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playing to the center

I’ve had a lot of fun reading chapters from this wonderful little book that offers advice from established organizational scholars about how to engage in research. A preview of the book, Renewing Research Practice, can be accessed online here. This is great material for a pro-seminar, but it’s also nice conversation fodder for any informal occasion where academics will be present.

I found this piece of advice from Steve Barley to be particularly compelling:

Early on I set myself the goal of publishing in journals, in particular the Administrative Science Quarterly, read by the majority of the field. I resisted publishing in less widely read journals that were more sympathetic either to my message or my methods. I believe that unless you can communicate with the center, there is no hope of effecting change on issues that one holds dear, of influencing how members of the field think, or of broadening the type of research that the field considers legitimate (81).

I couldn’t agree more. Yes, it’s much harder to get published in the top journals (i.e., the most widely read journals in your field or subfield) but how else can you have an impact on the broader field if you don’t try to get published in these outlets? In most elite departments this is expected of nearly all members of the department and is certainly enforced among junior faculty, who will have a hard time getting tenure if they haven’t published at least a few papers in their top journals. But my experience tells me that this is not true of the majority of departments (especially in sociology, less so in management). It’s an unfortunate product of our stratified system of rewards. But still, is there anyone out there who wouldn’t at least agree in principle that we should strive to maximize our audience size? That playing to the center has its own intrinsic rewards, independent of the monetary incentives for publishing in highly-regarded journals?

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Written by brayden king

April 25, 2008 at 10:20 pm

Posted in academia, brayden, research

15 Responses

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  1. I don’t know that ‘center’ is necessarily the right to frame it (though, perhaps), ‘top’ journals though, yes (the ones that are most highly cited, impact factors being one, imperfect measure).

    But, what if you work in a more marginal area and AJS, ASR or Org Sci, ASQ, AMR/AMJ just aren’t feasible outlets? I suppose one can nonetheless find ways to tweak one’s work toward the mainstream/top outlets.

    And, perhaps targeting these journals also lessens one’s potential impact since the outlets in part are “variance reducing.” So, new theoretical insights may come from the periphery — e.g., Jay Barney’s RBV piece was not accepted by the top outlets (don’t know which one’s it was submitted to), but rather published in JOM.

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    tf

    April 25, 2008 at 11:10 pm

  2. If your work is too marginal for AJS, ASR, ASQ, etc., then I guess that means you have to figure out how to make it less marginal, i.e., how to frame it in a way that makes it appealing to the center. That’s Barley’s point. Some of the research he did early in his career would have been considered highly marginal by the theory-elite at the time. His real skill is that he’s able to make marginal topics and methods relevant to the “center” or to the mainstream in organizational theory.

    My main point here is just that you shouldn’t relegate yourself to work at the margins where only a small fraction of the people will hear you. If it’s worth writing, then it’s worth your time to figure out how to make more people care about what you’re doing. Every paper won’t hit a chord, of course, but it doesn’t pay to stop trying.

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    brayden

    April 25, 2008 at 11:29 pm

  3. I agree.

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    tf

    April 25, 2008 at 11:31 pm

  4. The core journals are important and crucial for any discipline and they publish much excellent work. We should strive to make our research accesible to a large audience that can be reached through the core journals. But I think I’ll disagree with you guys here on making them the sole or even primary target of our research. The point of research is to advance knowledge – not appeal to the average member of a discipline who might read your paper or to the editors of select journals. Once you do that, then you are letting your research agenda be driven by considerations beyond the quality of the research. An idea isn’t made good by an editor’s or referee’s approval, or the size of the readership. At most, an editor can help you express the idea better.

    There are always great ideas and styles of research that simply don’t fit into the existing boxes and you have to be willing to accept a trade off in journal prestige. In some cases, it’s not a case of framing, as Brayden suggested. People simply will refuse to accept some ideas no matter how you frame it and you have to go to lower ranked journals, or even edited volumes, to get the idea out. If the idea is really that important, you have to have the courage to buck the system and get that paper published. Need I remind you of ground breaking papers that simply could not find homes in mainstream journals? Coase’s Theory of the Firm? Early Black-Scholes work? The intial Tobit model paper? That’s right – all rejected by mainstream journals. Allegedly, Coase’s rejections went into the double digits.

    Let me end this rant by relating a quick lunch time conversation with some economists I had a few weeks ago. One of them was telling me about a conversation with an associate editor of one of the core econ journals. He asked him, “If a young hot shot wrote another paper like Theory of the Firm – low on math but great concept – would you still reject it?”

