global politics, relationally

Don’t Let it Die- When to Save an Article


I have written before about terminating a research article, taking it out back and killing it.  Sometimes it’s just better to eliminate something rather than put more energy into saving a piece that really can’t be saved (cue the Coldplay song).  It seems so often our work is predicated on simple alterations in prior models or theories.  When our International Relations findings are incremental and muted, these articles become very tough to publish.  At that point, kill it.  Kill it with fire.  The deeper question is when to save something, when to persist despite all the signals that your should give up the project and move on?

Letting an article die is a difficult prospect, so much hard work and effort goes into each piece of research it is tough to let it go.  Sometimes the signals can just add up to lead to no other conclusion.  You have tried all the suitable journals you would be happy to publish in.  There is no new sources of data or cases you can leverage to expand your argument.  At that point you are just stuck and it’s better to move on and cut your losses, there can be a reputation effect to publishing in a lowly ranked journal or a journal outside of the norm (same with books, in IR, if it is not on the TRIP survey, don’t publish there if you hoping to move towards tenure and Full Professor).  Not every publication is a good idea, I have known many people who were more hurt by a publishing a book at a lowly ranked outlet, rather than helped.

One reason to remain persistent about your work is the level of interest.  Despite negative reviews and possible methodological dead ends, does the idea still persist?  This happened to me with a recent article that just appeared in Foreign Policy Analysis.  In this article, a former graduate student and I created a dataset for what we call complex rivals, multiparty rivalries.  There were obviously limitations with this approach, there were not too many complex rivals and the selection was restricted to triadic rivals because there were so few rivals with more than three parties and the complexity of creating a dataset expanded unreasonably as we sought to code truly complicated rivals.  But idea did have some persistence.  The international arena is not so simple as to merely contain a dyad.  Many cases of rivalry are incomplete without consideration of an additional third party either exacerbating the rivalry or leading to its eventual termination.  Because of these observations, the idea of complex rivalries (really interdependent negative security complexes) was fairly popular and requested often when I went to conferences.  Despite my wishes to let the idea die, it seemingly would not.

Co-authors are also an important consideration.  It’s not always about you.  In an era when multiple publications are needed to even be considered for a tenure track job or advancement beyond the third year of a contract, publications are important.  Sometimes you must persist to literally save the career of someone else.   This was not the case in our FPA article since Matt has plenty of articles, but it is a very real consideration now.

Persistence can also be important in the case with creating datasets.  Creating a dataset is a complicated process, something I have come to learn intimately.  Often, the audience wants something different, or reviewers have expectations about variables and considerations that are impossible to add to a dataset.  Even a flawed dataset, as all datasets are because they are approximations of reality, is useful.  We must seek to build on these efforts; someone might find the effort useful for expansion or even as a case selection device.  All these issues are important future concerns that must be taken into account.  Without the early efforts, we might not have the datasets we have today.

Another source of persistence might be policy relevance.  This condition is so often not meant by advanced international relations research.  The work we do sometimes is so removed from reality and realistic considerations that it is difficult to put into practice.  Yet, if your research does say something interesting and important from the policy perspective that has not really caught up with conventional wisdom, it might be worthwhile to keep pursuing the project.

The last reason you might want to save and revive an article is a new journal or a new editorial team with a journal you did not consider before.  Things change with time.  When it was once considered that the typical route for a data article in IR was in some order of ISQ/JCR/JPR/II/CMPS/death, things do change through time and now we can add Foreign Policy Analysis, International Studies Perspectives, and maybe Conflict and Cooperation and European Journal of International Relations to this list.  Not to mention journals outside the field, useful for research on refugees, terrorism, and climate.  The added bonus of journals outside the field is you could hit one with a higher impact factor than field journals, thus increasing the visibility of your work and its prestige in some sectors.  Traditional wisdom was that we should mainly publish in field journals because they are read by all scholars in your field.  But this advice is outdated in an era when we no longer receive physical copies of journals.  Now it is much more acceptable and even advantageous to publish in just about any outlet that is reputable.

Publishing is a complicated, long, and terrible process.  We can make it easier on ourselves by accepting our limitations and letting things die when its time.  But we can also make important contributions if we reconsider our strategy and tactics given certain incentives and payoffs.  Sometimes an article should receive CPR, it must live!

Author: Brandon Valeriano

Brandon Valeriano is the Donald Bren Chair of Armed Politics at the Marine Corps University.