Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Keeping Up with Political Science

Following up on last week's brouhaha about reporters and political scientists, Ezra Klein, who has been very supportive to this blog and other political science bloggers, is nonetheless a bit frustrated by us (not the bloggers, but the profession):
All that said, political scientists make it extremely hard for the rest of us to benefit from all that study. The papers are locked away in obscure journals accessible only by expensive subscriptions. There are relatively few blogs dedicated to applying the insights of political science to the events of the day (but more than there used to be!). I don't know of any organizations in the District dedicated to guiding journalists through the thickets of the discipline. Nor do many think tanks in Washington employ political scientists (one reason that economists are so dominant in this town is that they're everywhere, and they spend most of their time talking to journalists on the phone).
John Sides already weighed in with a suggestion or two of what we can do to help (good idea, John, and I should get to it myself one of these days).  I'm not sure how helpful that would be to reporters, however; while gated journals are part of the problem, I think what Ezra is saying is that he also doesn't know where to turn to begin.  So, here are some practical suggestions for reporters, bloggers, and others who want to know what's up according to the political scientists:

1.  A lot of journals are gated, but conference papers are often freely available.  The biggest conference of the year is the American Political Science Association conference, always on Labor Day weekend, and papers are uploaded and available.  Here's the link to get to lots of them (doesn't seem to be up today, at least not with my browser, but it's there).  Of course, many conference papers don't pan out (some are already dead by the time of the conference -- we apply with abstracts, and generally write the paper (and often do the research) after the paper is accepted, so sometimes it doesn't work out.  Others are good, but for whatever reason don't get published.  Still, browsing around every September will often yield a lot of goodies.  There are also regional conferences, subfield conferences, and conferences devoted to specific subjects...for example, for political parties there's John Green's State of the Parties quadrennial conference, which does make its papers available here, if you don't want to wait for the book to come out.

2.  While you're at it -- go ahead and join the APSA.  There's an Associate Member status that's not expensive.  The conference rotates around, but in 2010 it'll be in Washington.  They do make you pay to attend, but again it's not too bad.  Oh, and I'm pretty sure that even at Associate Member status you can pay another $25 and get access to JSTOR (in other words, you can get through the journal paywalls).

3.  I don't know what kind of budget the WaPo gives their bloggers, but I highly recommend one journal which is targeted to academic and non-academic readers, and which appears to be not out-of-reach expensive: The Forum.  It does both politics and policy; see, for example, their latest issue, which focused on immigration.  (Disclosure: I used to be on the editorial board, and I've published there, and I have friends there.  As I do anywhere I'm going to recommend within political science, at least within American politics; it's a small world).

Mostly, while I do appreciate Ezra's frustration, I think the more common problem is that there are a lot of reporters who aren't interested, certainly not in actually reading academic papers.  And while I agree with Seth that most of us wouldn't have become political scientists if we weren't interested in politics, it's also true, and necessary to point out, that many of us are not really that interested in the day-to-day stuff -- almost any scholar of Congress could give a reporter a quick review of the filibuster (perhaps not on a par with the excellent job Greg Koger did at the Monkey Cage, but still a reasonable one), but not all Congressional scholars were following the health care debate closely enough to have a specific opinion about it.  Almost all political scientists are interested in politics, but for some that means political history, or, yes, abstract theories of politics.  I'm a serious political junkie, but not all of us are.

So, there is work for political scientists to do if we want to be more helpful, but there's a lot that someone such as Ezra Klein or Matt Yglesias could do right now to have better access, and better guidance, to what's out there.


  1. Ezra Klein is attacking the wrong target. I imagine political scientists would love to take comfy perches in think tanks. Can they be blamed that think tanks don't hire them?

    Some disciplines are marketable outside of academia (hard science, economics, psychology). Others use academia for training while the real work happens outside (engineering, business, accounting, medicine). Some disciplines get their money from universities (literature, political science, history).

    Publishers do not look for a lit degree before publishing a novel. Parties do not look for a poly sci degree before running a candidate or hiring an adviser. Could poly sci really change that?

    I don't doubt poly sci could use better outreach, but who pays? Should political scientists pay heavy dues to support their own promotional group in Washington? Would that really give Ezra what he wants?

    IMHO Jonathan Bernstein, Monkey Cage, and their like are doing what can be done (with little money) to break political science out of its ghetto. I suspect more people than ever before are becoming aware of political science and its insights. Perhaps this new popularity will open the door to more jobs for political scientists outside of academia.

  2. One of the problems of Pol Sci that I experienced is that the university teaching itself doesn't believe it to be a science. At the University of Amsterdam, where I got my MA-degree in Pol Sci, post-positivism and "interpretive policy analysis" reigned free, all for the greater good of the social-democrat ideologues who led the faculty.

    Only outside of my faculty did I learn real poli sci: from political philosophy to good hard statistics, from political history to game theory. And this stuff IS real science.


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