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Author Topic: A conversation about academic journal articles  (Read 7740 times)

Jenett

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A conversation about academic journal articles
« on: September 07, 2014, 02:12:39 pm »
So, discussion else-thread reminded me that I'd been meaning to write up an extended thing about how academic journal articles work for religion. Here it is - it'll be up on the Seeking site after I see if anyone has questions/comments/additions.

(I'd also be delighted if other people with a strong academic background want to chime in with their experiences.)

Disclaimer: I am a librarian. I am currently an academic librarian. At some academic libraries, librarians are treated like professors, with a tenure process and similar sorts of requirements for publishing/etc. At some libraries, there's a simpler process (and lower demands.) At some libraries (like my current one), librarians are professional staff, not faculty. (That said, we get to teach people about academic research, so I am quite clear on how the process works.)

What is peer review?
Let's start with the basics. The peer review process is basically this:

1) A person writes an article.

2) They send the article to likely journals in their field. At the early stages in one's career, the prestige of those journals matters a whole lot, so you want the best-perceived journals you can get your stuff into.

Journals are put out by various places - some of them are run by publishers. Some are run by subject-specific organisations. Some are run by a group of people who think there ought to be a journal. Academic publishing is *weird*, and the finances are weirder (and depend a lot on the subject/discipline) and that is beyond the scope of this commentary. Basically, remember that there's a lot of prestige and status stuff at play here.

(As an aside, there are a growing number of journals out there that *look* like they're a legitimate peer-reviewed academic journal, and are not. Instead, they're basically academic vanity publishing. It's hard to tell these from outside the field.

I've seen something like six separate exposures of these in the last year or so. This is something it can be tricky to figure out from outside the field, and it's one of the reasons that relying on Google Scholar for peer-reviewed work can be problematic. The publisher-maintained databases like Ebsco or JSTOR or Gale are generally a bit better because their business model depends on them being seen as a reliable gatekeeper for journals.)

3) The editor at the journal sends the article to other people in the field. If it's a big field, these are probably people in the same subfield. If it's a small field, it may be people who know the field well, but not the details of the subfield.

(For example, you might have a reviewer who focuses on the same general area of the world in your field, but not the same time period. or the same time period but not the same area. Or the same time and place, but they might be in a different discipline - history versus anthropology, for example. Some journals are multi-discipline, or encompass a wide range of times and places.)  

The reviewers are generally anonymous at the time, but may not stay that way - in some fields, it's *really* easy to tell who gave comments on your work because of what they said, or by knowing who generally does review work for that particular journal. You know how people on the internet can spot someone's sock-puppet account, or a pseudonymous account belonging to someone whose writing they know well? It's like that.

As you can tell by my saying 'reviewers' here, there is more than one - usually two or three.

4) The reviewers look at the work, and make comments on it. Sometimes these are "Go ahead and publish this!" Sometimes it's "This is basically good, but these things need fixing first." Sometimes it's "There's something good in here, but it needs a lot of work" and sometimes it's "This thing should not be published, and I don't think it's redeemable."

This does not mean the reviewers *agree* with the work. When the system works right, it basically means that the reviewers look at the article and research, the methodology, the results, whatever's relevant, and agree that it's usefully done research, there aren't major flaws in the methods, and that it's worthwhile for other people to see this.

However, this is a system that involves people, and people are pretty much inherently imperfect. There have been situations where there have been blocks of reviewers supporting each other's works (even when those works are flawed). There have been reviewers with grudges (sometimes for the author, sometimes for the author's dissertation advisor, sometimes for that line of theory in the field) who will trash a work because of those reasons, not the work's merit. And so on.

5) Once the reviewers approve it (if they do), then it eventually gets published.

Note that 'eventually' can take a while - it's quite common for there to be a year or two between submission and publication. In the meantime, other things may happen in the field. Once an article comes out, then other academics may respond to it in various ways (building on it, critiquing it, whatever.)

Pre-tenure vs post-tenure
Where an academic is in their professional life makes a difference.

One of the reasons for tenure is that it's supposed to encourage more academic freedom, because the academic has the security to explore ideas that may not lead to immediate results or new understanding, or they may be free to explore new/less orthodox/whatever methods, or they may take more risks.

But before someone gets tenure - whether that's because they're in a tenure-track job but don't have tenure yet, or they're a visiting professor (generally a 1-2 year contract) or they're teaching a couple of adjunct classes (generally assigned on a semester basis), there's a lot of pressure to produce research and demonstrate productivity, but at the same time, a need to not make too many waves.

This is complicated, obviously.

This does mean that what someone focuses on before they get tenure (if they do) tends to be things that fit comfortably within the current scope of the field. They may well do new interesting research, but it's probably of a kind where everyone looks at it and goes "Well, that's a fascinating new thing about Etruscan basket-weaving" but there's nothing that completely upsets the field's apple cart about it.