    The guy said yes! Why? In the view of this economist, the core journals are intended to publish highly refined and sophisticated work. To allow such a low tech paper like Theory of the Firm would be to dilute the prestige of the journal, and by implication, the rest of economics. You only let senior members of the profession write such flaky stuff. Therefore, the journals, in his view, are meant to promote the image of the profession. Sometimes that promotes knowledge, sometimes it doesn’t. I would hope that as any academic matures they let go of the idea that “journal prestige = research quality.” Sure, there is defintiely a correlation, but it’s by no means perfect. Instead, they should summon their courage and stand by their ideas, even if those deemed unworthy of publication by the core journals. Otherwise, research publication becomes a tyrrany of current disciplinary opinion.

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    fabiorojas

    April 26, 2008 at 12:57 am

  5. I’m not sure that he’s saying that you should only strive to publish in the most prestigious journal in your field. The point is that striving to reach a large, central audience will help your research have the biggest impact. It’s a general principle, not a fixed rule.

    That’s a pretty outrageous story Fabio. I’m not sure most sociologists or organizational scholars would be of the same opinion though. We’re much more friendly to “flaky stuff.” :)

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    brayden

    April 26, 2008 at 1:59 am

  6. Well, ok, if it’s a huerestic, I’ll buy it. But the quote just struck a wierd chord in me because I have met a few too many folks who think that you haven’t made a real contribution until you’ve hit [journal list]. It’s a hard view to accept once you worked on journals and you see the weirdness of the process. Also, we often get lost in prestige hierarchies and loose track of the idea that, in principle, if an idea is good, we’ll read it, no matter who wrote it or where it appears, or even if it’s unpublished. We search for knowledge, not audience size. That’s the real ideal we should strive for.

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    fabiorojas

    April 26, 2008 at 2:13 am

  7. Innovation comes in from the periphery.

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    Kieran

    April 26, 2008 at 2:40 am

  8. People always bring up that Coase paper whenever they try to make the case that sometimes “edgy” ideas get rejected by mainstream outlets. Yet, the more that pet example is brought up the more of a hardened skeptical of the “intellectual inefficiency” of the mainstream I become. Economics is a historically Coney-Island-bearded-woman bizarre discipline intellectually (see Mirowski on Machine Dreams) I would not be comfortable drawing any generalizations about this process based on it. I’ve forwarded this challenge before and I don’t think it has ever been met to my satisfaction: where is that groundbreaking sociology piece that did not appear in one of the major journals? (ASQ is a major journal).

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    Omar

    April 26, 2008 at 10:42 am

  9. Omar: Stinchcombe’s 1965 peice was an edited volume piece, though I don’t know if it was rejected by mainstream journals first. In soc of ed, Bidwell’s organizational analysis of the school came out in the same edited volume. Path breaking in soc of ed, but also an edited volume. There’s also a lot of book writing that didn’t make it to journals, especially in ethnography. In historical soc,I’d nominate Tilly’s state as war making work. I don’t remember it making into the major journals, but it’s now an accepted part of the sociology of state. In race and ethnicity, I think many of DuBois’ early works were not considered publishable by AJS (the only major journal in the 20s), and he had to release much in research reports and later books.

    You may think I’m a journal skeptic, but I’m not. I think journals work much of the time. But I don’t adopt the 100% efficiency view of journals. Journals need to be taken with a *huge* grain of salt. What it comes down to is that journals reflect what the profession at that time thinks is important. Unless you think the profession is perfect, then you’ll have to admit there’s good work that appears in other venues.

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    Fabio Rojas

    April 26, 2008 at 1:46 pm

  10. I don’t want to argue for a 100% efficiency view of journals either, but let’s say that journals are only 90% efficient. Isn’t that a huge number? Isn’t the fact that there is not a long list of “egregious miscarriages of intellectual justice” itself a phenomenon that deserves to be explained? That strikes me as a compelling record of success for an institution staffed by flawed humans. Maybe Merton was up to something after all. Or maybe it goes back to Brayden’s point about the “random reviewer draw” a few posts back plus the three elite (or two if you don’t like SF or three again if you like ASQ) intellectual outlets setup. For while it is true that Paul DiMaggio still has the rejection letter from AJS on the classic “Iron Cage Revisited” paper the main point is that the paper still got published in ASR.

    On the 1965 volume: incredible and influential papers there. However, the story of that volume is more of a testament to March’s good taste and ability as an intellectual entrepreneur than a story of intellectual inefficiency of the mainstream (especially since all of the papers were especially commissioned for the book) or the existence of papers that are too “edgy” for the center. In fact I had the privilege to hear Bidwell (who got “driven in” by Maureen Hallinan to give a talk on his classic paper to the education center here last year) tell the apocryphal story of how he got involved in it. The essence of his tale is that while he was skeptical at first (March actually recruited him over the phone when he was an assistant at Harvard), after a few get-togethers with the various authors he realized that they were up to something big (and they were). While today it is common for papers to end up in edited volumes after bouncing around the journals (and for edited volumes to be a dime a dozen rather than foundational disciplinary statements) that certainly wasn’t the case for the March book.

