Tag: peer review (page 2 of 2)

Dear Professor Rathbun….

Friends, Unfortunately I recently received this rejection letter from Political Science Job Rumors for my recent post, Stuff Political Scientists Like #5. Apparently they do not actually like this. I thought I would share it with you.


Dear Professor Rathbun,

We are writing to inform you that unfortunately we cannot recommend your recent submission on the Duck of Minerva, “Stuff Political Scientists Like #5: a Large-N, for cross-listing on our website. While some of the reviewers found positive things to say about the piece, the overwhelmingly negative nature of the other reviews means that we cannot accept it. As you know, Political Science Job Rumors receives hundred of submissions every day and can only publish the very best 99%. We have a rigorous blind review process in which not only you, but also we, have no earthly idea who the reviewers are. We find this to be the best way to ensure the highest standards of academic discourse and debate are met. This article clearly does not meet the bar of political science satire set by…. well, we can’t think of anyone, but you still suck. We are the TMZ of the discipline, and we take that role very, very seriously.

A number of our reviewers found merit in the post. One anonymous reviewer wrote, “it’s damn good satire.” “Agreed! I think it’s hilarious!” wrote another. However, others wrote that your piece was “cringeworthy,” “not good satire,” and”pathetic trash.” The reviewers engaged in a vigorous and spirited back and forth attempting to convince each other of the humor in your piece or its lack thereof on the basis of carefully considered arguments about what constitutes a good joke. After careful deliberation we are more inclined to agree with your detractors.

If you should choose to revise this piece for another website, we suggest that you take some of these criticisms to heart, particularly to first “have some fun with real girls.” You should also stop being such a hack. One of our reviewers dislikes your use of “observational humor.” Please see the work of Bania, Kenny (1997) for insights.

However, the editors of PSJR would like to give you some professional advice. It is clear from your post that you have aspirations to do this professionally, but we could caution you against this. Your work cannot compare to other PSJR classics such as “f%k your butt” and “OP is a racist.” We believe you should think twice about posting any free satire that no one is forced to read or laugh at in a vain effort to make anyone smile. Our advice would be to return to your original field of the partisan politics of foreign policy decision-making. You seem to have found a nice little niche there where you do not bother anyone.

We wish you the best of luck in your future comedic endeavors and please consider us as an outlet for your future work.


PoliSci Guy


Against Esoteric Readings of Neoconservatvism, or Always Check the Footnotes

I’m currently working on a few difference pieces that deal with the relationship between liberalism and empire. I also, as long-team readers of the Duck know, consider neoconservative understandings of international politics as a variant of liberalism that constitutes a specific flavor of the US commitment to democratic enlargement as transformative of international politics. Neoconservatives reject the idea that international institutions, at least as currently configured, and US self-restraint pacify global politics; their liberalism is strongly inflected by particular currents of American nationalist exceptionalism.

Most published international-relations scholarship concurs with this assessment, thus I read with great interest Jonathan D. Caverley’s “Power and Democratic Weakness: Neoconservatism and Neoclassical Realism” which appeared in Millennium: Journal of International Studies (May 2010, pp. 593-614) [earlier, but ungated, version]. Here’s the abstract:

While realists and neoconservatives generally disagreed on the Iraq invasion of 2003, nothing inherent in either approach to foreign policy accounts for this. Neoconservatism’s enthusiasm for democratisation would appear to distinguish the two but its rejection of all other liberal mechanisms in world politics suggests that the logic linking democracy and American security shares little with liberalism. Inspecting the range of neoconservative thought reveals a unifying theme: the enervating effects of democracy on state power and the will to wield it in a dangerous world. Consequently, the United States enjoys greater safety among other democracies due to a more favourable distribution of relative power. Viewing regime type through the prism of state power extraction in a competitive, anarchic world puts neoconservatism squarely in the neoclassical realist camp. The article concludes by suggesting why the rest of International Relations should care about this new ‘neo–neo’ debate.

Caverley contends, in consequence, that we should see neoconservativism as a form of neoclassical realism. After all, neoconservatives see anarchy as characterized by unforgiving power-political competition and worry that the domestic politics of liberal states render them vulnerable to authoritarian and totalitarian rivals. They recommend civic virtue and strong political leadership — along the lines of Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” — as an antidote.

This combination looks, as Caverley argues, rather similar to Gideon Rose’s description of neoclassical realism as holding that

The scope and ambition of a country’s foreign policy is driven first and foremost by the country’s relative material power. Yet it contends that the impact of power capabilities on foreign policy is indirect and complex, because systemic pressures must be translated through intervening unit-level variables such as decision-makers’ perceptions and state structure.

