Home / General / The short answer to Yglesias’s question is “Yes.”

The short answer to Yglesias’s question is “Yes.”


But as I’m incapable of short answers, let me provide a slightly longer one. In this post, Yglesias shares his experience of having learned that

it’s not merely that taking time to help inform a non-specialist audience about political science findings isn’t specifically rewarded, it’s positively punished. And not simply in the sense that doing less research and more publicizing is punished; I was told that holding research output constant, getting more publicity for your output would be harmful to a junior scholar’s career because it would feed an assumption of non-seriousness.

That’s pretty nuts.

It is. I won’t speak for political science as a discipline, but I can speak to the problem as it exists in mine, which is English. The basic logic is that sharing work with the general public is a means of circumventing the “serious” peer review process, and as such is necessarily “unserious.” The problem with that explanation is that the peer review process is itself a monument to unseriousness:

There are numerous examples one could cite of plagiarism, or poor practice, that seem to slip right through the peer review process. Add to this the fact that many, if not most, journals are famous for vetting processes that are as slow as Cream of Wheat going down the kitchen drain. Graduate assistants and faculty editors who lose track of manuscripts; readers who are given six months to complete the review and have to be pushed to complete it anyway; and the capacious use of “revise and resubmit” rather than bluntly saying the article is poor and needs to be completely rewritten—all of these things and more are acknowledged problems with the academic publishing process that make many people reluctant to send work to journals.

The other downside to publishing exclusively in journals that live behind pay-walls is that, while the articles contained therein are totally serious, no one ever reads them. As my advisor once told me, if I want an idea to die, the best thing to do is publish it in a flagship journal. He wasn’t being serious, obviously, but neither was he being completely unserious. To paraphrase what I believe this fellow once told me, but which I can’t seem to locate, my discipline’s flagship journal is treated like issues of The New Yorker: they live next to the toilet or in a pile forever awaiting the day in which we have nothing else to read. It’s prestigious to be published in it, but it’s a means to be hired or promoted, not start a conversation.

It hasn’t always been this way—or, at the very least, we once made a concerted effort to appear otherwise—but as it currently stands, the choice is between being a “serious” scholar who engages no one or an “unserious” scholar whose work is read by many but, because of that, counts for nothing. I’m obviously not endorsing this model, nor am I saying it’s the same in all disciplines, as I would love to be in a discipline in which my work mattered on its merits rather than for what its publication wins me; however, for those invested in the system as it’s currently constituted, the idea of public engagement is understandably frightening. After all, if you’ve spent decades advancing up the tenure ladder by never being read, a situation in which your work might be read and evaluated could result in people judging—and determining whether you deserve—your ostensibly illustrious career.

Only, no. That’s the fear, but far from the reality. If you scroll through the many, many pages I tagged “dissertation,” what you see is a community of very useful people helping me develop my ideas on a daily basis. (Twenty-four comments about Edith Wharton’s understanding, or lack thereof, of heliocentrism? How is that not useful?) So, one of the reasons behind not sharing non-peer-reviewed work with the general public is simply misguided fear; the other is that its difficult to be gatekeepers when there’s no gate, even though the road to it and through it currently resembles a Chinese traffic jam.*

I’ve strayed a little far from Yglesias’s question, but I think a detour into the internal logic of academic publication is necessary to understand why its “serious” fruits must be kept in a closely guarded garden. There’s a lot more to be said about this, obviously, but given that Yglesias was identifying the nuttiness of the situation among political scientists, I think it’s best to stop before my reasoning becomes too discipline-specific. Accordingly, I’m interested in learning whether a similar situation obtains in other humanities disciplines, as I long ago learned that scientists and engineers actually read each others’ work.

*Am I the only one who sees that becoming a metaphor for something sooner rather than later?

[Edited to reflect the fact that it’s rude to call people you only think you know because you’ve been reading them for years by their first names.]

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