What happens after tenure - well. More complicated. Some people keep doing more of the same: solid research in the field that is useful but not provocative.

Some people take the security of tenure and spread out, and do interesting things that give them more room to explore. Or they work on projects that are interesting to them, but harder to explain to a tenure committee. Or are in a less sexy and heavily desireable part of their field. (These are all, I think, good things.) Such articles may be heavily challenged, but that may mean they're doing something new and exciting, not that they're bad.

(The best widely known example I can think of here is Hildegard von Bingen. The early research on her was basically "Yeah, she wrote some interesting stuff, but her music is horrible, it's not like anything anyone else was doing." It took several decades before research in English got around to "She's doing something new that is *really awesome*, but not like anything else anyone was doing we know about.")

Some people go and do something very much not like what they did before. Sometimes this is awesome: they start researching bits of the field that would have been impossible to do before tenure, because they focus on things (including religious belief, which I'll be coming back to!) that would make it hard to get material published in the journals they needed before tenure.

Sometimes they go totally off the rails and do very odd things, attack the institution, other academics, etc. for what appears to be no good reason. (There are several cases of this kind I can think of off the top of my head. They tend to get very messy, and they often include the sort of incoherent ranting that one sees in the less savoury portions of the Internet, but with fewer amusing gifs.)

It is often not easy to tell which of these things a particular article is without more context.

The question of admitting personal religious belief and the dangers of academia

As I mentioned in the previous section, academics are under a lot of pressure on the tenure track. While you're establishing yourself in a field (and particular in academia which is full of Very Opinionated People), you probably don't want to run the risk of annoying large swaths of them.

You don't know who's going to be on your tenure committee, precisely (the standard time frame to tenure is about 6 years: people change jobs, die, deans change, etc in that time). You don't know who's going to be asked to review your work at whatever journals. You don't know who's going to *read* your work, and send a pointed note to someone in your department, or on your tenure committee. There is, in short, a lot of benefit and reason to be careful which stones you overturn, and which sacred cows you tilt at, to mix my metaphors.

Religion is a very complicated topic. And not just for Pagans.

A fair portion of academia is somewhere between 'religion is a superstition and people who take it seriously are not to be trusted as academics' and actively anti-religious. There's another sizeable portion who think that going to church on Sunday is a nice way to make social connections, but heaven forbid you actually *believe* any of it. Another fairly substantial portion thinks it's something that one can do privately, but shouldn't ever appear to impact your work at all. Another substantial portion is fine with their variant of religion, but not at all sure about anything else.

(My father was an academic, and also quietly very religious. My mother has been active in every religious community she's been a part of as an adult. The negative or just dismissive comments they both got at various points about this are not few in number.)

So. If you're working on Pagan-related subjects and you might actually have some of those beliefs, what does this mean for you? It means that as soon as you start talking about religion, about what you believe (or whether you believe anything), you are immediately affecting your chances for hiring (anywhere but your current job) or tenure.

A lot of people in this position choose to keep their heads down and not write about the religious aspects (or bring their personal opinions anywhere near their writing.) For very very good reason. (It is *amazingly* hard to get academic jobs these days: anything that raises questions about you probably knocks you out of the running, because there are so many candidates.)

Sometimes people will open up more after tenure - but even *after* tenure, being seen as overtly religious can have an impact on your professional career, how people in your department or institution react to you, what journals you're invited to review for, what conferences you're invited to participate in. People make various choices about which bits of this matter to them. (And this is without getting into the question of people who work at a college or university that is affiliated with a particular religion, even the more easy going sorts.)

So, what this means is that if you're reading a particular article, you basically don't know *what* they believe about the personal religious aspects of whatever they're writing about unless they've explicitly said. They may be treating the topic as a pure academic field. They may be writing about it as an academic, but their choice in topic is influenced by their personal experience.

(This isn't that different from other fields: some people go into a particular line of medicine because they have major personal experiences with a disease or a particular population. Some people get into political or historical research because of particular personal experiences. However, both of those tend to be more socially acceptable to share broadly in academia than religion is.)

Likewise, when they're writing about a religious community, they may be very careful to write only about the parts which have academic and research backing, and leave out their personal experiences, even where those are not unreasonable points to share (You see this with criticism of Ronald Hutton, for example, who has been pretty consistent in writing for the academic genre with all its expectations, even when there's probably more places he could extend things.)

Or, finally, they may be explicit about their beliefs and their reasons for interest to some degree (how detailed people are varies.) However, you can pretty much bet that this is the minority, and for every person in a general field who admits to personal religious interest, there's probably a good handful more who have interest but do not disclose it in their academic work (or anywhere someone might find it by casual searching.)

