Hello Big Name Scholar, Can You Help Me Publish?

I recently had a conversation with a very prominent Hungarian political scientist. (And I mean VERY PROMINENT, someone who has achieved just about everything you can humanly accomplish in Hungarian political science.) We were talking about publishing and how a decade or two ago, he had no clue. He didn’t know what he was doing and given what the state of political science looked like in the country at the time, he had no one to turn to for guidance. There were no mentors. There were no role models. He didn’t know what science looked like, how to engage with it, what one should do to play in the big(ger) leagues. He was mourning the years he wasted doing things that today appear completely meaningless while he could have been publishing in top scientific outlets like he does today.

While the situation in Hungary is improving, and probably in the rest of the region as well, I have encountered places that seem like the Hungarian decades past this friend described. At the same time, I sometimes get truly misguided emails from often advanced colleagues in less developed countries. I assume they email a lot of people, and do not receive too many responses. They are almost certainly also just wasting time. I try to reply to these, but I feel I have little to offer to these colleagues. A recent such contact really made me stop and collect some thoughts on this matter and this blog post is my attempt to be more helpful.

First, if you are a junior scholar, PhD student, or a very freshly minted doctor, it is OK to seek out more senior mentors afar for a mentorship or research visit (though don’t expect those scholars to fund your visit unless you are applying to a call). But if you are more senior, it is most likely that do not need me or my assistance. Maybe you think you do, and yes, there are places where I (or people like me) can be helpful to you, but usually not in ways you ask. You probably do not want to do research with me, you do not want a chapter in my next edited volume, and you definitely do not need my name on your manuscript to help get it published. Let’s look at the flip-side of this as well. People like me have enough stuff to do, we have enough collaborators to deal with, if we are editing something, we will either make an open call for collaborators or we have a very good idea who we want to work with. No cold call will get you closer to your goal. If you think you are someone who can make a substantive contribution to whatever I am doing, you certainly can make a substantive contribution in political science, in general. And that is exactly where you should be starting.

So let’s look at how you can make a substantive contribution. A good contribution is taking some theory, some study out there, almost inevitably done in some weird country (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic country) and applying it to your home. A truly amazing contribution, on the other hand, is having the contextual understanding of where your home country is an important case to some theory. Maybe it is an extreme case that should be looked at from the perspective of the theory to see how strong the results can get. Maybe it is the case that will “disprove” the theory or at least question its universality. Maybe it is the critical case. Maybe the empirical result in some weird country is quite straightforward, but when tested in the case you have familiarity, access, insight on, it can truly make or break the theory’s empirical footing. You, coming from a place where political scientists are not (yet) publishing in the top outlets, gives you the competitive advantage to see some new insight and to make a contribution others will not be able to make.

And editors, and I mean editors of top journals, want this perspective in their journals. I have seen editors go out of their way to solicit submissions from people like you. They go out of their way to help get these insights make it to print. They want to lift you up because you have insight, you have a place in political science, and maybe you could become the role model in your region for other researchers who will then deliver even more insight. Even if your attempts are still clumsy, you may have had less training, opportunity, exposure to the publishing game, worse English, etc. they want to see your work in print and they will help you get there. I have talked to editors who set up funds to help with the language of submissions coming from underrepresented places. I have seen editors truly relate to the work of my students from such places differently than from countries or universities they always get submissions from. Know that you have endless goodwill and allies in the community. Your work has to be good enough to be able to get there, but you definitely have allies. Maybe it is not everyone (reviewers are often less helpful than editors but I sincerely believe it should be) but there are a lot of people.

Now, understand that in order to make a contribution along the lines described above, you need to 1. understand the theories and debates in the field, and for this 2. you need to read, and read a lot. You need to read the general journals, the top disciplinary journals, the top topical journals, the top regional journals and read these regularly. You need to make up for the lack of Ivy League education by reading everything those people read and more. And when you find theories that peak your interest, you will need to read the relevant books on those theories as well. This brings me to, what exactly are these journals you should read? How can you identify these journals and the journals you should be publishing in?

