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more reasons to be skeptical of peer review

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Nature’s science news website covered a study showing how peer reviewers are mysteriously way more friendly when they have a personal tie to the authors of a grant. From the article:

Peer reviewers are four times more likely to give a grant application an “excellent” or “outstanding” score rather than a “poor” or “good” one when they are chosen by the grant’s applicants, an analysis of Swiss funding applications has found.

The study, at the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), was completed in 2016, and the SNSF acted quickly on its findings by banning grant applicants from being able to recommend referees.

The authors, who are affiliated with the SNSF, posted their results online at PeerJ Preprints1 on 19 March, and in their paper call on other funders to reconsider their funding processes.

“I think this practice should be abolished altogether,” says study co-author Anna Severin, a sociologist who studies peer review at the University of Bern. Other experts are also wary of the problems that author-picked peer reviewers might cause, but some question whether banning them altogether is the right step.

Though not an indictment of peer review per se, it does cast more shadow on the practice. Why? Many fields are defined by dense networks and people who can embed themselves in networks can generate advantage. If you can identify potential reviewers and ingratiate yourself, you can do well.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 24, 2019 at 12:43 am

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junior faculty jam session #2: relax, you’ll probably get tenure

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Junior faculty jam session #1.

Getting a tenure track job means that you have become an autonomous professional. You’re in charge of your career and the the stakes are high. At the same time, you need perspective. You need a bigger picture to help you maintain balance.

It helps to remember some basic facts about higher education. The starting point is that most people who apply for tenure get it. In other words, if you just started the tenure track, there’s a good chance that you will become an associate professor with tenure in about 5-8 years.

How can that be? It works this way. The overall tenuring rate in higher education is actually very high. This old blog post at Dynamic Ecology, which has the same message as this post, draws together a lot of data. Basically, around 66% of people in the sciences will get tenure where they were hired. Even very competitive places, like the Ivy League, will tenure most people who apply.

There are two reasons for this: self-selection and inertia. First, departments only hire people they feel confident about. If you’ve published before, then you’ll publish again. If you taught a few classes in graduate school, you can surely do it again. Self-selection also plays a role during the tenure track. Most people come to understand the odds. If tenure is a long shot, they have about 6 years to move to a place that will tenure them or move to non academic work.

Second, tenure denial is a long and painful process for everyone. Obviously, it is a humiliating experience for the junior faculty member. But deans and chairs who deliver a negative decision must invest a lot of time in a process that results in conflict and anxiety. Faculty members who have to vote “no” on a friendly colleague would prefer not to. It is a lot harder to have painful discussions after a negative decision than to attend a wine and cheese reception after a successful case. Thus, it is easier to tenure people than to put up a fight.

You may ask, “I heard about all these crazy tenure denial stories – aren’t they real?” Of course they are, but they tend to come in three flavors and you need to understand them:

  1. Some departments have extremely high standards. They want multiple top journal hits, prizes, and disciplinary fame. Luckily, you probably aren’t in one of these programs. A related issue is that some schools change standards. If you are teaching intensive, but the dean wants more research, you may get denied tenure. Fortunately, this is rare but watch out.
  2. Some departments are toxic. If you are in such a department, you will learn about it pretty quick. There will be a lack of communication, other tenure denials, law suits, angry faculty meetings, people joining factions, and abandoned graduate students. It’s pretty easy to spot. Maybe they will vote for you, maybe not. You can never tell with the asylum residents. Stay if you need to, but don’t be surprised if they bite.
  3. Some people are slacking. Occasionally, you’ll see a student uprising on behalf of a popular professor. Usually, when you look at the person’s CV, you will see a publication record that does not match the department or university standards. Sometimes, they simply haven’t published at all or they haven’t published in the field’s peer reviewed outlets.

As you will notice, these cases are rare (1,2) or you have a lot of control over them (3). The only other case worth mentioning are “outrageous” professors. This is tricky. Yes, once in a while a university will punish an outspoken professor with a tenure denial. On the other hand, some faculty do say genuinely antagonistic things. University administrators should not punish people with tenure denials. But at the same time, one must be prudent – administrators aren’t angels, they’re human beings.

I think this is what you should take away from this. Tenure is common and you will probably get it. It’s actually the most likely outcome for most. Therefore, you should try to adopt a position of “confident stress” – understand that you need to perform but you don’t need to labor under the shadow of anxiety.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 22, 2019 at 4:20 pm

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conservative arguments in favor of undocumented students

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Student Image

The James G. Martin Center has run an op ed on why I think conservatives should be open and supportive of undocumented students. Check it out here.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 19, 2019 at 3:32 pm

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theory for the working sociologist: reviewed in teaching sociology

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Teaching Sociology recently reviewed Theory for the Working Sociologist. The write up was extremely kind. From Joseph van der Naald’s review:

What is particularly useful about Rojas’s selections is that they comprise a representative spread of important contemporary social theories and thinkers so that students will be exposed to some of the discipline’s most up-to-date ideas. Readers will find that Rojas focuses almost entirely on contemporary sociological theory, ranging from Bonilla-Silva’s recently published work to Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s scholarship on social construction from the 1960s. Within each chapter, Rojas briefly sketches the chronological development of theories under each of his four groupings but pays significantly more attention to how recent theoretical developments repurpose and reinterpret the ideas of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim rather than dwelling on these thinkers’ ideas by themselves.