While most of Caverley’s claims are well-rehearsed in the “how to make sense of neoconservative foreign policy” debate, I’ve never before seen his argument that neoconservatives support democratizing other countries as a way of making them weaker. It turns out there’s a good reason for that: they don’t make any such claim.

Before I explain how Caverley’s arguments combine esoteric readings of neoconservative texts with both invocation of non-existant arguments and quotations taken plainly out of context, I should touch upon a set of even more basic problems with Caverley’s claim that neoconservativism isn’t liberalism. The crux of Caverley’s reasoning looks like this:

G. John Ikenberry identifies six ‘big ideas’ shared by Wilsonianism and modern liberalism. The first four cover various paths to peace: democracy, free trade, international law and international bodies, and collective security. The final two are a progressive optimism about modernity coupled with the need for American global leadership as a ‘moral agent’. Neoconservatism clearly accepts both the importance of democracy as an American national interest and of American moral global leadership, but explicitly rejects the remaining four points of liberalism/Wilsonianism [emphasis original].

First, liberalism, of course, is not identical to Wilsonianism; liberal internationalism represents only one of many ways of translating liberalism into grand strategy. In the United States, liberal principles have undergird foreign-policy approaches ranging from a complete rejection of foreign “entanglements” to the establishing of formal empire.

Second, it is a bit silly to say that neoconservativism isn’t liberal because it overlaps with neoclassical realism. Neoclassical realism is a somewhat amorphous container for some pretty heterogeneous scholarly theories; in consequence, it provides a poor benchmark for assessing non-scholarly debates about the proper guiding principles for American foreign policy.

Third, the Hobbes-Locke debate over the relative unpleasantness of the state of the nature–which Hobbes distinguishes from the texture of relations between sovereign states–is an intra-liberal debate about the parameters of the social contract. Liberals can disagree about whether institutions such as the League or the United Nations are sufficiently robust to mitigate anarchy, let alone whether concessions of sovereignty necessary to create such institutions would be worth the consequent threat to domestic freedom and self-determination in liberal democracies.

Indeed, it isn’t difficult to understand why neconservative praxis is incompatible with realism:

  • It holds that relations among democracies are fundamentally different than those among democracies and non-democracies;
  • It holds that global politics should be understood as an ideological struggle between the forces of freedom and their antagonists; and
  • It sees no contradiction between the pursuit of liberal values, at least properly understood, and national interests.

Although specific academics who call themselves realists might accept one or more of these propositions, none are “realist” in any meaningful sense. No realist would, as many neoconservatives have, advocate a “League of Democracies” as a superior alternative to the United Nations.

Consider Caverley’s discussion of the neoconservative rejection of “liberal, transnational norms.” Caverley quotes Krauthammer as writing that “moral suasion is a farce,” but here’s what Krauthammer writes:

Moral suasion? Was it moral suasion that made Qaddafi see the wisdom of giving up his weapons of mass destruction? Or Iran agree for the first time to spot nuclear inspections? It was the suasion of the bayonet. It was the ignominious fall of Saddam–and the desire of interested spectators not to be next on the list. The whole point of this treaty was to keep rogue states from developing chemical weapons. Rogue states are, by definition, impervious to moral suasion.

Moral suasion is a farce. Why then this obsession with conventions, protocols, legalisms? Their obvious net effect is to temper American power. Who, after all, was really going to be most constrained by these treaties? The ABM amendments were aimed squarely at American advances and strategic defenses, not at Russia, which lags hopelessly behind. The Kyoto Protocol exempted India and China. The nuclear test ban would have seriously degraded the American nuclear arsenal. And the landmine treaty (which the Clinton administration spent months negotiating but, in the end, met so much Pentagon resistance that even Clinton could not initial it) would have had a devastating impact on U.S. conventional forces, particularly at the DMZ in Korea.

This is pretty par for the course in terms of US nationalist exceptionalism: bad regimes don’t care about their image in the “international community,” the US needs strength to pursue liberal ends, treaties with autocratic rivals only weaken US power, etc. Similarly, Caverley quotes Robert Kagan, who writes in “End of Dreams, Return of History” that “there is little sense of shared morality and common political principle among the great powers.” But Kagan’s piece, with a title rebutting Francis Fukuyama’s claim that great ideological struggles are over, is a call for the US to recognize the new authoritarian threat to liberalism. And here’s the full context:

Today there is little sense of shared morality and common political principle among the great powers. Quite the contrary: There is suspicion, growing hostility, and the well-grounded view on the part of the autocracies that the democracies, whatever they say, would welcome their overthrow. Any concert among them would be built on a shaky foundation likely to collapse at the first serious test.