Evaluating an academic article
Evaluating an academic article is basically like evaluating other things, but with a bit more context.

First, it's a lot easier the more you know about a general field and who the major names are in it. (This takes time and effort to learn: a casual reader isn't going to have it. Someone who's interested in a specific topic that crosses half a dozen fields probably won't have it. Librarians probably don't unless they're a specialist in that field. Academics actually working in that field ought to.)

Since you probably don't have information about the field in detail you can do some or all of the following:

- Look at who else the article author cites. Over time, you may get familiar with the best-known sources in the field. (Database access sometimes makes this easier, depending on the database provider.)

- Look at other things the author has written. (Many academics maintain at least minimal websites with a list of their publications, which can mean you go "Oh, I want to read X too!" but also so you can get a sense of where a particular article fits with their other work.

- Look for some information that can give you an idea where someone is in their career. Learning to read academic titles or cross-check them against the specifics for where they're working (different places use the terms 'assistant professor' and 'associate professor' somewhat differently, for example.)

- Look at the actual material they're citing if you can get access to it. Even if you can't get access to all of it, looking at some of it in a close reading will give you an idea how the article author is dealing with it.

- Remember that there are things you're not seeing if you're not very familiar with the field. You probably don't know which are the most reputable journals. You don't know the major people writing in the field. You don't know their particular preferences or biases. Their work is still useful, still interesting - but everyone has biases, and you need to factor in that they're in play, even if the details aren't available to you.

Finally, remember that the goals of the writer of an academic article may not be - and probably aren't - the goals of a religious practitioner. Neither goal is wrong, but they're sometimes mutually contradictory, or lived experience differs with what one academic gets out of a particular source.

Learning how to hold competing views in your head, how to filter for the author's bias and goals, is an incredibly useful skill that will serve you well in lots of areas of your life.

Yes, all these things take effort. But if you want to do *good* research, rather than just toss around the external show of appearing to do research, that effort is rather necessary.
« Last Edit: September 07, 2014, 02:31:10 pm by HeartShadow »
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Re: A conversation about academic journal articles
« Reply #1 on: September 07, 2014, 04:26:36 pm »
Quote from: Jenett;158325
(I'd also be delighted if other people with a strong academic background want to chime in with their experiences.)

Jenett, this is an amazing post. Thank you for writing it!

I have a very early academic background, rather than a strong one, but I've seen some of how this works slightly differently in the UK (in some ways), so I thought I'd add some comments.

Quote
Pre-tenure vs post-tenure

As tenure doesn't exist in the UK in the same way as in the US, this isn't quite the same in the UK. I suspect that it's different in many other countries too. We don't have any academic positions from which it's not possible to be fired, which I understand is what tenure involves. Our most senior lecturers/researchers have professorships (i.e. senior chairs), but even those can be discontinued. I know a Professor and head of department at a university I'm familiar with who has just been required to re-apply for his job - there are no safe positions in UK academia. That means that there's no situation in which your work is essentially beyond criticism.

We also have a system called the REF (Research Excellence Framework), which requires every researcher in publicly-funded universities to produce a certain number of research outputs per year, of a certain quality. Basically, you have to write c.3-4 decent papers per year or your job is in danger. This is a huge expectation, on top of teaching demands. I'm not sure what effect it's going to have on quality of research coming out of the UK, but it's a new thing to be aware of, in case it does affect research quality here. What it definitely means is that, just as you said about non-tenured researchers in the US:

Quote
there's a lot of pressure to produce research and demonstrate productivity, but at the same time, a need to not make too many waves.

Unless they're at the very top of their careers, and may not even then, I think that statement applies to most researchers here, thanks to the REF.

On the other hand, it probably means that more researchers here play it safe. I'm certainly not aware of many of those oddities of tenure that you describe, Jenett.

Quote
The question of admitting personal religious belief and the dangers of academia

The one thing I wanted to contribute here was a bit of experience from my fields of study. In three of the fields that my research intersects with (biblical studies, religious studies and sociology of religion), personal religious belief is treated a bit differently from the way you've described it in other fields. (Which I agree, generally tend towards the anti-religious.) In fields dealing directly with the social and personal experience of religion,religion is dealt with in slightly more direct ways, as you'd imagine.

Most fields in sociology require the researcher to locate themselves in relation to their research, and that includes sociology of religion. So, when I come to do my research study with Christians, it will be good practice that I should tell them that I'm not a Christian, and also write about my own religious perspective reflexively in my thesis. This will require a lot of "Um... I used to be a Christian..." that's going to be interesting. I'm not sure how much of that will end up in journal papers, though, as you've got limited space there. But, basically, it's not that unusual to see people in either sociology of religion or religious studies referencing their own religious perspective. It's less frowned upon than in other fields.