I would say the best place to start is Scimago Journal Rankings. They have a list of journals for each field of study and this data (as opposed to Thomson-Reuters) is freely accessible. Look through the list. For reading, focus on Q1 (top quartile) journals. Look at Q2 and maybe Q3 journals too as you seek potential outlets for your work. The top disciplinary journals are well known in each field. Read those for sure. (For political science this is the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, The Journal of Politics or if we want to stay closer to Europe the British Journal of Political Science, the European Journal of Political Research, Political Science and Research Methods or the European Political Science Review). Top general journals are less known by social scientists. My go to recommendation for the social sciences is Nature Human Behavior. But general science journals are also worth considering like Science, Nature or the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). When you identify topical or area focused journals, go to their website. Most have at least the titles and abstracts of papers public. Check what they say about themselves. Check the papers that get published there. Is it in line with the kind of work you aim to do? Make a list of journals that are in line and start reading, at least the titles and abstracts. If you can get access, read the whole articles for the most relevant pieces.

Reading these outlets will give you a solid idea on what top scientific articles look like. Be conscious of their structure, how they make arguments, etc. It is also a good idea to have some training in research methods. At least read the books introducing the approaches you want to apply, you want to use so you understand what is expected of you. Seek out all opportunities for methods training.

And then, when you think your work is good enough, go to the submission guidelines described on every journal’s website and start submitting your work. Now, remember, in most fields (law is an exception, I understand) you can only submit to one journal at a time and reviews take many months. So choose wisely. And be productive. Because of how slow this is, you need multiple papers in the writing and publishing process in parallel. Don’t get discouraged by failure. The review process is quite random. A lot of my work is also rejected. Get used to it. Learn from the feedback and submit elsewhere. The first one is the hardest both with submissions and rejections.

And here is where we need to go back to these letters I receive. Please don’t come to me (or people like me) with general requests like the ones I described above. But, it is very true that I can probably help you, but not in the ways people writing such emails usually ask for. So what can you do to maximize your chances of getting this help? Come to me with specifics. I have seen your work on XY and Z and I am now trying to apply what you based article A and B on to [insert country]. I am going about doing this by etc. etc. Then go ahead and ask me what I think about your approach. Ask me if I would be willing to consider helping you in your research endeavors. Explain that you have very few people you can talk to about this topic or even researcher role models to look up to or learn from and I could help in many ways like help you get access to an article or two sometimes (as that is also scarce), answer a question or two when you need someone to help guide you through questions on what your next step or direction should be, ask me if I would take a look at a draft when it is good enough condition (because it helps to get feedback before submission, help with deciding if the manuscript is indeed good enough already or not and what it would take to get it there) or if I’d be willing to listen to you present the research design before starting empirical data collection or willing to watch a conference-style presentation of the paper (as you also don’t have access to the funds to go to conferences to present your work). Because if there is a close topical fit with my work, I will be happy to do this [but please don’t take this as a personal invitation, you really should contact the 3-5 people who are closest to your line of scientific inquiry]. In fact, many, if not most, people I know would be happy to do this. But don’t cast a broad net here. You want to explain (briefly) in your letter how exactly your work fits with mine. (It helps if it fits with my recent work, not stuff I was doing 10-15 years ago that I moved on from.) But I know that with many of these aforementioned emails, I am not the only person getting them. When I respond, often I find that I am not even a close topical fit. Don’t be that person. Put the effort into highlighting why your work is related to mine, I should feel interested in what you are doing and should feel responsible for helping a colleague whose circumstances are not as fortunate as mine. It is time much better spent than producing mass emails that will almost certainly hit spam folders or will simply be ignored because there is nothing in them that communicates why I should respond to you, what your potential contributions are, and there is nothing in there that communicates the kind of competence I look for when I chose my collaborators. If you do the above, you will effectively say, “hey, bigger name scholar, it is worth paying attention to me” and that is what will get you the kind of response you are looking for.