American foreign policy should be attuned to these ideological distinctions and recognize their relevance to the most important strategic questions. It is folly to expect China to help undermine a brutal regime in Khartoum or to be surprised if Russia rattles its saber at pro-Western democratic governments near its borders. There will be a tendency toward solidarity among the world ’s autocracies, as well as among the world’s democracies.

For all these reasons, the United States should pursue policies designed both to promote democracy and to strengthen cooperation among the democracies. It should join with other democracies to erect new international institutions that both reflect and enhance their shared principles and goals. One possibility might be to establish a global concert or league of democratic states, perhaps informally at first but with the aim of holding regular meetings and consultations on the issues of the day. Such an institution could bring together Asian nations such as Japan, Australia, and India with the European nations — two sets of democracies that have comparatively little to do with each other outside the realms of trade and finance. The institution would complement, not replace, the United Nations, the g-8, and other global forums. But it would at the very least signal a commitment to the democratic idea, and in time it could become a means of pooling the resources of democratic nations to address a number of issues that cannot be addressed at the United Nations. If successful, it could come to be an organization capable of bestowing legitimacy on actions that liberal nations deem necessary but autocratic nations refuse to countenance — as nato conferred legitimacy on the conflict in Kosovo even though Russia was opposed.

Given such overwhelming evidence against neoconservativism’s illiberalism, much depends on Caverley’s claim that neoconservatives favor liberal enlargement as a way of weakening rivals by saddling them with democratic institutions. As I’ve alluded to already, some of this argument depends (fittingly enough) on a Straussian-style esoteric reading of neoconservative writings. Neoconservatives worry about the erosion of republican values in modern liberal polities. They advocate strong leadership and “new nationalism”-style programs to counter this tendency. They consider Europe as a cautionary example for the United States. But to read their various worries and exhortations as containing a hidden message that Washington should spread democracy for instrumental purposes–to enfeeble rivals–is, as one of my professors once noted of Straussian esoteric readings, “fascinating, ingenious, and totally wrong.”

How wrong it is becomes clear when Caverley moves beyond esoteric inference and claims to cite neoconservatives making this argument.

Fukuyama observes that the advocates of trans- forming Iraq into a Western-style democracy are the same people who question the ‘dangers of ambitious social engineering’. This apparent paradox becomes coherent given this idea of democratic enfeeblement. Kirkpatrick points out that because totalitarian states are inherently more threatening, the United States should focus its democratisation efforts there. Her famous essay does not criticise neoconservative enthusiasm for democratisation so much as connect it to a grand strategic logic. Because of the military advantage enjoyed by non-democracies, a United States interested in self-preservation should aggressively spread this cost aversion Muravchik succinctly states the core (and inherently power political) logic: ‘The spread of democracy offers an important, peaceful way to weaken our foe.

But by this logic would not other regime types attempt to spread democracy, preferring to be the only autocrat in a world of Kantian peaceniks? Kagan and others address this question by claiming that the existence and success of democracies is inherently threatening to the stability of authoritarian regimes. This autocratic support (perhaps unlike democracy) is not based in ideological affinity but on self-preservation and the desire to maximise power. Moreover, autocrats:

see their comparative advantage over the West when it comes to gaining influence with African, Asian or Latin American governments that can provide access to oil and other vital natural resources or that, in the case of Burma, are strategically located.

Why am I so dismissive of all of this? It seemed odd to me, so I checked the footnotes.

Kirkpatrick nowhere in “Dictatorships and Double Standards” argues that the US should focus democratization efforts on totalitarian states because they are “inherently more threatening” (at least in the sense Caverley implies). She argues that, in the struggle against communist totalitarianism, the US should support friendly anti-communist authoritarians as both, whatever their flaws, morally superior and more amenable to subsequent democratization than totalitarian regimes. The Carter Administration, as well as the American left, both weakens US interests and the cause of democratic liberalism insofar as its weakens its autocratic allies in favor of self-styled liberation movements. As she concludes:

For these reasons and more, a posture of continuous self-abasement and apology vis-a-vis the Third World is neither morally necessary nor politically appropriate. No more is it necessary or appropriate to support vocal enemies of the United States because they invoke the rhetoric of popular liberation. It is not even necessary or appropriate for our leaders to forswear unilaterally the use of military force to counter military force. Liberal idealism need not be identical with masochism, and need not be incompatible with the defense of freedom and the national interest.