Quote
A fair portion of academia is somewhere between 'religion is a superstition and people who take it seriously are not to be trusted as academics' and actively anti-religious. There's another sizeable portion who think that going to church on Sunday is a nice way to make social connections, but heaven forbid you actually *believe* any of it. Another fairly substantial portion thinks it's something that one can do privately, but shouldn't ever appear to impact your work at all. Another substantial portion is fine with their variant of religion, but not at all sure about anything else.

I have no doubt that this is why my work tends to confuse my colleagues in both disability studies and religious studies. In the places where the fields cross over, it's well received. It's on the other extremes that I confuse people. Particularly in disability studies, where the response tends to be "...you're researching what? Isn't religion OVER by now?"

It means that I have probably limited myself to a life of researching religion forever (if I do attempt to go into an academic career), although I can probably live with that.

Quote
Remember that there are things you're not seeing if you're not very familiar with the field. You probably don't know which are the most reputable journals. You don't know the major people writing in the field. You don't know their particular preferences or biases. Their work is still useful, still interesting - but everyone has biases, and you need to factor in that they're in play, even if the details aren't available to you.

This is exactly the reason why I don't 'play scholar' when it comes to Celtic reconstructionism/Celtic studies. I'm perfectly capable of researching a fair bit of what I want to know there - but archeology, mythology and folklore will never be my field, and reading a single article (or ten) on one of these subjects will never make me an expert in them. (Which I should probably blog about sometime. I get irritated with the assumption that we should all try to be scholars of ancient cultures. It's extremely hard to do well.)
« Last Edit: September 07, 2014, 04:29:04 pm by Naomi J »
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Re: A conversation about academic journal articles
« Reply #2 on: September 07, 2014, 04:46:47 pm »
Quote from: Naomi J;158340
I have a very early academic background, rather than a strong one, but I've seen some of how this works slightly differently in the UK (in some ways), so I thought I'd add some comments.

Thank you much for chiming in! Both because I love learning how things work in other places, and because of course it does matter. (And there are lots of subtleties and less common examples I didn't get into because I didn't want the initial essay to be incredibly vast.

Quote
We don't have any academic positions from which it's not possible to be fired, which I understand is what tenure involves. Our most senior lecturers/researchers have professorships (i.e. senior chairs), but even those can be discontinued.

The basic idea of tenure in the US is that is meant to give people an opportunity to have intellectual freed to explore. It is possible to be fired from a tenured position, but generally it has to be either a really major sort of violation, or it happens because a department folds within a university and there's no other place for that person to transfer to.

(The other part of this is that sometimes people with tenure still want to move jobs for all sorts of reasons: changes in the field, the department, their family, whatever, so even after you have tenure, there's still a lot of "what does the field as a whole think about this thing you're doing")

Quote
Basically, you have to write c.3-4 decent papers per year or your job is in danger. This is a huge expectation, on top of teaching demands. I'm not sure what effect it's going to have on quality of research coming out of the UK, but it's a new thing to be aware of, in case it does affect research quality here.

Oh, that's fascinating, and sort of horrible. (Is that production of papers, or publishing of papers? Because the thing about publishing is that it relies on other people doing reviews and so on, so it's not like it's just about the end researcher. I know several people who have gotten stuck when the journals they'd normally submit to have slowed down processing of items for some reason - or even just because the couple of more heavily used reviewers in a subfield aren't available.)

Anyway. For US tenure, the requirements vary a huge amount by field, which is why I didn't get into details. The most common time frame is 6 years, but that can vary (if someone gets pregnant, the tenure clock may be stopped during the semester of the birth. If someone had a couple of years in a tenure track position and changes jobs, they may have a shortened clock at the new place.)

For some fields it's substantial research and a few (3-5) major papers. For some fields, it's a book (usually based on the dissertation), a couple of papers, and a substantial start on a new project (either the research done or research + a couple of articles about to be a second book.) For the sciences, there tend to be a lot more papers, but people may not be the primary author on many of them, since a lot of sciences will have papers with 10, 20, 40 people listed as co-authors of varying degree.

There's also a lot of variation based on kind of institution (to a degree I think happens less in the UK?). The requirements at a R1 school (a top-tier research focused school) are usually different from the ones at a teaching focused small liberal arts college. (In general, if the teaching requirement is higher, the research requirement is less, but not always. Top tier places of all kinds generally want lots of high quality research no matter what.)

A lot of places in the US are also making fewer tenure-track hires: there are increasing numbers of non-tenure-track positions, many of which are expected to be renewed fairly indefinitely (well, like my position is), but where there's no guarantee of a job past the contract. (A lot of jobs in general in the US don't work on contract any more, but educational jobs may still do so, because you want to be sure you can cover the classes you need to teach.)

