The Political Economy of Academic Conferences

by Henry on June 7, 2005

I spent a fair chunk of time over the last few months working as chair for one of the divisions of the annual American Political Science Association’s annual meeting, which is being held this year in Washington DC. It was an eye-opener – I’d never understood how the decision-making process worked before; i.e. how decisions are made over which paper proposals are accepted or rejected. It was also somewhat startling to see how many good papers don’t end up being accepted through no fault of their own. If I had had the slots, I would have accepted twice as many papers for my division as I was able to – there were a number of very good paper proposals that ended up not being accepted due to reasons of space or fit. But there is also a political economy to the process of decision-making; if you understand it properly (I didn’t, prior to participating in the process), you can maximize your chances of getting a good proposal accepted. Mediocre or bad papers are of course still likely to end up on the cutting room floor. Some lessons are posted below the fold. NB that these only apply to the APSA meeting – the processes of choice (and hence the best means to maximizing your likelihood of paper acceptance) will vary dramatically from conference to conference. Those with expert knowledge of other conferences and other disciplines are invited to share tips and experiences in comments.

In APSA, each division chair is given an allotment of panels that reflects attendance at the division’s panels at the previous annual meeting (with some variation; the program chair for the conference as a whole is given a little leeway to add a few panels here and there to divisions to reflect that year’s theme, or other priorities). There is a twist – it is possible for one division to co-sponsor a panel with another. This means that both divisions share the panel, and the glory if the panel is well attended (or shame if it’s poorly attended). The incentives are to try to mount panels that will draw a good audience, while paying attention to Ph.D. students about to graduate (who need to put in an appearance at APSA to get jobs), and making sure that there is some diversity in terms of geography, institution etc. There’s also a strong informal incentive to mount as many co-sponsored panels as possible – it looks better for your division, and improves its prospects of getting more panel allocations in future years. There is a minimal degree of wriggle-room for the division chair to follow his or her own particular priorities – as someone who didn’t graduate from a top-tier institution myself, I tried to make sure that promising papers from people at second-tier or non-traditional institutions didn’t get overlooked (as I suspect they often are). But this wriggle room is very narrow indeed.

From this, a number of lessons follow.

First, the obvious stuff (although it was surprising to me how many people this was not obvious to). Make sure that you are submitting your proposal to the right division – i.e. the one which is substantively closest to the themes that you are writing on. Don’t try to submit to another division, e.g. because you know the chair of that division and think he/she will be more favourably disposed to your proposal. It won’t work – given the very limited number of slots available, and the vociferous protests that are going to come from those who aren’t accepted, it is highly unlikely that even dear personal friends/grad school buddies etc are going to help you out (they not only shouldn’t; they’re going to suffer if they do). Write a tight proposal, which seeks to demonstrate that there is something exciting about the paper. If you are submitting to an empirically-oriented division, be as specific as possible about the kinds of data (qualitative or quantitative) that you are using, if you have it, or about how your theoretical findings connect with research, if you aren’t writing an empirically driven paper. If you have a theory, state it – and talk about how your data (or other evidence) connect to the theory. Give some idea of your hypotheses. Talk about your findings, and how they relate to the field. In short – the more you are able to convince your reader that you have a genuine, well defined paper with interesting findings, the more likely you are to be accepted. Vague statements or claims aren’t going to do as well.

Second – Each meeting has a rather vague and general theme. If your paper speaks to that theme directly, say so explicitly. Different divisions will take the theme more or less seriously, depending on the nature of the division (some themes are more or less irrelevant to some divisions) and the inclinations of the division chair. But it can’t hurt to draw the connection, and it may help. Also, read the division chair’s statement of how the division will address that year’s theme (available on the APSA website) – it will give some insight into his or her priorities for the section, which can be useful.

Third – My strong impression is that your chances are better if you submit your paper as part of a panel proposal, rather than an individual paper. This is especially true if your topic is a little unusual. An individual paper-proposal on an out-of-left-field topic is going to have a tough time getting accepted – it is going to be very hard for the division chair to find other papers that she can add together with yours to make a coherent panel. In contrast, a panel proposal on a somewhat unusual topic has (at least if someone like me is division chair) pretty good chances of being accepted. It’s nice to be able to shake the discipline up a little by bringing in fresh ideas – and unconventional panels can do this.