I also liked how Joseph picked up on my real mission – teaching people about the basic “moves” of social theory and how they appear in contemporary work. For, I included Alondra Nelson’s work as an example of modern social construction fused with ideas about inequality:

The final substantive chapter of the book focuses on theoretical syntheses as Rojas takes up different mechanisms discussed throughout the book’s four chapters and uses recent sociological scholarship to illustrate how new social theories are the product of fruitful combination. Bourdieu is revisited in this chapter as Rojas argues that concepts like distinction and capital are indebted to social construction, rational choice theories, as well as theories of inequality. The closing pages of the chapter examine the work of sociologist Alondra Nelson, whose scholarship Rojas considers a successful contemporary fusion of theoretical mechanisms from the four approaches featured in the book.

Joseph also had some criticism of the book. For example, he correctly notes that some branches of theory get side stepped. I am guilty. There is no way to cover all in a short book, but I do hope that the main idea – focusing on sociology’s underlying points – will help readers make connections between any particular domain of sociology and the field’s foundations.

Bonus round: Joseph did not quite agree with my linking modern cultural sociology to the whole institutions and values stream of things. My response – if you read closely the key works of people like Ann Swidler, Wendy Griswold, Hans Joas, and other cultural sociologists of the 1980s, they are deep in battle with Parsons and functionalist accounts of action, which is rooted in the whole values/structure/institutions tradition. I agree it’s a little bit of wedging a round peg into a square whole, but the connection is there and it’s fairly clear.

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The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
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Written by fabiorojas

April 17, 2019 at 4:01 am

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the media will not save public sociology

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A few days ago, I totally and accidentally started a tweet storm by suggesting that the lack of institutionalized mechanisms for translating sociology into policy or public impact reflected the possibility that public impact was a secondary goal of sociologists. During the discussion, a few people noted that mass media appearances are important. For example, my colleague and hallway neighbor Jess Calarco noted that media impact can be important.

My response: Definitely true, but let’s not over state the national media as a process by which sociology’s impact will be cultivated and maintained. Why? A lot of research on op-eds by academics shows that the mass media is very selective in terms of which academics it will pick up. Mass media coverage is rare and goes mainly to elites in the field.

Example #1: In the American Sociologist, Joshua Woods examines data on ALL sociologists published in the NY Times over a 32 year period. The major findings? Read the rest of this entry »

Written by fabiorojas

April 15, 2019 at 12:01 am

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2001 with the original score

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Written by fabiorojas

April 14, 2019 at 12:07 am

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guest post by michael bishop on sociology and public impact

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This guest post is written by long time reader Mike Bishop, a researcher whose current projects include contributing to the largest ever study of research rigor and replication in the social sciences.

I think it is a mistake to try to evaluate whether sociologists care more or less than economists about having a public impact, but I think it is a good idea to discuss *how* social scientists might have a public impact, and to describe the approaches that are being taken by sociologists, economists and others. Fabio offered a couple hypotheses that I’d love to see studied.

Fabio claims there is a dearth of sociology blogs (relative to economics). Some people seemed to disagree, but we still haven’t specified a falsifiable claim. One approach would be to measure the percent of sociology/economics faculty that published more than, e.g. 1,000 words on a blog in the last year. Or the percent whose blog posts had more than 1,000 page views. I’d love for someone to go collect some data!

Another idea is to study the content of publications in top sociology and economics journals… how many words in each article are devoted to discussing implications for policy makers (or activists, or any audience other than fellow academics.) Note, while I generally think discussing policy implications is a good thing, the intellectual standards for such discussion should be high including explicit discussion of possible tradeoffs or empirical uncertainties. Reviewers and editors should not tolerate authors making big leaps with weak arguments (e.g. “This study demonstrated that workers with higher incomes are happier, therefore if the minimum wage were raised to $20/hr everyone would be happier.”)

Of course, blogging, or research with strong policy implications, are just two approaches to having a public impact as Fabio and some of his interlocuters on Twitter mention in follow up conversation. Sociologists (and economists) may also: engage in issue advocacy directed at politicians or philanthropists, document social problems, electoral politics, influencing public opinion through books, news media, etc. contributing to political/social movements, (like “Open Borders.”) If we must return to the sociology vs. economics angle, much will depend on how you weigh the effectiveness of these approaches.

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50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

April 11, 2019 at 4:57 am

Posted in uncategorized