March 30, 2012

On Academic Journals

Let me wade into the debate over whether academic journals are relevant to policy professionals in international relations. Dan Nexon kicked things off with an angry lament on the state of his field. James Joyner then weighed in with respect to what he saw as the irrelevance of scholarly journals. And finally Dan Drezner voiced a full-throated defense of academic political science journals.

I work at a think tank that produces policy papers for both a general audience as well as professionals in the national security community -- to include policy-makers in both the executive and legislative branches. Part of my job, as I see it, is to bridge the gap between theory and praxis. I have to be familiar with and understand the relevant literature in my areas of study -- principally, Middle East Studies and Strategic Studies -- and translate the ideas and observations in that literature into language that policy professionals will understand. 

I do not expect most policy professionals -- especially those working in time-intensive positions in the National Security Staff, the Pentagon, or the Congress -- to read the latest academic literature. If those people find the time in their busy schedules to read just one article from Foreign Affairs or Survival each week, that is great, frankly, because most of them barely have time enough to get through the Early Bird each morning.

I do think many of the articles that are in political science journals would elude the policy professionals who are actually running the government but whose education probably ended with a master's degree from a public policy school or, more likely, a law degree. I am skeptical of a lot of the statistical work being done in Middle East Studies for substantive reasons*, but in addition, the math-heavy work featured in a lot of journals raises the bar of admission for potential readers. So academics hoping to be policy relevant should consider publishing their work in various media. Try boiling down the main concepts in your latest APSR article, for example, into an op-ed or blog post. Or, better yet, an article in Foreign Affairs.

I know great young scholars who largely shy away from blogging or publishing more "popular" work because they believe their academic colleagues will take them less seriously. That may be true, but you have to decide whether or not you value climbing the rungs of the academic ladder or affecting policy in Washington. I've clearly made my own choice but certainly don't begrudge anyone who chooses another path. (Just don't complain how no one in the policy world ever listens to your great ideas.**)

Nonetheless, in case anyone is interested, these are the journals I dutifully scan for articles, listed in the order I typically read them. I realize these are not all the journals I could be reading, but these are the ones I make time for in a schedule that features a lot of stuff begging to be read.


  1. International Security
  2. The International Journal of Middle East Studies
  3. The American Political Science Review
  4. Perspectives on Politics


  1. Foreign Affairs
  2. Survival
  3. The National Interest

*The Arabic-speaking world is a particularly data-poor environment, generally speaking, and the iron law of quantitative analysis (or any analysis, for that matter) is that garbage in = garbage out.

**One more thing that annoys me: when academic scholars bust on us policy scholars for getting predictions wrong. Look, I would love to work in a data-perfect environment or pick and choose my research questions based on where the data was richest. Scholars working in academia have the luxury of doing that. Bully for them. But do you know who doesn't have that luxury? Policy makers. Policy makers have to make very difficult decisions in an environment in which the data is often very poor and where the options available are not terribly clear in terms of their costs or benefits. That's also the environment in which most think tank policy scholars work. When I do my analysis, I try to do it with some degree of rigor and to make my assumptions explicit. But I'm going to get some things wrong. To pick but one example, I argued, based on an order of battle analysis and reporting on the Free Libyan forces, that an assault on Tripoli would take months. I was wrong -- probably because I did not have very good reporting on the morale or performance of the Qadhdhafi forces. As long as I stay in this line of work, I'm going to continue to get stuff wrong, too. It's a hazard of the profession. My only goal is to do work that makes sense methodologically and reflects a bona fide attempt to grapple with the key issues. Now pick your TI-84 back up off the floor and get out of my office.