Anyway, if anyone's really curious about this, the Chronicle of Higher Education forums are an interesting glimpse into the nuances: there's some discussion of non US places, though it's more US focused than not.

Quote
Most fields in sociology require the researcher to locate themselves in relation to their research, and that includes sociology of religion. So, when I come to do my research study with Christians, it will be good practice that I should tell them that I'm not a Christian, and also write about my own religious perspective reflexively in my thesis. This will require a lot of "Um... I used to be a Christian..." that's going to be interesting. I'm not sure how much of that will end up in journal papers, though, as you've got limited space there. But, basically, it's not that unusual to see people in either sociology of religion or religious studies referencing their own religious perspective. It's less frowned upon than in other fields.

That makes a lot of sense. I know I've read people doing some Pagan studies work where that's also been relevant. But yeah, basically, doing it for history or some other fields really gets one in trouble.

Quote
I get irritated with the assumption that we should all try to be scholars of ancient cultures. It's extremely hard to do well.)

This. And I'd rather do something that works than something that is perfect academic research (not that I have a strongly historical based practice, for more than one reason, but this is part of the reason why I haven't pursued it.)
« Last Edit: September 07, 2014, 04:48:21 pm by Jenett »
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Re: A conversation about academic journal articles
« Reply #3 on: September 07, 2014, 05:42:25 pm »
Quote from: Jenett;158325
So, discussion else-thread reminded me that I'd been meaning to write up an extended thing about how academic journal articles work for religion. Here it is - it'll be up on the Seeking site after I see if anyone has questions/comments/additions.


 
Thank you so much for this!  This is all basically accurate to my experience, with a few amendments.

The most important thing to add, overall, is that there is a HUGE amount of variation of attitudes and expectations, not just field-by-field, but institution-by-institution, and department-by-department--and also where you, as an individual scholar, fit into that. EVERYTHING is going to be filtered through those specific experiences, understandings, and expectations.

For example; like Naomi, in my field (folklore), we are EXPECTED to locate ourselves within our work, to be up-front about our own experiences and background and how it relates to what we're studying. My being a Pagan, being a fan, being a queer woman, from a folkloristic perspective, is a GOOD thing, because my scholarship is therefore coming from an emic perspective that has historically been marginalized and undervalued. So no problems there as far as folklorists are concerned.

When I went on the job market, I was not, on the main, interviewing specifically for folklore jobs--for a variety of reasons, folklore rarely exists as standalone departments anymore. I was mainly interviewing for jobs in my umbrella department/field--English, specifically children's literature. My major interest was in the European fairy tale canon, which is why my MA advisor suggested I go into one of those programs for my PhD, since they had a whole host of useful tools for thinking about audiences-- "children" and "folk" have very often historically been elided, and there's a metric TON of overlaps between how young people and the folk are constructed as audiences/performers. I wound up expanding that thinking about audiences/creators in a folkloric and children's lit context to my dissertation on Harry Potter fanfic; a good chunk of the work on fandom had been from a media studies perspective, without a lot of input from either children's lit or folklore scholarship, so yay, multidsciplinarity!

Children's lit is a young field, and most of the people that I worked with--scholars from literary and cultural studies backgrounds--were super-eager to bring the field in line with the more cutting-edge inter/multi-disciplinary work that was happening in more "canonical" literary studies. So I got a ton of support--I was talking about audience and marginalization and power and folkloric transmission and canonicity and sexuality and popular theory and all kinds of Cool Stuff. When I went on the job market, how people reacted to my work varied a LOT, though, depending on what they wanted/needed/expected someone who would be teaching courses in children's lit to do.

Like, when i was on the market, children's lit weirdly became a pretty trendy subject--departments that had never bothered before suddenly decided that they needed someone who could talk about this stuff. So plenty of my job interviews were conducted by people who had, like, NO IDEA what actually went on in the field, or how my work fit in, or anything like that. In addition, if they were a very traditional department that hadn't kept up with the cultural-studies turn in lit and historical scholarship, they were flummoxed by my folkloristic background and didn't understand why calling folk material "primitive" was a problem, or anything like that.

I landed a job in a program with an established history of children's lit scholarship, and also a commitment to multi-dsciplinarity: they WANTED someone specifically like me, who could work within both a humanities and a social-science-y context, who could work with both historical and contemporary material, and could talk about broader issues of dsiciplinarity, canonicity, and audience.

As I settled into my job, I learned that there was an ongoing rivalry with the other university in town--the larger, very traditional one that likes to sneer at our scrappy urban liberal arts school. So my uni places a premium on doing really cutting-edge research, in order to distinguish ourselves from the more "stodgy" traditionalist bigger school. My interests and background were a big asset in that particular agenda, which is one reason I was hired.