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    Omar

    April 26, 2008 at 2:36 pm

  11. Can you have an impact on the field if you don’t publish in top journals? Interesting question. I don’t know about sociology, but in many other disciplines — economics, political science, finance, management — the more frequently cited articles in the bottom tier of journals are cited far more often than the bottom half of the articles published in the top tier. I think that fact is consistent with the argument made by Fabio.

    Based upon my experience as an editor, referee, and author I’d say top-tier journals reject at least half of the articles they should accept and accept about ten percent of the articles they should have rejected (I have been lucky that way at least once and probably more), which means that on balance they are right more than half the time. Bottom tier journals may make about the same proportion of type one and type two errors, but they get much smaller numbers of submissions and the ratio of good to not-so-good papers submitted is much more heavily weighted to the latter category. Consequently, while they may be more often right, the proportion of not-so-good articles they actually publish is a lot higher.

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    Fred Thompson

    April 26, 2008 at 6:48 pm

  12. Ok, Omar, we are now at the point that we agree on facts. We both agree that journals do a good job and that they publish much outstanding work, despite the humans who run them. I also agree with you that there is not an ocean of brilliant material that was rejected by journals. Most articles are rejected for good reason, including my own rejected work.

    But let’s take that 90% number seriously. In very rough terms, that 9 out of 10 seriously good articles make it through the review process, but one out of ten seriously good articles is rejected by the top few journals of the field. Then what happens? Well, if things go “as planned” then they appear in lower rank journals and edited volumes. If they don’t, then that’s a serious indictment of the discipline because people give up if they don’t publish in top journals or people simply ignore or devalue lower ranked journals.

    And, as Kieran says, many intellectual movements start out in lower rank journals, then later have a big impact. The rejection rate of “good” unorthodox work will be much higher than 10%. This is the case in many, many areas. For that reason alone, we should be tolerant of lower rank journals.

    Heck, many of the now top journals were created in response to the percieved inefficiency of the existing top journals. That’s how we got ASR (revolt against AJS inthe 1930s) and Social Problems (a revolt against ASR/AJS in the 1960s). ASQ was created to fill a gap in organization studies in the 1950s. We can look around and see other good journals starting in response to the main journals – Gender and Society got started by the feminists, the rat choice people have their own journals, etc. So if these founding editors truly believed that all great work was alreading hitting the existing top journals, AJS would be the only top journal in sociology!!

    In response to your last point, let me out-Bidwell you, since he’s my HOMEBOY.* I agree that paper was not a journal reject, but it also wasn’t considered at the time a piece that would easily, if at all, go into a conventional journal. As Charles explained to me, at the time, few people were really thinking about schools as orgs. The paper’s main ideas were not fashionable within the ed school world. People simply didn’t think to make Weberian arguments about schools. And it is a testament to James March – he was able to pull together a really outstanding group of people and stick with some truly novel ideas. Once again, another reason to have an open mind about more specialty outlets.

    * Homeboy? Yup – he was one of my two main advisers and helped me hash out the ideas for my book. He’s got his own personally autographed copy of my book. South Side!! Represent!!

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    Fabio Rojas

    April 26, 2008 at 7:06 pm

  13. It is more difficult than it ought to be to get a current list of the most-cited papers in sociology (as opposed to the highest-impact journals, which is easy).

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    Kieran

    April 26, 2008 at 7:31 pm

  14. One way to get a current list of the most-cited papers from a journal for a particular year is to do a Google Advanced Scholar search for the year and publication. The articles will be listed more or less in descending order of their citations.

    In economics, many leading scholars, particularly those at leading institutions, are simply posting their paper to the NBER, RoPec, and /or SSRN and largely by-passing print journals altogether.

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    Fred Thompson

    April 27, 2008 at 7:16 pm

  15. I’d add that even if Coase’s rejections went into the double digits that’s not an argument against *trying* to publish in a major journal. An idea that has been rejected two or three times by major journals and is not likely to be unaffected by the review process. The idea that is finally published in a minor journal is not going to be exactly the idea that was rejected by the first major journal it was submitted to.

    The fact the Theory of the Firm was developed as a mainstream project is the key here. I wonder how many influential ideas were *only* pursued in marginal journals, i.e., were not even submitted to major ones.

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    Thomas

    April 30, 2008 at 7:09 am


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