What’s up with Political Theory?

by Henry Farrell on July 2, 2009

I asked this question over at the Monkey Cage, a political science blog that I also contribute to, and was greeted with a resounding silence (political theorists perhaps being disinclined to read heavily pol-sci oriented blogs). So I’m asking it here. What exactly is happening at the journal, Political Theory? I understand that the editor, Mary Dietz, has been asked to step down, and that Mark Bevir has been asked to step in, but beyond that I know nothing – all sorts of rumours and claims of coups, decisions-by-fiat etc are swirling around at the “Political Theory Rumor Mill”:https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=21008160&postID=9135623259230578337&pli=1 but there isn’t much in the way of solid information. Anyone know what’s happening?



Maurice Meilleur 07.02.09 at 11:19 pm

Well, now that Bevir has posted to PTRM explaining that, under the circumstances, he’s offered Sage his resignation (is that even possible before you assume a position to resign from?), the issue is practically moot. (The admin says that s/he’s gotten direct confirmation from Bevir under separate cover.) Moreover, apparently a VP at Sage has sent a letter to the editorial board explaining that the whole thing was just a big misunderstanding. (No, I don’t believe it either.)

But here’s one thing that I noticed about the whole conversation. Every post I saw on the topic at PTRM framed Dietz’s firing and Bevir’s hiring as a question of feuds between different schools of political theory/philosophy, or as a byproduct of the struggle for academic market share between Political Theory, Ethics, History of Political Thought, and Philosophy and Public Affairs, or as an institutional play for power for its own sake on the part of the publisher. Which is to say, everyone saw the whole affair between professional and institutional blinkers.

No one that I saw even considered the possibility that Sage might have been replacing editorial personnel in order to change not the philosophical or intellectual nature, but the marketing orientation, of the journal–perhaps to further increase its profit potential: start by claiming the power to appoint the editorial staff yourself, then slowly introduce people willing to, say, consider publishing articles on a pay-to-publish basis (costs borne by the department or school, of course), or to tie editorial judgment in with marketing plans (textbook or online-forum crossover plans, maybe), or other such means of squeezing revenue out of scholarly activity. Whether such ideas would be harebrained or not is hardly the point.

Given the nature of journal publishing anymore, where firms like Sage and Elsevier think of their journals as profit engines first and charge enormous amounts for subscriptions, I’m amazed–though perhaps I shouldn’t be–that people immediately leaped to the conclusion that this must be a Berkeley against the world thing, or a Habermas vs. Foucault thing, or a history-of political-thought-vs.-critical-theory thing, or an administration-vs.-faculty thing, or what have you, and ignored the possibility that it’s all about the Benjamins (Franklin, not Barber).


Stuart 07.03.09 at 12:10 am

It seems astonishing to me that academics still put themselves in the power of these companies, surely one of the main points of creating the web 20 years ago was making it easier to exchange and improve academic knowledge, and yet it is still hidden away unless every university gives what must be a noticeable chunk of their budget to some companies that now add very little to the process. And even if they do pay up it still means it is hidden from the majority anyway.


Walt 07.03.09 at 12:31 am

Stuart, the academics that created the web (high-energy physicists) have abandoned academic publishing almost completely. Everything happens via the arXiv website.


Stuart 07.03.09 at 1:06 am

Cool, have never heard about that before. One small things seems a shame – most of it is pdf’s, html would have be so much more useful.


D. Eppstein 07.03.09 at 1:08 am

Stuart: it is impossible to get decent formatting of mathematical formulae in html (most blogs with mathematical content resort to bitmap images for that part, but that’s not a great solution either). Or in Word, for that matter. LaTeX is the solution, and pdf produced from LaTeX sources is what arXiv serves.


Maurice Meilleur 07.03.09 at 2:14 am

Stuart, continued reliance on these firms in the humanities and social sciences is based on two things: institutional inertia in the forms of the expectations of tenure and promotion review committees and administrators, and the logistics of arranging editorial management, peer review, infrastructural maintenance, and managerial continuity in a zero- or low-revenue environment. Even if people generally came to agree that articles have to be published with ink on paper, these factors would keep change slow in coming.

The first will probably erase itself as generations advance and new scholars come to their positions with different understandings of intellectual exchange and peer review. The second is a pretty formidable challenge to any new model of publishing. But journals like Theory and Event and models like the University of Michigan’s Scholarly Publishing Office are starting to gain some academic traction, and if firms like Sage keep this kind of nonsense up I could see even more seasoned scholars rethinking their assumptions about academic publication (especially if the relevant software gets more powerful and user-friendly). I imagine that libraries would also love to have back the money they’re spending on journals (print and digital alike) to spend on other, likely more reasonably-priced, priorities. So it may be that pressure from librarians could also be effective in forcing change.

But for now, most academics have to rely on more traditional ways of sharing their work.


Maurice Meilleur 07.03.09 at 2:15 am

Oops: that should read, ‘even if people generally came to agree that articles do not have to be published with ink on paper.’