I (along with some others from my school) got a big fat external grant to do research on pornography and folklore, which at other schools, might have caused me problems. At my school, I got good-natured teasing and a "featured researcher" writeup. (The money helped. :D) The last time I presented my work at a conference, someone in the audience asked "You've got tenure, right?"--he was worried that my work would cause problems for me. in my case, it didn't at all--in fact, it HELPED me get tenure! But my experience isn't everyone's, but it also isn't necessarily unusual, either.

So, institutional and department cultures have a HUGE impact on the actual experiences people are going to have within their fields, what kinds of work they do, their feelings of safety (or not), and so forth. There's a HUGE amount of variation. So while the overall structural outlines that you've described here work, there's a ton of nuance within, if that makes sense. :)

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Re: A conversation about academic journal articles
« Reply #4 on: September 08, 2014, 07:46:40 pm »
Quote from: Jenett;158325
So, discussion else-thread reminded me that I'd been meaning to write up an extended thing about how academic journal articles work for religion. Here it is - it'll be up on the Seeking site after I see if anyone has questions/comments/additions.

 As an English MA student, this was mostly familiar to me... and while helpful, this seems mostly theoretical / preliminary.

I guess I'm less interested in how academic works than how a reader can work How can someone take an academic article and make personal, religious use of it?

(I have ideas about this as an English teacher, but just throwing it out there as a comment.)
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Jenett

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Re: A conversation about academic journal articles
« Reply #5 on: September 09, 2014, 06:42:14 pm »
Quote from: Hyacinth Belle;158430
I guess I'm less interested in how academic works than how a reader can work How can someone take an academic article and make personal, religious use of it?


A reasonable question, but not the initial focus of this thread (since many many people have a lot of misconceptions about how academic publishing works, I wanted to get that piece out there, primarily.)

That said, some thoughts about non-academic uses of academic works, though now that I've written this whole thing, I note that it's really a lot easier to talk about this for a specific article or at least a specific *topic*, and if someone wanted to start a thread on that, that might be interesting.

1) Be really aware that you're using it in a way that was not the original intention/focus of the author.

Once a work's out there, people will use it in a variety of ways.

But it is not, for example, fair to blame an academic article for avoiding personal discussion of religion (as I laid out above), or for not referring to information that can't be appropriately cited using standard academic methods.

It is also not fair to blame an academic author (especially in the first 5-10 years of their career) for avoiding more controversial subjects in their field (which can include discussing religion in the first place, depending on the field, or magic, or folklore - many of these topics would be fine in anthropology or folklore or related fields, but they are much more heavily controversial in, say, history.)

(I bring these up, because *lots* of people do this when looking at academic articles for other purposes: you see plenty of "X doesn't say anything about" or "Y doesn't include this more personal evidence." because they're expecting academic articles to do what they'd like, rather than what's expected in the academic genre, as it were.)
 
Basically, be aware that when you're taking an article outside of the genre and audience it was directly aimed at, you need to adjust your expectations about what might be available or what might be discussed, or what evidence might be considered.

(Likewise, there are conventions about length of articles, structure, etc. that may not fit what a non-academic use might prefer.)

2) Be aware that there *are* vanity academic presses and journals out there.

Just because an article appears to be academic doesn't mean it is good, quality research. In other words, you still need to vet the content.

There are whole essays possible about this, and various people maintain lists of known problem journals and publishers. (There are complications with this, which are beyond the scope of a comment here, because they'd require a couple of hours of my research time to pull together an explanation that'd make sense, and I just don't have that to spare any time soon.)

Anyway. Things you can do: look at an author's other articles. Look at where you're finding their articles (are they showing up in one of the commercial databases?) If you look at that journal, what other kinds of articles do they publish? Are those from other relevant names in the field? Is there variety (rather than people constantly referencing articles from a small pool?)

Likewise: Does the person currently teach at a college or university? Is it one you've heard of? (There are plenty you might not have, but generally looking at their website will give you some ideas about their profile, degree of rigor, etc.)

We now finally move onto the content.

3) What does the article actually tell you?

The biggest thing, I think, about using academic articles for personal religious practice is that it's the inverse of the old line about computers, that they're stupid and do just what you tell them. Academic articles are written for particular goals, and expecting them to give you data outside those goals is not very reasonable or useful.

(Those goals depend a lot on the field and the author, but they could include "I got grant money to research X thing, and now I have to write it up.", "I'm up for tenure, and need more publications, and this is a quicker thing to get out than other things I could do.", "This is an interesting sideline in a bit of my field I don't normally do things with, so it might be useful for that thing, but misrepresent other aspects of the larger topic", as well as the more useful "This is good research by someone solidly familiar with the field who wants to share it with other people.")

