sociology’s learning curve

Just got my ASR. 7 original articles with 8 authors. Rank of the authors, according to their bios: 1 graduate student, 3 assistant professors, 2 postdocs, and 2 professors. The last issue had 3 solo authored publications by graduate students. I’d love to plot the curve that demonstrates how, the more experience you have in sociology, the less likely you are to publish in one of its top journals.

A large part of the (inverse) experience effect is presumably that, the longer people are in the discipline, the less willing they are to go through all of the hurdles and compromises and revisions that are needed to get your paper into one of the top journals. Another part may be that graduate students are younger, and there is the Schumpeter’s “sacred third decade” for coming up with especially original ideas.* I also think that the less experience you have also helps for writing in the more generalist let-me-explain-to-y’all-how-this-works style that goes over well at AJS and ASR.**

(only footnotes after the jump)

* BTW, If this is true, it speaks against the idea, popular among some, that there should be an advantage to admitting graduate students who have been out of undergraduate for 2,3,5,10 years over those who want to go straight from undergraduate to graduate school, because the former are more “mature.”

** Yes, in this third respect, and perhaps also the first, I am thinking partly of the papers I published [with a co-author] in ASR and AJS as a graduate student.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

20 thoughts on “sociology’s learning curve”

  1. the more experience you have in sociology, the less likely you are to publish in one of its top journals

    I’m no quant jock, but this sentence seems wrong to me. Wouldn’t it be true that there are many more graduate students than faculty? And so, in order to say more or less likely, wouldn’t it be as a proportion of grad students published to grad students overall vs. a similar proportion of faculty? I would think that this calculation would still come out in favour of faculty, although the prominence of assistant vs. tenured professors would support your sentence.


  2. “one of its top journals”

    Isn’t ASR generally considered to be the top (i.e., “flagship” is a term often used) joural in the field?


  3. Some people think more highly of AJS than ASR because of its reputation for publishing some More Intellectual pieces. I have no opinion, other than my already well documented opposition to the idea that there are a “Big 3” of journals in sociology rather than just the “Big 2” of ASR/AJS.


  4. Tina: First, to be more than pithy, I would have to qualify it to something like “After 3 years, the more experience…” because publishing in ASR in one’s first years as a graduate student is of course extremely rare (caveat: publishing a paper drafted during one’s first three years, not as rare). Then, I’m not actually sure what the proportion of graduate students versus faculty is among those one would consider “practicing sociologists.” I wrote the post assuming that there was a much larger number of faculty (even though there are typically more grad students than faculty at institutions that have graduate students), but upon reconsideration maybe you are right.


  5. I would be interested to know if there are different reviewer pools for grads students/assistant profs vs. senior scholars. As a grad student I reviewed for top journals. With one exception I was quite convinced that I was reviewing the work of other grad students/junior scholars.

    A couple of months ago I was chatting with Larry Wu about this very thing, noting how ASR had basically turned into a graduate student journal (for dissertation work). And we generated the hypothesis that different reviewer pools may explain some of this. Would you send Jeremy Freese’s article to a grad student to review? Probably not. Would you send Shamus Khan’s? Probably. The question then becomes who is more/less likely to accept/reject articles. It could be the case that grad students are tougher as they are trained to critique, critique, critique. But I suspect they are more likely to over-estimate the value of a contribution on the basis that the potential paper was sent to ASR in the first place.

    As ASR is an ASA journal, wouldn’t we be in a position to ask for data on this? To look at how our “flagship journal” was working? At the end of my conversation with Larry I asked him, “Do you think the journal would be better off if it took a much stronger editorial stance, or like Politics & Society basically was almost solely based on editorial board decisions?” Perhaps, was the answer.


  6. I don’t think either of these journals would accept a paper based mostly on graduate student reviews. Frankly, I think major journals also send graduate student reviewers papers that they know are weaker, because graduate students are typically excited to be asked to review and so will be more likely to accept the request. I don’t think this results in the paper getting in the journal.

    I’m sure there is enough variation for the same paper that one could actually answer the question of whether grad student, asst prof, assoc prof, or full prof reviewers tended to be harsher. My guess is asst profs are the harshest, because they have the critical idealism of youth and yet are better able to spot flaws than grad students.


  7. I think that the first and third factors Jeremy cited (I’m not sure about the second, likely because most of my friends and I were older grad students) are definite factors, or at least ones I’ve seen in action.

    It helps that the turn-around time at ASR is fantastic and admirable and makes it an ideal place for graduate students and young faculty to send their work in hopes that it will show up in time for the market and/or renewal and tenure decisions. I think that persuades people to send their work there before trying other venues and the good stuff gets snagged before it goes elsewhere.