Fourth – it helps to have some diversity in the panel. A panel which has a mix of people from different kinds of institutions and parts of the world is likely to look more attractive than a panel which is monocultural. Also, a panel which has a mix of some advanced grad students, and some more established people also looks good.

Fifth – something which is non-obvious. For APSA, make sure to submit to two divisions, rather than one, regardless of whether you are submitting an individual paper or a panel. There is a lot of horsetrading where division chairs dicker over which panels to accept and which papers to include in jointly sponsored panels. A panel/paper which is submitted to just one division is more ‘expensive’ for the division chair to accept than one which she can co-sponsor with another division, and thus, ceteris paribus will have more difficulty in getting accepted.

Sixth – as a corollary to the above – if you can manage it, submit to two divisions that have some connection to each other. This is especially important if you are submitting an individual paper. Two divisions that don’t have an obvious connection are going to have difficulty in co-sponsoring panels (they aren’t likely to have enough compatible papers). Two divisions that do have a connection – and have a history of co-sponsoring panels – are likely to have a much easier time in bringing together papers and constructing coherent panels. Therefore, they are more likely to include your paper as one of them. If you have a theme that speaks to divisions without an obvious connection, it makes sense to try to put together an entire panel proposal rather than just submit an individual paper; the latter will probably have a better shot at being accepted than the former. You can figure out which divisions work well together by looking at the programs for previous meetings, and finding out who tends to co-sponsor with who.

All this guidance is highly unofficial, of course, and is based purely on my personal impressions of the process. Still, I’ve learned a lot from acting as chair, which I wish I’d known in previous years. If nothing else, I’ve learned to be less grumpy at getting my papers rejected. It’s a little like wedding guestlists – you’re far more likely to be indignant at not making the shortlist for your acquaintances’ weddings if you haven’t yet had to organize a wedding yourself, so that you realize how difficult the tradeoffs are.

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07.12.05 at 5:10 pm

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mark 06.07.05 at 4:09 pm

Henry,
I have filled a similar role for ISA (the International Studies Association) three times in recent years and would second all the points you raise here. The situation at ISA is a bit easier than at APSA (as I understand it.) We received fewer applications than is the norm at APSA and thus have to reject fewer papers. There are a couple of points I would add to your comments:
1. Try to make your proposal relevant to the section to which you are submitting it. We have rejected a number of very interesting proposals that could have made for great presentations because they were simply not relevant to the section. This issue is especially important if you are only submitting a single paper proposal (as opposed to a panel proposal.) If your topic is somewhat esoteric it becomes that much harder to find other papers to add to it to make a coherent panel. In my experience the task of trying to maintain some kind of logical consistency when putting papers together to make a panel was one of the most difficult parts of the process.
2. Related to this, it is probably fair to say that panel proposals have an easier time of it. We rejected far fewer panel porposals than we did individual papers. That said, we put together a list of about 50 proposed panels for ISA main office each year and 30-35 of those paenls were ones which we put together from single paper submissions.
3. We paid less attention to people’s second choice of section to which they submitted their proposal. this does not mean it is irrelevant, but rather that as we put panels together we sought co-sponsorship from other sections that seemed most appropriate. Still, make sure you select two sections to submit the proposal to since if your first choice cannot fit it on the program, it will be passed along to your second choice.
4. If you submit a panel proposal make sure it is complete – ie: it contains 4/5 papers, a chair and a discussant. The program organizers have enough to do already without having to find a discussant for your incomplete panel proposal.
5. It probably doesn’t enhance your chances of being accepted, but it will certainly endear you to the program organizers if you are willing to be chair/discussant on a panel. Indeed, I would especially recommend this for junior faculty. The workload is usually less than you think (unless you come across a presenter with a 60 page paper) and it is a good way to network (particularly for introverted academics!) And, if you do have someone on your panel with a 60 page paper email the program organizers and see if they can find a second discussant to help you out – we’ve done it in the past.
6. Finally, a few more informal points:
a. It probably helps if you are an active member of the section in question. If you show up at section business meetings and/or receptions, we will probably try not to tick you off by rejecting your paper.
b. After you’ve been accepted: Please realize I don’t know about every academic feud and the fact that I put you on the same panel as someone who was rude about your work 5 years ago is not some sadistic plot. I apologize, but it was not intentional.
c. For God’s sake SHOW UP. If you can’t make it to the conference let the organizers know in time to find a replacement – especially if you are a chair or discussant. If you develop a reputation as someone who may not show up for your panel your proposals are likely not to be accepted at future conferences.