Paul Gowder 07.03.09 at 3:07 am

Re: the economic stuff: is there some backstory to how companies like Sage and Elsevier got the journal market anyway, rather than university presses?


alex 07.03.09 at 7:31 am

They bought it, duh.


dsquared 07.03.09 at 8:39 am

Everything happens via the arXiv website

is this really true? Could a young physicist get tenure with no journal publications and a lot of stuff on arxiv? I didn’t think things had quite got that far.


Maurice Meilleur 07.03.09 at 11:08 am

Daniel, I’m wondering the same thing. If it is true, it would finally give political scientists a legitimate reason to want to emulate physicists.*

*O/t note: this has nothing to do with hating physics. It has everything to do with making fun of political scientists for wanting to study politics as if it were physics.


peter 07.03.09 at 11:56 am

Maurice Meilleur @ #6 said:

” Stuart, continued reliance on these firms in the humanities and social sciences is based on two things: . . . and the logistics of arranging editorial management, peer review, infrastructural maintenance, and managerial continuity in a zero- or low-revenue environment.”

Yet, strangely enough, the first 2 of the 4 activities you mention are usually unpaid by the revenue-earning journal publishers. Academics (and their education institutional employers) subsidize these activities by giving their time for “free”. Given the high fees that the libraries of these same institutional employers currently pay for journal subscriptions, surely a model where the institutional employers pay instead for the other 2 of the 4 activities would make sense, ie, online journals with hosting and administrative support provided by educational or research institutions, not by commercial publishers.


Barry 07.03.09 at 1:08 pm

And managerial continuity is a reputational thing; that a company will not trash their journals by putting short-term profit-maximizers in charge – now and in the future. Since the journal companies *are* putting short-term profit-maximizers in charge, this is a moot point.


Ali 07.03.09 at 3:24 pm

It’s not quite like that with high-energy physicists. Yes, everything is done via arXiv. But we still publish papers in journals much of the time (though not always). It’s just that they always go up on arXiv first, and then (maybe) get submitted later. Among the many other advantages of this scheme, people don’t have to wait to see the paper for the months to year+ it often takes to get something published.

I don’t know of anyone who actually reads any of the journals any more; everyone I know just checks for new papers on arXiv. But I’d guess they are still used for reputational reasons by e.g. tenure committees, though I’ve never sat on one so I don’t know for certain.


josh 07.03.09 at 5:41 pm

The timing of this suggests that sometimes Minerva’s owl really does take flight only at dusk…
In response to Maurice Meilleur’s first post —
In fact, the idea that Sage might have tried to oust Dietz and install Bevir for economic/marketing reasons was floated on the Poli Theory Job Rumour Mill, and was indeed the prevailing take (as I recall; I don’t have the heart to go back and re-read) until some one or ones said, basically, “Hey, how would replacing Dietz with Bevir contribute to marketing anyway?” So far as I remember, the particular possibilities you mention, and so people started looking for other explanations — which meant getting into the usual personal attacks and claims about the relative power and prestige of different schools of political theory.
I must say I find the scenario you mention pretty implausible — which is not, of course, to say that Sage would consider it implausible, or not act on it. In any case, though, their judgment here seems to have been really rather bad .


Maurice Meilleur 07.04.09 at 2:17 am

Josh: I guess it’s a question of fine differences. I meant to distinguish the ‘competition among journals for a share of attention among academics’ frame (discussion according to which there was plenty of) from the ‘getting ready for marketing tie-ins’ frame. As you recognize, the idea that there’s much to market in PT in the more crass sense of the word is pretty risible, but again as you recognize, that’s not to say that some marketing VP wouldn’t come up with it anyway. And there are corners of academic publishing, like textbooks, that can be pretty lucrative and might have captured someone’s imagination.


John L. Taylor 07.04.09 at 6:57 pm

Not to thread-jack, but regarding the absurd state of commercial academic publishing, Scott Aaronson’s review of The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship by John Willinsky (free E-book) is a must-read.

Here is a bitter taste:

I have an ingenious idea for a company. My company will be in the business of selling computer games. But, unlike other computer game companies, mine will never have to hire a single programmer, game designer, or graphic artist. Instead I’ll simply find people who know how to make games, and ask them to donate their games to me. Naturally, anyone generous enough to donate a game will immediately relinquish all further rights to it. From then on, I alone will be the copyright-holder, distributor, and collector of royalties. This is not to say, however, that I’ll provide no “value-added.” My company will be the one that packages the games in 25-cent cardboard boxes, then resells the boxes for up to $300 apiece.

But why would developers donate their games to me? Because they’ll need my seal of approval. I’ll convince developers that, if a game isn’t distributed by my company, then the game doesn’t “count” — indeed, barely even exists — and all their labor on it has been in vain.

Admittedly, for the scheme to work, my seal of approval will have to mean something. So before putting it on a game, I’ll first send the game out to a team of experts who will test it, debug it, and recommend changes. But will I pay the experts for that service? Not at all: as the final cherry atop my chutzpah sundae, I’ll tell the experts that it’s their professional duty to evaluate, test, and debug my games for free!