  8. “noting how ASR had basically turned into a graduate student journal”

    But, still a way to spectacularly strengthen your case for tenure or promotion, I’d think…


  9. Haha! I didn’t think that the statement was that harsh. More a claim, like Jeremy’s, about how the “flagship” journal was functioning primarily as a space for young people to put out their work (as opposed to senior scholars, whose work is more likely to get read even if it’s published in a less prestigious journal).

    As for the symbolic importance of ASR or AJS: I certainly wouldn’t deny that for getting a job and/or tenure.


  10. “My guess is asst profs are the harshest”

    I’d agree with this. I’d say, though it has more to do with the fact that asst profs have more to lose by having other’s work in the journals. They will be more likely to box out others in their field because of the need to gain a greater share of the attention space than their competitors. Letting others through in their subfield will have obvious implications on their own careers, especially b/c the bar for getting into a top journal is higher for those in a subfield with a lot of top-journal action.


  11. @11 I think you have it wrong. I don’t think anybody keeps what they perceive as good work out of the journals to cut down on competition. If assistant profs are harsher (and I’m not sure they are), it is because they have fresher training and more rigid standards of good and bad and probably read more carefully. Any good sociologist can find things to criticize in any sociology. The question is whether you lift up the criticism or the contributions. Grad school tends to teach you to criticize. It takes some age and experience to recognize that imperfect work can make a contribution.


  12. The first year of grad school, at a proseminar-type class, a very senior prof was asked if it was better to publish in journals or books. He said, “Books, because you don’t have to put up with the idiot reviewers.” There some attitude about what you have to go through to make it in the As.

    In the context of of the current conversation, I’d say one reason you don’t go to ASR/AJS as much as you age is that you don’t need the quality-verification stamp of the As in the same way you did before you had tenure or you had a job. As Jeremy says, you become less willing, and one of the reasons is the decreasing returns after tenure.


  13. OW: I appreciate your point, and it’s ultimately an empirical question. But isn’t it possible that standards will shift in relation to one’s professional position, considering that members of a subfield are responsible for determining what is good and bad for their subfield?
    I can accept that the good sociologist can find something to criticize in any sociology, but still suggest they will lift up the criticism vs the contributions if they are concerned that it will come at their expense.
    (Which then would lead to the prediction that even an assistant professor would lift up contributions in their area, if they are themselves cited.)

    On another note, I suspect looking at network ties is the best way to predict criticism level (esp. since double blind review is close to impossible in an age of ASA paper indexing).


  14. peepel: I think you have it backward. People do engage in sub-disciplinary and theoretical battles, but they tend to dump on people who disagree with them, not the people similar to them, who would be their nearest competitors. Yeah, I do appreciate seeing myself cited by others, but only if they get it right which, unfortunately, occurs less than half the time. It is pretty irritating to be cited as saying something you did not say. But that would be an argument for why us old fogies would be harsher. New assistant professors are much less likely to find themselves cited in what they read.

    Re blind reviews, any competent reviewer knows who wrote the paper, or knows that it is somebody they don’t know. It is the anonymity of the reviewer that protects the process, as most people are quite willing to criticize their friends as long as it is anonymous. Intellectual integrity is more common than you’d imagine, and few academics are willing to say work is good when they don’t think it is. The debates are about what is good or not.

    Quite honestly, in the blind review process, I think most people evaluate the work as they see it rather than play personal political games. Reviewers get copies of the other reviews, so I’ve read a lot of other people’s reviews over the years. They are usually serious and thoughtful. The problem lies more in the logic of fault-finding that characterizes the review process. You have to remember, although half of the job of an academic is to do research and write stuff, the other half of what we get paid to do is read things and say whether they are good or not.


  15. OW: I’d like to think you are right. So I will, because I sense you have more experience with the reviewing process than I. And, to a lesser extent, because I find it more personally motivating to think of reviewing process this way…


  16. @13: The book publication process doesn’t involve reviewers? Or, they just tend to be less harsh or demanding than in journal publishing? Or, they’re just less likely to say “idiotic” things?


  17. Jay, my understanding of the book publishing process is that a much more significant bottleneck is whether the book gets sent out for review in the first place. An interested editor will have an incentive to get positive reviews for a book so s/he may send it to reviewers who’ll be sympathetic (while still critical, of course). It’s definitely possible for book editors to phrase their requests for a review in a way that make it relatively clear to the reviewer that the editor would like to see constructive criticism that would improve the manuscript as opposed to commentary that would result in it having to be rejected. That’s not to say editors won’t consider negative comments, but if the manuscript is so bad, s/he may have realized this earlier in the process and not have sent it out for review.


  18. “An interested editor will have an incentive to get positive reviews for a book so s/he may send it to reviewers who’ll be sympathetic (while still critical, of course).”

    So, this is less common with journal publishing, I gather?


  19. I just think the peer review process, despite being there for university press books, is the same as a hurdle–which isn’t to say book publishing doesn’t have other hurdles that make up the difference. I’ve certainly heard many fewer stories about how Famous Book got rejected at Major Press because of one idiotic review.


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