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Eszter 06.07.05 at 7:11 pm

Helpful post, thanks. I’ve been meaning to write something similar regarding graduate applications. I have a question for you: does APSA impose word/page limits on submissions? If yes, did it bother you when people went over them?

Personally, I really dislike it when people ignore word/page limits. It may just be that submitters don’t realize how many submissions arrive on the desk of evaluators and so they do not realize that an extra page or two times 150 (say in the case of grad applications to a program) is considerable. I find it disrespectful and also makes me wonder about people’s ability to follow directions.

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John Quiggin 06.07.05 at 7:40 pm

I’ve always thought that the idea of an annual meeting having a theme is a really bad one. It simply adds gratuitous randomness to the whole process.

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Chris Williams 06.08.05 at 4:47 am

I’m with John on the theme. The UK’s Social History Society conference has recently dropped it, which means that the number of papers that we have to sit through on ‘shoe-horning my area of expertise into this year’s theme’ plummeted. Which is nice.

My experience of this is rather depressing. I was on a sub-panel for [large social-science annual conference] in 2000, and learned to my chagrin that the conference organisers expected us to accept all the proposals we were sent, without regard to quality. Their own political economy had the accent on economy rather than politics, and was driven entirely by bums on seats.

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vivian 06.08.05 at 7:48 pm

Henry: as a political scientist, thanks for the advice and the labor (labour?) you gave your committee.

Eszter: That’s really interesting – my advisor (long experience, as smart and socially savvy as they come) told me to send the dissertation intro, best chapter and conclusion with all job applications, regardless of what the ad said. On the theory that the committee would then choose which 30pp bits to read based on their curiosity and interests. Do you suppose there is a variety of preferences out there, or was this a spectacularly bad piece of advice?

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Simstim 06.09.05 at 5:46 am

Eszter: In my experience (as a former undergrad, postgrad, TA and clerical officer in various academic departments) a large minority, in some cases a majority, of academics will simply not read instructions at all and will give you what they have in whatever format/timescale they feel like. These same people are, of course, most put out when the same happens to them…

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Unknown Professor 06.10.05 at 8:33 am

I’ve been on numerous program committees over the years for finance conferences, and even served as chair for one of the major tracks at one meeting. My experience may not be universal, but having talked with a lot of my peers, it’s probably not too far off the mark.

The typical reviewer is given between 5 and 12 papers do make decisions on, and usually spends less than 15 minutes per paper reviewing them. So, the best advice I can give (for those in my field) is to make sure the abstract, intro, and conclusions read very, very well. In particular, make sure that you state what your paper is about and WHY ANYONE SHOULD CARE by the second paragraph of the introduction (and hopefully sooner).

I often make my decision on whether a paper is worth accepting in less than 5-10 minutes. A poorly written abstract and introduction often leaves a bad enough taste in my mouth that the game is over.

If it’s an empirical paper, I’ll then go to the tables. If they’re self-contained (i.e. the description of the dataset and the explanations of the variables are included in the table), it makes my life easier, and (if the paper has any merit) greatly increases the chance of the paper being accepted. Of course, if the paper’s worthless, it’s also easier to see this if the tables a re poorly constructed.

A submission is not unlike a sales pitch – convince the reviewer that you’ve got something that’s worth them spending their time on, and most will be willing to accept it. Don’t make the reviewer do all the work figuring out if the paper is worth conference time.

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