Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The "Shotgun" Approach

Recently, I made a short post about a rejection we got from a journal, and noted that we'd "make a few changes and send it out to another journal". Robert Jensen (emeritus professor of accounting at Trinity University, and one of the earliest academic bloggers) picked up on this and made some very insightful comments on the research "Shotgun approach"
Most academics still actively seeking publication in research journals are playing the same game.

Think of each shotgun pellet as a research paper which in modern times is generally a co-authored paper that gives rise to more pellets (i.e., more papers) loaded into the shotgun shell. The "Shotgun Game" (my definition) is analogous to standing at one end of a football field and firing a 12-gage into the air while hoping that one or more of the tiny pellets will fall down on a target beyond the opposite goal line. At first the target is a very small Tier 1 academic journal target. There may even be several of small targets of about the same Tier 1 small size, especially when foreign journals are allowed to be targets. The game may be replayed several times with substituted Tier 1 targets until the player and/or the referees grow weary of repeated plays at the Tier 1 level. Then the player moves up to Tier 2 journals that have targets twice the size of Tier 1 journals and are, accordingly, easier (not necessarily easy) to hit. Then there are Tier 3 journals, Tier 4 journals, and on and on. Ultimately there are conference proceedings with targets that take up half a football field and are easy to hit even when played by blind researchers. Each shell fired is reloaded with pellets that missed the targets on earlier plays of the game.

Read the whole thing here (it's about a quarter of the way down, and the the easiest way to find it is to search on the page for Unknown Professor).

His comments, and those of the commenters who chime in, are pretty much on target. Unfortunately, Professor Jensen makes one mistake: he thinks I'm now tenured (I'm not yet). At my school, both the number and the quality of my publications count (unfortunately, they place more weight on numbers than quality). So, my interests are best served by getting stuff out quickly, particularly since I will likely go up for tenure in the next couple of years.

I admit, this strategy imposes some costs on the profession as a whole (particularly for the poor referees that have to read the stuff I submit). And the work I'm submitting isn't terrible - it's just admittedly not up to the standards I'd like to maintain in a perfect world. Were I aiming for tenure at a "top" research school, it definitely wouldn't be an optimal strategy.

However, here at Unknown University, quality counts within the department (quality meaning publications in either first or high second-tier journals), but numbers count within the larger college and with the Dean (yes, a Dean is someone who can't read but can count). And while Unknown Son was undergoing cancer treatment, I simply didn't have the energy to work on "big" projects. So, I started a lot of smaller things. They're not great, but they'll get published somewhere, and my dean will have things to count.

But I do hope to kick up my research in terms of quality (and I'll have to to get the tenure vote of at least one of the senior faculty in my department). I currently have three revise-and-resubmits that should all be resubmitted within the next month (unfortunately, all at lower-tier journals). Once these are off my desk, I'll have cleared out the "old" material from my research folder, and can start working on the higher-impact stuff.

We've gotten pretty strong positive signals from the editors on two of the three. So if those two hit, I could end up having 5 acceptances in my first eighteen months at the new school. Granted, they're mostly at lower-tier journals, it does give me some cover while I send out some pieces to higher-tier journals.

I agree wholeheartedly Professor Jensen that a great deal of research that gets done would be FAR better served posted on blogs or some Wiki-style forum. But the school I'm at is the one I plan on staying at (it's one of the three target schools I had when I graduated, and it took me eight years and 3 moves post-Ph.D to get here). So, I bite my lip and do what I have to to get tenure.

Nontenured faculty (particularly at lower-tier schools) have a difficult task that involves balancing two competing approaches: the "Shotgun" approach is unfortunately the optimal one for minimizing the risk of not getting tenure, and the "high quality" one (do only research that answers big questions and has a high probability of ending up in "top" journals) that most benefits the profession and makes it likely that they'll eventually end up at top research schools.

But no one ever said it would be easy.

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