The Duck of Minerva

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Talking Academic Journals: Publishing the “Best Work”

May 3, 2013

Note: this is the second in a series of posts opening up issues relating to journal process for general discussion by the international-studies community.

All journals commit to publishing “the best work” that they receive within their remit. All journals aspire to publish “the best work,” period, within their specialization. This raises special challenges for a journal such as the International Studies Quarterly, which constitutes the “flagship” publication of the International Studies Association (ISA). The ISA is incredibly diverse. It includes members from all over the world–nearly half are based outside of North America–who work in different disciplines and within heterogeneous research cultures. ISQ therefore has an obligation to reflect this diversity. One of the most common complaints leveled against it for as long as I’ve been in the profession–and I’m sure much longer than that–is that it fails to meet this obligation (see also the American Political Science Review). A lot of this goes with the territory: scholars tend to impute editorial bias when they receive rejections or otherwise feel that their work didn’t receive the reception that it deserved. Indeed, if you look closely at the table of contents of ISQ under both the current and previous editors, you’ll quickly discover that it publishes everything from computational to post-structural work.

All of that being said, a major commitment of our team is to do our best to ensure that work receives hands-on attention from an editor with knowledge of the methodological issues involved. That’s why we have a large group of senior and associate editors, and are doing our best to develop procedures to handle that fact. But this still raises some thorny questions.

Chief among them: how does one make judgments about what constitutes “the best work” from among a methodologically heterogeneous pool? Consider that:

  • Every scholarly community within ISA is riven with critical disagreements–from the utility of matching, to how one demonstrates that a particular discursive formation gives rise to a specific condition of possibility, to how to adjudicate qualitative counterfactuals.
  • Even if we could put aside such internal disagreements, how does one shape a particular article such that it demonstrates to outsiders that it reflects an exceptional example of its approach? In other words, what is the appropriate form, style, and overall presentation for specific kinds of work–particularly in the context of communicating to the broader international-studies community.

I hope it won’t be too controversial for me to say that some intellectual communities have better-developed conventions for what constitutes a rigorous, high-quality piece than others. There is, for example, a particular style of qualitative neopositivist work that most people agree on: present a puzzle; discuss rival theoretical explanations and present one’s own; provide “expectations” about what kinds of empirical evidence accords with rival theories; and then run an analytical narrative covering (usually) between one and three cases.

Now, I should be clear that among our editors we have plenty of ideas about what constitutes superlative work from across the international-studies community. Moreover, as peer-review is heavily dependent upon anonymous reviewers, reviewers themselves help resolve many of these concerns. And all journals will, because of the vagaries of the process, reject deserving work and accept less-deserving pieces. All of that being said, I thought it would be worthwhile to ask the readers of the Duck what they think about the relationship among different methodological traditions and what  “the best work” in those traditions looks like.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.