19.5.05

JUST SUCK IT UP. Professor Munger offers some additional thoughts on getting published.
Any moron can write stuff and get it published. Many do. It may not be good, but at most universities that doesn't matter at all. The old saying is that "Deans can count, but they can't read." There are quite a few "major" universities that have social science departments that just attach weights by journal quality and pages published to figure out raises. But the modal number of citations of articles in Web of Science? 0, bagel, bupkes, nada. Publishing stuff just takes patience and hard, focused work. You just have to face the terrors of the blinking cursor, instead of eating muffins and reading the NYTimes on the pretext you have to stay informed.
What does this say about the value-added of research? Steak 'n Shake advises, "In Sight, It Must Be Right." Can observers of the academy make the same inference? "Professor Throckmorton (thanks, John) is the author of fifty articles in Rivista Internazionale Numere Due di Bovini." Patience and focus? Perhaps. But the same thing can be said about one-theme Usenet trolls. Is Professor Throckmorton a better teacher, or a better colleague, or makes better contributions to promotion boards? Or did the Pines of the Janiculum give it up in vain?

And what about the top journals?
If anything, they publish more junky, narrow schlock than ever before. If you talk to journal editors, they say they would love to get more good papers, even the kind of papers they expected routinely 5 years ago. It is just as likely, or even more likely, for a GOOD paper to get published now as it was 20 years ago. (b) relatedly, the papers sent out for review by junior people today are shockingly, apocalyptically bad. No attempt at lit reviews, worthless narrow data sets, cases selected on the dependent variable, no model of any kind, the wrong method. As grad students, everyone gets patted on the head for the sake of building self-esteem, and then when you have to go out into the big bad world people are MEAN to you. Boo hoo. I get papers to review that wouldn't get a B in one of my undergrad classes. My reaction is not friendly.
I go to the linked ruminations and concur in part and dissent in part.

One way to fail is to study something until you understand it, but then drift to something else without writing it up. This happens all the time: a scholar teaches him/herself until some learning (type #3) has actually taken place, but the "write it and publish it" (type #4) never happens.

The other way to fail is less excruciating to watch, but more painful to read. Since we put so much emphasis on publishing, lots of young people start writing about a subject before they have learned much about it. Learning #3 MUST precede #4. But I often get papers to review for journals where it is clear that the author needs to go think about the subject for a few months, and learn the stuff himself.

But there is a tradeoff between completeness and speed, and three-year reviews often place a great premium on getting things out quickly. (Nothing new there, by the way: one cynical graduate student who finished about the same time that I did wanted to get as many things into Bovini as quickly as he could: there is something to be said for trading a little quantity for a lot of quality.)

I did like this point.
(a) If you have five papers you have presented at conferences, but have not yet sent to journals, you ought to just abandon pretence and buy an inflatable doll. All you are doing is pleasuring yourself. You ain't working. Finishing is work. Starting a paper and having dinner with friends at conferences is fun, but not work. I specifically look at the ratio of conference papers to published papers on c.v.s I receive for junior people when we have a position. If the ratio is >3/1, I put them in the reject pile. In academics, like in every sport, finishing is what matters, and finishing is what so many people, even smart people, cannot do.
Summer resolution: finish some of the current conference papers and ship them out. Go in the basement, and finish some of the unbuilt kits before opening any new ones. (I have the same problem as a model railroader that I do as an economist, in that it is sometimes more fun to start a new project than to grapple with the hard bits of an ongoing one. Deirdre McCloskey is right: sneak up on the unfinished project, apply rump to seat and pencil to paper -- hopelessly reactionary, I admit, but the tech types know the corollary -- and get it done. This site will be a bit less active over the next few months accordingly.)

The rest of the advice to beginning academics is sound. I would add only this: competing in the profession might be more important than competing to satisfy the local campus politicians. There is a nasty principal-agent problem in there somewhere, but I did resolve to finish the irreversible investment papers and the immigration policy papers first.

No comments: