Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Half-baked?

In their comments to yesterday's post, Thomas Presskorn and Andrew Gelman have raised the worry that by encouraging people to submit their work regularly to journals I'm going to increase the amount of "half-baked" work that their editors and reviewers have to deal with. Thomas's version of this worry (as expressed at this blog) includes the ideas that authors might try to use review reports in the development of the article. That is, the author knows that the article is not finished, but submits it for review in order to gather input about how to proceed.

I should start by saying that I have not encouraged people to submit their work before it is finished. I have encouraged them to finish their work more regularly in order to be able to submit it. So if my advice is followed in the right spirit it should only increase the amount of finished work that is submitted to journals. That is, it will give journals more material to choose from, but not simply more material that has to be filtered out.

That said, I don't think journals should complain about people submitting work to them. And I don't think they do; I don't hear this complaint from journal editors, but from other scholars and, sometimes, reviewers. Reviewers, however, should complain about the desk-rejection mechanism of the journal if they are asked to review a paper that is clearly half-baked. They should not complain about the author's judgment, but the editor's. The whole point of the review process is that we can't rely on the author's judgment.

There are some simple things you can look for in the first 600 and last 400 words of a paper in order to see whether a paper should be sent back to the author on purely formal grounds (I'll write a post about them tomorrow). A good set of guidelines for authors about the structure of the manuscript can also make it easy to see whether a paper is unfinished. However it chooses to do it, it is very much the responsibility of journal to figure something out. Journals want high rejection rates for good and bad reasons. Some want you to submit your work to give them an opportunity to publish it, some to have an opportunity to reject it. But if they want those high rejection rates then they have find an efficient way of processing submissions. Putting moral restraint on authors is not the right way to do this. (The problem of self-plagiarism, which Andrew raises, like the problem of plagiarism generally, is an ethical issue, of course. But not one that arises out of concern for the work load of editors and reviewers.)

In any case, what's driving increased submissions is the increased pressure to publish. My advice, to focus your own efforts (and the planning of your department) on submitting work, rather than obsessing about publishing it, is just a way of making something explicit that will happen implicitly anyway. In order to publish more you have to submit more. And when you submit more you will get rejected more. And that means you'll give journals a bit more work to do. But it really is their job.

2 comments:

Andrew Shields said...

When students feel overwhelmed by the amount of scholarship that already exists on a topic they are working on, I tell them to look at lots of articles but only read some of them. The way they can decide which ones to read: read the first and last paragraphs. If they don't feel connected, then don't read the article (unless it's one that everybody refers to, in which case you have to read it anyway, to be able to "talk the talk" on that topic).

If the first and last paragraphs do feel connected, then the work might be a keeper. If they need a further filter, I tell them to read the first and last sentences of all the paragraphs in an article. It should still feel coherent; plus, you can then tell whether you need to go into the details of the argument at all (say, if it's close to how you're thinking about the topic).

Jonathan said...

In general, you shouldn't even show an article to someone else, let alone submit it, until it is in "penultimate" form. In other words, you don't send an article to a journal when you don't have it in respectable shape. You get is as good as you can, and only THEN have a colleague read it. And only THEN submit it to a journal. You don't use a journal to workshop the article. Of course, you might have to do more revisions for acceptance, but you want to to at least reach that revise and resubmit threshold with every submitted article--at least insofar as you can control that.