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26.3.09

Academic publication quality

S. Matthew Liao asks whether reviewers of academic articles ought to make recommendations about whether an article is of sufficient quality to merit publication in a journal of the given one's prestige, or just focus on pointing out its merits and faults and leave the quality evaluation to the editor. I tend to favor the latter approach. But this is only partly for the sorts of reasons Liao lists. Instead, I view making quality judgments with skepticism because I'm dubious about the ability to distinguish among journals in terms of quality level.

It's possible that other fields, such as philosophy (where the question originated), it's easier to see that A-grade papers get published in top-tier journals, B-grade ones in lower-tier journals, etc. But in my own field (human-environment studies), this kind of stratification is far, far more fuzzy, at least with respect to what I consider to be paper quality (though there may be some correlation with the authors' perceptions of their work's quality, and articles in big-name journals certainly tend to become influential due to their wide readership). I've read stupid papers in the Annals of the AAG, and brilliant ones in Human Ecology Review. The main advantage to top-tier journals, to me, is their generality -- reading the Annals or PNAS lets me see a selection of work from across the range of things people are doing, whereas a journal like Society and Natural Resources keeps me focused on the kind of work that's closely linked to my core interests and research.

I was motivated to make mention of this by a recent PNAS article by Beddoe et al. (behind paywall) about the environmental crisis (though this article is hardly alone in shaping my view of PNAS's article quality). This article would be fine as a student term paper, but it's not clear to me how it ended up in what is supposedly one of the most prestigious English-language science journals. There is practically nothing new in it, aside perhaps for some new terms for ideas that have been discussed extensively already (e.g. "empty world" and "full world" for scenarios of low versus high human population and use of the natural environment).

The article begins with a theory of culture imported from biological evolution, presented with no acknowledgement that over a century of empirical and theoretical work on the dynamics of cultural functioning and change are being swept under the rug. I've been meaning to get around to a post on why evolutionary theories of culture are either laughably wrong (in their strong form, when they present a vision of internally-homogeneous social groups randomly manifesting cultural traits that are sifted by selection pressure that throws out the maladaptive ones), or vapid and uninformative (if the definitions of traits, selective pressure, etc are massaged so that they can encompass the actual processes of power, worldview construction, etc. that operate in societies). But I don't need to get into that here, because the article doesn't actually use this evolutionary theory for anything, aside from vague invocations of "change."

The remainder of the article is a sort of laundry list of social-democratic and Limits-to-Growth-inspired complaints about the state of the world -- too many things are privatized, society cares more about GDP growth than sustainability even though the former can't go on forever, political ads on TV turn voters into sheeple (but the internet will release the power of information), etc. Some of these points are basically right (e.g. over-focus on economic growth), and some I would argue are wrong (e.g. liberal faith in the power of freedom of information), but they all deserve detailed analysis rather than repetition as a pep-talk of platitudes to an audience that already probably mostly agrees with them.

The article ends with one of my least favorite rhetorical gambits -- but one that's far too common in human-environment research. Beddoe et al. assert the need for major, global, systemic change in our society's relationship in order to avert environmental crisis. This is true -- but what is required is some sort of analysis of how it will be possible to achieve that in the face of a variety of cultural, political, and economic barriers. But Beddoe et al., like too many other writers, seem to implicitly assume that people of good will will read their exhortations (or at least people of good will with access to PNAS) and change their attitudes to support the project. The immense scope of the ecological problems we face ends up functioning as a sort of argument in favor of the likelihood of change (since, I presume, it will motivate people more).

I should stress again that my intent is not to pick on Beddoe et al. specifically -- their article was simply the one that was in front of me, and which manifested a number of things that I frequently find irritating.

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