Caverley’s ‘smoking gun’ quotation from Muravchik, moreover, is completely out of context. When Muravchik argues that “The spread of demcoracy offers an important, peaceful way to weaken our foe” he has a specific foe in mind: militant jihadism. As Muravchik notes earlier in the article:

what is undeniable is that Bush’s declaration of war against terrorism did bear the earmarks of neoconservatism. One can count the ways. It was moralistic, accompanied by descriptions of the enemy as “evil” and strong assertions of America’s righteousness. As Norman Podhoretz puts it in his powerful new book Bush offered “an entirely unapologetic assertion of the need for and the possibility of moral judgment in the realm of world affairs.” In contrast to the suggestion of many, especially many Europeans, that America had somehow provoked the attacks, Bush held that what the terrorists hated was our virtues, and in particular our freedom. His approach was internationalist: it treated the whole globe as the battlefield, and sought to confront the enemy far from our own doorstep. It entailed the prodigious use of force. And, for the non-military side of the strategy, Bush adopted the idea of promoting democracy in the Middle East in the hope that this would drain the fever swamps that bred terrorists [emphasis added].

That’s right: Moravchik’s argument has zilch to do with Caverley’s “democratic enfeeblement” hypothesis. Rather, it amounts to a fairly standard neoconservative claim that democratization weakens radical Islamism.

There’s something perverse about using an out-of-context quotation from this particualr Muravchik piece. Here’s what Muravchik has to say about neoconservativism in the early pages of his article:

The term “neoconservative” was coined in the 1970’s as an anathema. It was intended to stigmatize a group of liberal intellectuals who had lately parted ways with the majority of their fellows.

As a heretical offshoot of liberalism, neoconservatism appealed to the same values and even many of the same goals—like, for example, peace and racial equality. But neoconservatives argued that liberal policies—for example, disarmament in the pursuit of peace, or affirmative action in the pursuit of racial equality—undermined those goals rather than advancing them. In short order, the heretics established themselves as contemporary liberalism’s most formidable foes.

Two distinct currents fed the stream of neoconservatism. One focused on domestic issues, specifically by reexamining the Great Society programs of the 1960’s and the welfare state as a whole. It was centered in the Public Interest, a quarterly founded and edited by Irving Kristol. The other focused on international issues and the cold war; it was centered in COMMENTARY and led by the magazine’s editor, Norman Podhoretz.

The former current has little if any relevance to the controversy surrounding neoconservatism today. Much of the domestic-policy critique mounted by neoconservatives eventually became common wisdom, symbolized by President Bill Clinton’s welfare-reform program and his declaration that “the era of big government is over.” In the meantime, several of the seminal figures of the domestic wing—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer—drifted back toward liberalism.

It was the foreign-policy wing that was, all along, more passionately embroiled in ideological disputation.1 For one thing, the stakes were higher. If a domestic policy fails, you can try another. If a foreign policy fails, you may find yourself at war. Also, the battles that rived the Democratic party in the 1970’s, at a time when virtually all neoconservatives were still Democrats, principally concerned foreign affairs. These battles sharpened ideological talons on all sides.

The divisions stemmed from the Vietnam war. Not that all neoconservatives were hawks on this particular issue; some, including Podhoretz, were (qualified) doves. But when opponents of the war went from arguing that it was a failed instance of an essentially correct policy—namely, resisting Communist expansionism—to contending that it was a symptom of a deep American sickness, neoconservatives answered back. Whatever problems we may have made for ourselves in Vietnam, they said, the origins of the conflict were to be found neither in American imperialism nor in what President Jimmy Carter would call our “inordinate fear of Communism,” but in Communism’s lust to dominate.

Contrary to Carter and the antiwar Left, neoconservatives believed that Communism was very much to be feared, to be detested, and to be opposed. They saw the Soviet Union as, in the words of Ronald Reagan, an “evil empire,” unspeakably cruel to its own subjects and relentlessly predatory toward those not yet in its grasp. They took the point of George Orwell’s 1984—a book that (as the Irish scholars James McNamara and Dennis J. O’Keeffe have written) resurrected the idea of evil “as a political category.” And they absorbed the cautionary warning of the Russian novelist and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn against yielding ground to the Communists in the vain hope “that perhaps at some point the wolf will have eaten enough.”