On reflection, perhaps no game developer would be gullible enough to fall for my scheme. I need a community that has a higher tolerance for the ridiculous — a community that, even after my operation is unmasked, will study it and hold meetings, but not “rush to judgment” by dissociating itself from me. But who on Earth could possibly be so paralyzed by indecision, so averse to change, so immune to common sense?

I’ve got it: academics!


John L. Taylor 07.04.09 at 7:04 pm

Note: The blockquote is supposed to end at “I’ve got it: academics!”. Oops– I’m not sure what happened there.


bianca steele 07.04.09 at 9:19 pm

Knuth’s paper, linked to by Aaronson, repeatedly uses the term “commercial publisher,” and apparently the term “commercial” is supposed to be important here, supposedly indicating that the problems academics have with these publishers is related to their for-profit nature. But it seems to me that we rely on publishers to uphold certain values that are not necessarily commercial and do not necessarily support primarily the explicitly commercial aspects of society at large. This is what we mean by “professional”: knowing how to maintain values that are not necessarily commercial or financial, and that are not so well understood by “the community in general.” What field of study examines how publishing works with authors and audiences to maintain certain values?


djw 07.04.09 at 10:04 pm


Actually, the discussion (especially early on) at PTRM did consider the possibility that this move was somehow profit driven (Bevir’s editorship of some apparently profitable books on governance for Sage were discussed as a possible explanation, as I recall).

But if this is the motivation, it seems as though the Sage people doing the thinking weren’t thinking very clearly. PT is a specialist journal, and the move they apparently tried to make seemed carefully calculated to piss off the specialists to which the journal appeals to. The journal obviously makes money on institutional subscriptions, and I imagine most every University library that hopes to have a political theory collection subscribes. This is, in no small part, due to faculty recommendation.

I’m open to a profit-seeking explanation, but I’ll remain somewhat skeptical until someone can demonstrate how this move was supposed to do that.


djw 07.04.09 at 10:12 pm

Oops, I initially missed the exchange at #15-16, so never mind.


peter 07.05.09 at 8:09 am

John @ 17:

The key reason that the all-work-donated-for-free model works for academics, but not for (say) games designers, is that academics are rewarded in proportion to their renown, not in proportion to (say) their contributions to their employer’s revenues, or their centrality to their employer’s operations. Other professionals – perhaps everybody – also seek renown, but it does not usually form the primary basis for their career progress, and hence their financial remuneration.


John L. Taylor 07.05.09 at 6:40 pm

Peter @22,

I am well aware of the role of prestige and reputation in scholarly communities and you are right– the implicit argument by analogy is a bit weakened by this point. I wished to point out a good bit of rhetorical writing about what I believe is an important issue for the future of science and scholarship.

Rhetoric aside, the real issue, as I see it, is whether or not the goals of scholars of all types would be better met in an open access environment, given that the majority of the work is already done by academics, and the barriers to this alternative have diminished greatly over the years. The ability for this medium to meet the prestige needs of academics is surely a necessity for change.

I admit to a personal stake in this. Having left academia for IT work and family, I can no longer afford access to journals that I once refereed for, and wherein my former classmates and professors continue to contribute. There are ways around this, but I would rather that (for many reasons personal and not) it be freely available to all with an interest, myself included.


Ron Steiner 07.06.09 at 5:09 pm

John Taylor and Scott Aaronson make great points about the state of academic publishing, and that is true notwithstanding biana steele’s challenge re: “commercialism” vs. “professionalism.” I don’t think John/Scott ever questions the need for professional scrutiny and review—indeed, the whole point of Scott’s thought experiment was that the element of professional certification was essential to making the commercial venture function. The real question is whether the commercial element is essential to the professional venture.

John and Scott are saying it is not. In fact, they are going further, and saying that the commercial element does actual harm by limiting the access of “a precocious high-school student, or a struggling researcher in Belarus or Ghana,” or someone like John Taylor himself. And despite my own .edu perch, there are many times when I’m traveling that I hit a research roadblock because I’m not able to gain access to a journal through the university library’s subscription (my vpn often but doesn’t always resolve this).

But I worry that John and Scott are perhaps being a bit naïve, and that part of the bottleneck imposed by commercial publishers has become a feature rather than a bug. As peter notes in 22 above, academics are motivated by renown, that is the currency of the realm. And, not to be too crass, it converts into real currency through tenure, promotion, grants, and bidding wars to poach or retain prominent faculty. The prestigious commercial journals have only so much space, so they function very effectively to create a valuable exclusivity that results in pay-offs in currency of both the tangible and intangible sorts.

When people persist in doing something that initially appears irrational, there usually is some sense to it if you look close at their material interests (or, as Deep Throat said, follow the money.) Because powerful people find utility in terms of renown and money in the current system, they conclude that its benefits outweigh its costs, and will work to preserve it.


Ron Steiner 07.06.09 at 5:13 pm

Sorry: “if you look close” = “if you look closely”

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