds of review (initial plus revised), it’s more or less a minimum of six months from submission to acceptance even when the outcome is favorable (and it isn’t often favorable, meaning that there’s rounds of reviews followed by rejection before a piece finds a home).
This may explain why one of the more common reactions that working academics have to their research isn’t one of exhilaration but of grim resignation—or, on a more cheerful note, simple gray acceptance of the grind of submission, re-submission, and revision. The thrill of discovery and explanation occurs in the analysis and writing phase, but that’s maybe a quarter of the total process. Mostly, putting out articles is about enduring rounds of rejection and putting in rounds of revision, a process that is not designed to make an article endear itself to you.
Last year, a talented undergraduate thesis student and I set out to turn her thesis, which I advised, into an article for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. (We’d agreed to this as a step when she became my advisee.) The idea was good—and hers: what do NATO alliance guarantees mean for cybersecurity? This was a timely and urgent topic, since in 2020 (when the process began) tensions were heating up between Russia and the West but had not yet broken out into semi-open hostilities. Under my guidance, she designed, and then I fielded on her behalf, experiments that she analyzed. After she defended, I revised the paper and quantitative analysis.
The paper checked (and checks) all my boxes: it’s focused on causal inference, it tackles an interesting question (the NATO treaty only mentions “armed attack”, so why would anyone expect it to cover Russian cyber attacks?), and, at the time, it was not only timely but ahead of its time. I was really happy with it and extremely pleased that I could do the work as part of my mentorship of students.
The initial manuscript submission was made in June 2021. Reviews (and a rejection) came back speedily, in August of that year. Reviewers suggested some revisions, including additional experiments, which I designed and ran that November. In January, I submitted the revised manuscript to a new journal. About two and a half months later, I opened an email with good news—a revise and resubmit decision. (This means that a journal likes the piece, on the basis of the reviews, and is willing to entertain it further, but that more work, often substantially more work, is needed before they will make a full decision on acceptance or rejection.) This time, no new experiments were needed, and the revised manuscript was sent back about three weeks later. It then took two months for the process to work again—good news! Acceptance!
(I want to stress that this was, in retrospect, fast and smooth work by the editorial team, the academics who manage the journal where it will come out.)
That was in June. There are two frustrating points about this. Since then, the piece has been in production limbo. It is now 118 days since the acceptance letter. I received the proofs earlier this month and returned the copy-edited proofs within days. Publication is imminent, and so almost every morning, I wake up and check the journal website to see if I can talk about our findings—about how and how much the U.S. public values security commitments to allies and important countries in cyberspace. This is timely and important stuff, and I like to think that if it had been published or shared earlier, it might have even made some contribution to the NATO expansion debates.
Which brings me to the second point. The ordinary delays of research have not been great for the piece. It’s still pretty important but it’s no longer quite as timely as it would have been had it been shared before NATO expansion. And I could have put up a preprint—but doing so would have meant jeopardizing peer-reviewed publication, which, as a pretenure scholar, I’m just not able to do. I could have shared the piece after acceptance, and had I known it would have been (at least) four months from acceptance to (still far not) publication, I would have done that, too. But doing so also means screwing up the citations and other metrics for the article itself, and under normal delays (a couple of weeks or a month) the tradeoff isn’t quite worth it.
These delays are entirely the publisher’s responsibility, not the editorial team’s. (In fact, at this journal, I’m told the editorial team no longer has input or control over the publication queue.) The cost of the delays has been modestly significant to me: my tenure file went out with a piece marked as “accepted” rather than “published”, I can’t claim credit for it on my annual review (although thanks to a short-sighted governor, we don’t have merit pay anyhow), and, most of all, I couldn’t share my policy-relevant findings with the public during a time in which they would have been most policy relevant. The problem there, at least idealistically, is for the public, because my incentives (publish in peer-reviewed journals) are not aligned with theirs (have relevant research accessible)—at least in the short term. (In the long term, the system may produce more research than otherwise. May.)
If the academics in your life seem a little ground down by this process, this sort of story is why. It’s not a question of “publish or perish”; under ordinary effort (in the baseball sense of the term), in most fields, folks who get tenure-track jobs should be able to publish. Rather, it’s a question of how frustrating the process is and whether any of it matters. Academia isn’t set up to recognize and promote ideas, much less to ensure that ideas are received when they’ll have the most impact; it’s a rhetorical forum designed to reject ideas that don’t measure up, until they do. This has benefits, but it also kinda sucks when you’re going through the meat grinder—or even just waiting for the sausage to be made.
Zachariah Mampilly, “The Du Bois Doctrine”, Foreign Affairs ($)
“Du Bois is rightly still venerated for his work on civil rights. But the erasure of his contributions to debates on U.S. foreign policy and international order represents an enormous loss. By discarding him, the American foreign policy establishment robbed itself of one of the twentieth century’s most perceptive and prescient critics of capitalism and imperialism. His now forgotten texts on world politics prefigured many of the ideas that later shaped international relations theory. They brim with insights on the importance of race, the effect of domestic politics on foreign policy, the limits of liberal institutions, and the relationship between political economy and world order. Revisiting them today reveals how racism marred the dawn of the so-called American century and the liberal internationalism that drove it—and the role of establishment institutions (including this magazine) in that history. And because many of the ills that Du Bois diagnosed in the imperial and Cold War orders persist in today’s putatively liberal international order, rediscovering his work serves more than a purely historical purpose. A better order demands a more complete reckoning, and restoring Du Bois’s rightful place in the international relations canon would be a step toward that goal.”
Eli Saslow, “An American Education”, The Washington Post ($)
“She’d sent recruiters to hiring fairs across the state, but they had come back without a single lead. She’d advertised on college campuses and at job fairs across the country and eventually come up with a half-dozen qualified applicants for 42 openings. “Basically, we need bodies at this point,” she’d told her school board, and they’d agreed to hire 20 foreign teachers with master’s degrees to move from the Philippines to the desert of rural Arizona.”
Andrew Latham, “The Medieval State”, Medievalists.Net
“the medieval kingdom controlled subordinate political units indirectly through intermediaries who continued to exercise significant autonomy. To the considerable extent that this applied to war-making affairs, medieval kingdoms can thus be said to have controlled or coordinated, but manifestly not to have monopolized, the means of violence. Nor, obviously, did they exercise sovereignty in a uniform manner; the agglomerative process produced composite states ranging from fairly unitary kingdoms containing a small number of “liberties”, to federations held together by uniform contracts between central and subordinate polities, to empires (including the Holy Roman Empire) in which center and periphery were bound by a variety of types political arrangements.”
Arthur Spirling, “Rejection” "
“What people mean by [it isn’t personal] is that the referees and editors don’t dislike you personally, and are not making their decisions on that basis. The problem, of course, is that this is bullshit. First, your work—on which you might spend years just getting the data—is, in fact, very personal. You are the person most associated with this idea or technique or data. So a referee rejecting a paper focussed on that idea or technique or data certainly feels personal. Personal to you, in particular. But second, this sort of comment implicitly assumes that publishing, and success more generally, is not about anything other than the merits of one’s work. And this is so obviously false that as a poorly-networked junior professor I found it almost insulting … .”