Many in our history, both statesmen and scholars, had drawn a distinction between Americans’ sentiments and America’s self-interest. Where Communism was concerned, the neoconservatives saw the two as intertwined. Communism needed to be fought both because it was morally appalling and because it was a threat to our country.

And, as he notes a bit later on:

Even those traditional conservatives who distrusted the readiness of Nixon and Kissinger to make deals with the Soviet Union tended to share the underlying philosophy of foreign-policy “realism.” As opposed to the neoconservative emphasis on the battle of ideas and ideologies, and on the psychological impact of policy choices, realists focused on state interests and the time-honored tools of statecraft. That was one reason why, for the neoconservatives of the 1970’s, the great champions in American political life were not conservative or Republican figures but two Democrats of unmistakably liberal pedigree: Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and George Meany, the president of the AFL-CIO. When President Ford, on Kissinger’s counsel, closed the White House door to Solzhenitsyn upon his expulsion from Soviet Russia, these two stalwart anti-Communists formally welcomed him to Washington.

It was only with the accession of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1981 that the neoconservatives made their peace with Republican-style conservatism. Reagan brought several neoconservatives—notably Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle, Max Kampelman, and Elliott Abrams—into pivotal foreign-policy positions in his administration (and, on the domestic-policy side, William J. Bennett and others). With time, most neoconservatives moved into the Republican fold. As for Reagan’s “belligerent” approach to the cold war, it was criticized as loudly by both liberals and conservatives within the foreign-policy establishment as it was cheered by neoconservatives. But there can be no question that it issued in a sublime victory: the mighty juggernaut of the Soviet state, disposing of more kill power than the U.S. or any other state in history, capitulated with scarcely a shot.

So, while Muravchik does describe neoconservativism as sharing elements with both ‘realism’ and ‘idealism,’ his account amounts to a refutation of Caverley’s core thesis:

The military historian Max Boot has aptly labeled it “hard Wilsonianism.” It does not mesh neatly with the familiar dichotomy between “realists” and “idealists.” It is indeed idealistic in its internationalism and its faith in democracy and freedom, but it is hardheaded, not to say jaundiced, in its image of our adversaries and its assessment of international organizations. Nor is its idealism to be confused with the idealism of the “peace” camp. Over the course of the past century, various schemes for keeping the peace—the League of Nations, the UN, the treaty to outlaw war, arms-control regimes—have all proved fatuous. In the meantime, what has in fact kept the peace (whenever it has been kept) is something quite different: strength, alliances, and deterrence. Also in the meantime, “idealistic” schemes for promoting not peace but freedom—self-determination for European peoples after World War I, decolonization after World War II, the democratization of Germany, Japan, Italy, and Austria, the global advocacy of human rights—have brought substantial and beneficial results.

Belief in deterrence, alliances, and force does not a “realist” make if those instruments are deployed on behalf of a global crusade for liberalism.

Given all of this, it should come as no surprise that Caverley takes Kagan out of context in order to answer why, given “democratic enfeeblement,” autocracies don’t support democratization. Here’s the full pargraph, with the part that Caverley quotes underlined:

Neither Russia nor China has any interest in assisting liberal nations in their crusade against autocracies around the world. Moreover, they can see their comparative advantage over the West when it comes to gaining influence with African, Asian, or Latin American governments that can provide access to oil and other vital natural resources or that, in the case of Burma, are strategically located. Moscow knows it can have more influence with governments in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan because, unlike the liberal West, it can unreservedly support their regimes. And the more autocracies there are in the world, the less isolated Beijing and Moscow will be in international forums such as the United Nations. The more dictatorships there are, the more global resistance they will offer against the liberal West ’s efforts to place limits on sovereignty in the interest of advancing liberalism.

I suppose there might be something to Caverley’s arguments; as I’ve noted, one can make a case for fitting “neoconservativism” under the rubric of “neoclassical realism.” But doing so requires us to ignore not only the evidence of intellectual DNA, but also to reduce “liberalism” to its Wilsonian variant. Still, his conclusions about academic neoclassical realism might have some punch. I just find it difficult to overlook the fact that Caverley’s novel claims concerning “democratic enfeeblement” find no textual support.

All of this dovetails in interesting ways with recent discussions of peer review. This article, at least in its present form, would not have survived adequate peer review. Any reviewer familiar with recent neoconservative writings should have wondered about some of these quotations, all of which come from articles available online. So either Millennium couldn’t find appropriate reviewers, those reviewers were too  “overburdened” to do due diligence, or they just didn’t care.