Articles may also be affected by other things - like "My co-author has strong feelings about this topic" or "My dissertation advisor has really strong opinions about this thing" that are not very obvious to other people, but do insert potential shifts about what's discussed, how, and who gets referenced. (There's a lot of sources in the world. No article references everything relevant.)

Anyway. I think personally that the most useful thing to do with academic articles is to read them critically, to look at what the author's argument is, what the evidence they provide is, and then go look at their original sources as much as possible or find *other* people who reference those sources, so that you can be reasonably sure you're not seeing only the bits the first author liked.

This is often complicated (though much easier than it was 20 years ago, or even 10), but there's really no substitute in terms of making sure you get good info. This also works better for religious work because while you're probably interested in interpretation of the sources, you're probably even more interested in the sources themselves.

Beyond that, it's good to know the errors of interpretation - there are all sorts of fads in academia, in terms of what the popular interpretations are, and some of them turn into useful things, and others don't.

As religious practitioners, we have other methods of testing if something is meaningful than pure research (constructing a ritual, prayer, practice, meditation, etc. using a theory and seeing how it works in practice) but obviously doing that thoughtfully (i.e. testing one piece at a time, or in ways where you can figure out which bits do what) usually is easier to manage.

What we shouldn't do, however, is put academic articles on a pedestal (they can be extremely flawed) and we shouldn't try to make them do things they weren't designed for and then blame them for not doing what we wanted. We can, however, take the information and ideas in them and look at what they mean.
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Juniperberry

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Re: A conversation about academic journal articles
« Reply #6 on: September 10, 2014, 02:29:42 am »
Quote from: Jenett;158519


Anyway. I think personally that the most useful thing to do with academic articles is to read them critically, to look at what the author's argument is, what the evidence they provide is, and then go look at their original sources as much as possible or find *other* people who reference those sources, so that you can be reasonably sure you're not seeing only the bits the first author liked.
.

I don't know if I'm doing it right, but I tend to read academic articles in the same way that I do fan theories. I see most of it as interesting and valid interpretations of an original work. (Unless they get the facts of the original wrong, of course.)

So, like, when I say Blah Blah states in this article that etc etc, what I'm saying is, look at what this person read into the original work, and isn't it an awesome viewpoint? Generally it's all 'right' and fascinating to me, because I don't think mythology is math, and that's basically where the fun in 'research' is for me.

I don't know why a scholarly perspective tends to be more interesting for me then a UPG perspective, except that maybe UPG does seem more like math to me, in that there's only one right sum of parts. With an original work like the Eddas, everyone is able to access it, form their own opinions, and work with the same facts. And what each person takes away from that can add up to so many different sums of possibility.  Yet not everyone can experience the UPG equally, and the only interpretation that's really valid is that of the person who experienced it.  Though, if there is a discussion where everyone is able to interpret UPG like they do with dreams, then I find that just as interesting.  

Bit off-topic there. Sorry! But that's what I do, as a non-scholar anyway.
« Last Edit: September 10, 2014, 02:30:16 am by Juniperberry »
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Earthworm

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Re: A conversation about academic journal articles
« Reply #7 on: September 11, 2014, 10:45:04 am »
Quote from: Juniperberry;158567

So, like, when I say Blah Blah states in this article that etc etc, what I'm saying is, look at what this person read into the original work, and isn't it an awesome viewpoint? Generally it's all 'right' and fascinating to me, because I don't think mythology is math, and that's basically where the fun in 'research' is for me.

That's why I like to read them, too. I have an undergrad degree in English Lit and I tend to come at things from that kind of perspective. I usually find articles valuable for my personal path because they help me flesh out and add nuance to the way I perceive the powers I work with in a way that paragraph summaries of gods attributes in starter books definitely don't. Even if I don't necessarily like what the article has to say, and even if the information isn't 100% sound, the style of thinking jump-starts my brain to form my own interpretations.

This week I was trying to study up on a certain culture hero and I found this clearly false etymology of a god's name that was clearly twisted in order to connect him to the hero. Even though I knew this was bunk, and I read another article later that confirmed its bunkitude, it led me to wonder why that author was trying so hard to make the connection between the two, and I figured out the (obvious) significance of the hero and was able to start down a much more fruitful path of study.

My point is (sorry, I have a tendency to tell stories in lieu of actually making points) that even bad information can have its value, but only if it's recognized as bad information, so many thanks to those who have contributed to this thread from a scholarly viewpoint with their tips for discernment.
« Last Edit: September 11, 2014, 10:46:27 am by Earthworm »
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catja6

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Re: A conversation about academic journal articles
« Reply #8 on: September 11, 2014, 06:08:02 pm »
Quote from: Juniperberry;158567
I don't know if I'm doing it right, but I tend to read academic articles in the same way that I do fan theories. I see most of it as interesting and valid interpretations of an original work. (Unless they get the facts of the original wrong, of course.)