Update: my claim about this being a failure of peer review only involves the out-of-context quotations that I discuss at the end of my critique–those specific to Caverley’s “democratic enfeeblement” argument. Peer review is supposed to catch that sort of thing. The rest of the issues I raise are, I think, subject to debate; reasonable people will disagree about them. Reviewers should either have rejected the entire piece or suggested a revise-and-resubmit with either (1) better evidence for “democratic enfeeblement” or (2) an abandonment of that argument in favor of more general points about how neoconservatives work themselves into a place quite similar to that of some neoclassical realists. But the current “evidence” for that hypothesis should not have made it into a published article.


Write less. Read more.

I thought I would offer my take on the series of posts below on how to reform the peer-review system. Part of the problem is bad reviews. We can remove the anonymity of them, but that raises the obvious problems (bad blood, retaliation, pulling punches, speaking truth to power, etc). A better solution would be to rely on the expertise of editors. A really stupid review is obvious to even non-experts. And if one reviewer says X and the other says ‘opposite of X’, then you should know that you have to get a third opinion, not just reject the piece for not garnering sufficient support from the beginning (this is Dan’s point).

Why can’t editors do this? The biggest problem seems to be workload. They just don’t have the time to carefully sort through reviews and evaluate them as critically as the paper under consideration. But how do we lessen their workload? Write less. Read more. This goes for graduate students and professors. Graduate students are “socialized” earlier these days and this generally means they are pushed to publish. The tenure standards are higher everywhere now. None of this is good for the field. All of this means too many papers that don’t tell us very much. And they make editors’ jobs impossible.

Political science and IR today reminds me of elementary education. Most everyone in educational psychology seems to agree that kids really shouldn’t be pushed early on, that the social part of early grade school is more important than the academic, that they aren’t cognitively ready to do proper book learning. Yet we expect more academically of our little ones than ever before. They screen them in my town for their competence in the ABC’s upon entering kindergarten, then tell us what to work on over the summer. Go f*&k yourself.

Most everyone also agrees that some kids, particularly boys, develop more slowly intellectually, but of course eventually catch up. And also that it is better to think creatively rather than to do rote learning. Yet homework starts in first grade and the first thing they focus on is penmanship. Ugh.

Without saying that grad students are just kids, we have to recognize that there is a growth process in graduate school, and frankly even in the assistant professor stage. By pushing younger academics to write too early and too much, we deny them to chance to read widely and think more creatively. We also encourage people to be carbon copies of their advisors because if people don’t have a chance to develop their unique voice they will merely parrot their mentors. The metric of success becomes a simple process of counting journal articles and where they are placed, not WHAT THEY SAY THAT IS NEW AND INTERESTING. This gets to some of my earlier complaints in Stuff Political Scientists Like, that we fetishize new data to the detriment of new ideas.

This is partly because the people who are doing the judging (tenured faculty members, journal reviewers, search committees) are themselves writing too much and don’t have time to properly read and critically evaluate other people’s work. We have created an academic environment where everyone is in his or her own bubble. No wonder we all get (and write) lousy reviews. I personally don’t keep up with the journals as I would like to and this makes me sad.

Maybe I am idealizing the (fairly recent) past, and maybe Berkeley was just different, but when I was in grad school, not so long ago, grad students didn’t judge academics by how many APSR articles they had published, but by their ideas. Oh, Schweller, he is the ‘balance of interest’ guy. Oh, Moravcsik, he is the ‘liberal intergovernmentalist.’ I frankly had no idea about how much people had published, only what they had published.

Of course, this probably cannot be changed because it is an arms race. I can’t tell my students to slow down, to stop and think, because they will get cut off at the knees by the more ‘socialized’ grad students in other programs on the job market. Or they might not get tenure at a university that simply counts beans. I find this not only sad but also deleterious to the discipline. I can’t do much about it, but my kids are going to spend the summer in the yard, not with workbooks.


The Rhino in the Room

Somehow I managed to delete my mediocre post on peer review. The gist: peer review is arbitrary and capricious; summary rejections offer a cosmetic fix; we need to reduce our reliance on counting peer-review journal articles as a basis for evaluating scholarly worth.

Jarrod Hayes commented:

I am struck by the arbitrariness of peer-review. I have at least once asked to come in as a reviewer when two reviews reached polar opposite conclusions about a manuscript. Both reviews were careful and conscientious, and I found merit in both when I saw them in the decision letter to the author. How could they both be right?

To which I respond: at least they were both conscientious! I sometimes play a game with a friend called “guess which review was mine?” It isn’t much of a game, to tell the truth. Both of us tend to produce long reviews, often with full references and explanations for why citing particular omitted work matters, and that seldom use denigrating language like “this is obviously a seminar paper.”