 
That's actually an EXCELLENT approach: academics are really big dorky fans of things. We've jumped through certain kinds of hoops in order to be considered ~Experts, but we're all just giant nerds who like nerding out over our stuff.

So, you know, when it comes to using academic work for non-academic purposes, I think reading an article/book/whatever as the fancified equivalent of "Dracoluvr69" geeking out over stuff is a perfect way of looking at it. If more people did that, it would cut way, way down on the "One True Way-ism" of Recon communities . (Anyone prone to overvaluing academic works should also attend a folklore conference sometime--once you've seen us getting piss drunk and making fun of evolutionary psychology, it's kind of hard to take our work too reverently.)

Autumn_Bard

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Re: A conversation about academic journal articles
« Reply #9 on: September 24, 2014, 10:46:06 am »
Quote from: Jenett;158519


2) Be aware that there *are* vanity academic presses and journals out there.

Just because an article appears to be academic doesn't mean it is good, quality research. In other words, you still need to vet the content.

There are whole essays possible about this, and various people maintain lists of known problem journals and publishers. (There are complications with this, which are beyond the scope of a comment here, because they'd require a couple of hours of my research time to pull together an explanation that'd make sense, and I just don't have that to spare any time soon.)

 

I was going to chime in with almost this exact statement. This is so, so important to remember and thank you for bringing it up, and bringing your Academic Librarian info.literacy training to the fore.

I am a new librarian, and no where near as well spoken about these issues as you.

Noctua

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Re: A conversation about academic journal articles
« Reply #10 on: March 06, 2018, 08:08:20 am »

3) What does the article actually tell you?


I've been doing a lot of critical analysis in my current Research class so I can speak to this some as well. Please keep in mind that we're mostly trained to analyze medical literature, which can sometimes be written differently than studies in other fields. However there are still some things that can apply. Here are some good questions we've been taught to think about regarding research:

What kind of study is it? Anything that's pure research usually breaks down into one of three categories: Quantitative, which is looking purely at numbers and data and usually has a lot of mathematic and statistical jargon along with it; Qualitative, which is about the unique lived experience of a population of interest and will often have direct quotes from the research subjects; and mixed methods which is a combo of the two. Criteria for consideration change depending on the study- for a quantitative study they usually want thousands of subjects for data because the larger the sample group the better and more valid the results are, whereas a qualitative study will typically reach saturation (a point where all the responses start becoming similar in tone and content) after only 15-30 participants.

How recent is the study? In my field, we automatically reject anything older than 10 years, and prefer research done in the last 5, to make sure we're working with the best current science. If something from 30 years ago is still valid, then you'll be able to find something related that's more recent. If you can only find studies done 30 years ago it's probably because that theory was rejected 25 years ago.

Do the title and abstract actually reflect the study? Sometimes authors like to make this eye-catching title and abstract because they know that for a lot of people that's the only thing they'll read. You need to dive a little deeper into their method and results and determine if what they looked for and found is actually what they claim on the front page. If not, red alert!

What are the authors qualifications? What you're mainly looking at here is if their field of study is pertinent to what's being researched. Most of the studies I'm reading, I'm looking for people who work in the fields of medicine, nursing, and psychology. Some outside fields are OK as long as they're still in the ballpark (like Public Health) and they have co-authors in the relevant field. If a PhD in History is in my Nursing study I'm going to reject it, same way I'd reject a DNP in a history study. Usually this isn't a problem, but it's something to watch for.

Did the authors build on previous research? We call this a Literature Review, and it's usually in a section early on called Background or something similar. What you should be seeing here is a whole mess of citations from previous research on their subject that sets up the foundation for their study. Now if something truly is groundbreaking there may not be an extensive lit review, but there's very little that's groundbreaking in certain fields. Like the qualifier earlier, we're looking for a lit review based on the most recent literature possible. Some older studies are OK as long as the majority are within the past 10 years.

Can the study be generalized to a broader population? Many (reputable) authors will directly address this in a section titled Limitations. If they're looking at a sample that is fairly representative of a wide spectrum then it's more likely to be applicable to a wider range of experiences. However if their sample consists entirely of mid-30's Caucasian housewives in Hoboken, New Jersey then we may have issues finding the same results elsewhere.

Ethical considerations This only applies to research done on actual human subjects, or research on survey data that still has identifiers saying who the data came from. A good study will detail how they protected the subjects of their study from harm, and what Institutional Review Board looked over their study design and approved their methods for protecting their subjects. There is always some sort of harm possible for participants in a research study involving real people, and the authors should talk about what steps they took to mitigate it. If they don't that's another huge red flag.

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