But Jarrod raises an absolutely crucial point: publish or perish depends a great deal on luck of the draw. Many of the “top journals” in our field engage in a form of “peer-review triage” in which all of the reviews have to be at least fairly strong R&Rs (“revise and resubmit”) to avoid rejection. This means that it is quite possible for a manuscript to accumulate more “accepts” than “rejects” and never see the light of day–at least as at a “prestigious” journal. Is that evidence of a functional system for allocating status and success?


What is really “Anonymous”?

I realize that this is not the Feminist IR 101 post that you may have been expecting, or some bright engagement with what’s going on in that area we seem to be able to so easily group as “the Middle East …” but it is something that I’ve been thinking about recently, so …

In theory, journal review is double-blind: the reviewers shouldn’t know who the author is, and the author shouldn’t know who the reviewers are. In practice, this almost never works, and seems like a dying standard anyway. That said, for the purposes of this rant, take it as a given: reviews should be, and often are, double-blind. The question, for now, is how to best achieve that when cites to the authors’ other published work are involved.

So there are two ways to accomplish anonymity: 1) remove the cites to the authors’ work, replacing them with the word “author,” or 2) leave the cites to the authors’ work in the third person, as if they are being cited in the normal course of writing the article.

To me, if the authors have published anything of any note in the field, #2 is a clear answer. But in the last month, two very different journals have (in my opinion, totally wrongly) taken the other position. So, why do I think there’s a clear answer? And what am I missing?

Here are just the top 5 reasons I think that putting the word “author” is just a bone-headed decision:

1) It serves to identify the author. If something says, “There are traditionally three images: man, the state, and war.” (AUTHOR) … well, its clear who the author is. If something says, “There are traditionally three images: man, the state, and war” (Waltz 1959), well, Waltz could have written it, or someone else could have written it, and it can be judged on its merits. What isn’t cited can be as identifying as what is.

2) It encourages dumb critiques that say “should have cited Laura Sjoberg more,” when the article used to cite Laura Sjoberg but since she was the author the journal made her remove citations to self where there wasn’t a quote and put “author” where there is a quote – reducing the overall quality of the article, particularly when the journal asks reviewers a direct question about the adequacy of citations to the literature. And before you laugh – I’ve gotten this critique, more than once.

3) It decreases the readability of the article. The (AUTHOR) citation just gets in the way, and draws attention to the question of the author’s identity. It is confusing and annoying to read as a reviewer.

4) Anyone who can’t figure out how to cite themselves when and only when it is essential to the article doesn’t deserve to participate in the review process anyway. I mean, really, how hard is it?

5) Having a hard and fast rule on this is managing editor laziness. Should you send back something that is a graduate student citing a conference paper they presented when it hasn’t been published? Sure. But should you send back the person who wrote an award-winning book last year for citing to that book? No. Because anyone would have cited to it if they were writing in that area. There’s middle ground, certainly, but it is not rocket science, and it matters to protecting anonymity. Sending both back is just being imprecise.

That’s just my .02. Please, let me know what I’ve missed that makes this less obvious than it appears to me.


Peer Review

Sort of safe-for-work (as long as no one is reading the subtitles)…


Peer reviewing: a call to arms (updated)

I just turned down a request that I review for a journal because, in part, they failed to send me an anonymized copy of the decision letter the last time I reviewed for them. And this despite the journal using an electronic review system that automates the process.

I can think of a number of reasons why all peer-reviewed journals should be required to supply reviewers with copies of their decision letters. In no particular order:

(1) It provides closure to the reviewer.

If I invested–at minimum–a few days in carefully reading an article and writing a review of anywhere from two to six pages, it seems like basic courtesy to let me know what the editors decided to do with the manuscript.

(2) It helps improve the quality of reviews.

I find reading other reviews helpful in assessing my own. Did I miss something important? How much of my opinion was shaped by my prior commitments? Did I otherwise do an adequate job of providing feedback? Was my review helpful to the editors? If I split with the other reviewers, was I able to swing the editors around to my point of view or not?

(3) It helps me with my own work.

About 50-60% of the reviews I do involve papers that intersect in some non-trivial way with my own research and writing (this is how peer-review is supposed to function). This means that I have some interest in gauging how reviewers will react to certain kinds of arguments and warrants for them. Reading the other peer reviews helps with this. And even if the manuscript isn’t related to my own areas of research, I find I still learn things about the process that can be quite helpful down the road.

UPDATE: a reader emails me a fourth reason:

(4) It keeps editors honest.

One other important reason why reviewers should see the other reviews: it keeps the editors honest. Some journals never communicates with their reviewers about the fate of manuscripts, and certainly never send around the other reviews because, if they did, then reviewers might more openly question the decision-making of the journal. Don’t want to be circulating positive reviews when a manuscript was rejected for other reasons [I’ve edited the email to eliminate references to a specific journal as an exemplar of these practices].

I think that’s right; for some journal editors, the arguments I made above amount bugs, not features, of providing reviewers with decision reports.

Almost all of the major North American journals in political science provide decision letters to reviewers.

The sociology journals I’ve reviewed for do as well, but, somewhat puzzlingly, send the letters via snail mail.

The European journals are much spottier in this respect. Some (*cough* Millennium *cough*) won’t even send these materials–unless requested to do so–when asking for a second-round review!

But, regardless, given the almost universal use of electronic systems for submission and review, there is simply no excuse for not providing anonymized decision letters to peer reviewers.

It seems to me that there’s only one way to ensure that journals “do their duty” on this front: refuse to review for them unless they do.

So I’m calling–right here, right now–for reviewers to boycott the holdouts.

Peer-reviewers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but lack of closure!


Now I’m that idiot….

I recently received a rejection on a piece from a major journal in my field. The piece had been with the journal for about seven months, which is very long in international relations.

The rejection was fair, but, like all authors, I had some issues with some of the substance of one of the critiques–although other aspects of it were spot on.

So, having received the decision, I write a quick email to my co-author in which I say something mildly positive about the editors and something pretty negative about one of the reviews. I conclude, however, that I won’t send another piece to the journal because I can’t afford to “waste” that amount of time again.

Except I don’t hit “forward.” I hit “reply.”

I realize this about ten seconds later. But, really, what can you do? I decide to send an email that, I hope, reflects a certain amount of honesty:


Uh. Welcome to the age of email. I hit send rather than forward. This is pretty embarrassing.

I guess there’s no way I can really, um, uh, you know. Please understand that the context of the 7 months is that I’m up for tenure.

I should make clear that I appreciate your letter and don’t have a problem with the decision…. at all….

But, in retrospect, I’m not sure why I thought that would go over well. The same factors that led me to screw up the first email–no sleep last night and my dog’s health problems–continue to cloud my judgment.

I wonder, though, if I should call to apologize. Or will this make things worse? I’m actually not at all likely to submit again to the journal in the near future–because my tenure clock is up in less than a year, I’ll spend the next year doing stuff outside of academia, and because it isn’t in my normal intellectual orbit–but I just feel terrible about the whole thing.


… After writing this, I decided to send another email. This one, I hope, cleanly and clearly apologies, clarifies, and otherwise at least lets my co-author off the hook.


Online package manuscript tracking

With apologies to xkcd:

Image and original idea by Randall Munroe.


Peer review: a quick query

I’ve written before on issues related to the state of peer review. The topic comes up frequently on many academic blogs. But having just received the final report on a manuscript I reviewed (note: not that I wrote), I feel compelled to ask the following question:

Given the ABYSMAL level of professionalism among peer reviewers, why do we continue to place so much stock in peer-reviewed publications in International Relations?

I wish I could say more about the review that sent me (yet again) over the edge, but I feel comfortable pointing out that writing ten sentences on a long, well-developed, and sophisticated paper constitutes the peer-review equivalent of gross negligence–even without a pat (and inaccurate) appeal to the history of political thought as grounds for dismissing multiple pages of argumentation in a manuscript.

On this general note, it might be cathartic if a few of our readers contributed their favorite peer-review phrases that fall into one of two categories.

First, those that should never, ever appear in a peer review, such as:”this manuscript reads like a seminar paper” or “if [concept/theory/position] means anything, it means [something other than what the author has spent many pages demonstrating]”

Second, those that require translation for a reader to understand their actual meaning, such as: “readers of [journal name] are unlikely to be interested in this manuscript” or “I will evaluate the manuscript on its own terms.”

(The former really means, of course, “I wasn’t interested in this manuscript” while the latter translates as “I will launch an external critique of the paper that ignores the author’s scope conditions.”)


The well of lost academic papers

Via scatterplot, an on-line mathematics journal for rejected papers. Joke? They say not. And the idea, even if Swiftian, makes a great deal of sense. Maybe the time is ripe in Political Science? Given the vagaries of peer review, and the black hole of bottom-tier journals, I think so.

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