Welcome to the Course Website for: From Idea to Research and Publishing in the Social Sciences

Welcome to the course website for the course, “From Idea to Research and Publishing in the Social Sciences,” taught by Dr. Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow at the Graduate School for Social Research in Warsaw, Poland 2013-2104.  In this website you will find more information about the course and readings.

Debate on Misleading Literature Reviews

Richard P. Phelps wrote, “To save the research literature, get rid of the literature review,” in the London School of Economics (LSE) Impact Blog:

“The laziest literature reviews are those falsely declaring previous work on a topic to be nonexistent — “dismissive reviews”. When I first began to search for the magnitude of the dismissive review problem, I expected to find hundreds; I found hundreds of thousands…

You can see for yourself. Access a web database that allows searching by phrase (e.g. Google, Yahoo Search, Bing) and try some of these: “this is the first study”; “no previous studies”; “paucity of research”; “there have been no studies”; “few studies”; “little research”; or variations thereof.”


“I don’t believe that journals can responsibly review manuscript literature reviews for accuracy. And, because they cannot, literature reviewers are free to trash or ignore competing work. Thus, ironically, literature reviews may degrade our knowledge base more than preserve it.”

Dr. Phelps then gives six reasons for journals to drop the literature review. I encourage you to read his article, linked above.

In response to Dr.  Phelps, Arnaud Vaganay wrote, “To save the research literature, let’s make literature reviews reproducible,” in the same publication outlet.

Dr. Vaganay agreed with the problem of literature reviews, and wrote:

“…editors and peer reviewers do little to ensure that LRs tell the whole story rather than a good story. It is hard to blame them; by some accounts the scientific output doubles every nine years. As it becomes increasingly difficult to stay on top of the literature – even in one’s own field – editors and peer reviewers should pay more attention to the way LRs are conducted.”

He departs from Dr. Phelps in his argument that literature reviews (LR) can be reformed by making some formal requirements:

“Readers who are as frustrated with the current state of LRs as Richard Phelps and me might be interested in Cumulative Literature Reviews (CLRs) (see from slide seven onwards). CLRs start from the premise that LRs and their components (literature dataset, LR protocol) are research assets, just like the protocol and dataset used in the empirical part of a study… The methodology is still at the development stage and is being piloted in two ongoing studies.”



More Good Advice for Publishing in Journals

Hugh McLaughlin, a journal editor, wrote “How to increase your likelihood of publishing in peer reviewed journals.” Some highlights:

Address “SO WHAT?”

“You might want to consider some key questions: does your article contribute new knowledge? Does it offer a unique way to address a social problem or policy dilemma? Will it have implications for practice?”

Revise, Revise,  Revise

“Once you start writing it’s important to remember that each paragraph and page is only a draft.”

Know Your Journal

“Editors like to see that potential authors are aware of the journal and its content.”

Theory is Important

“Infusion refers to the infusion of theory into the manuscript, providing readers with new ways of provoking discussion, challenge and applications to practice. It was noted in our recent publication that “articles that are theoretically strong receive the most citations”. ”

Respond to Each Reviewer

“Respond to each reviewer separately showing how you have addressed the points they have raised.”

Rejection is Good, but Time Is Better

“You may want to consider putting the manuscript aside for a period so that in time you may gain a fresh perspective on it, consider how it can be improved and where you can resubmit it.”

Tips for Grant Finding and Grant Writing

An interesting primer for early career researchers to obtain grant funding is by Jonathan O’Donnell in a blog post for LSE. With shrinking funding options and more and more PhDs in the world, how to get grants?

Some tips if you are…

A Reviewer of Grants:

Register to review for granting agencies. If you are dreaming of working in another country in the future, register to review their grants, too.

Set clear limits, both in how many reviews you will do, and how long you will spend on each one.

Since you live in a world of measurement, record your effort.

Seek out mentoring, including peer mentoring.

Be kind

A Seeker of Grants:

To gain experience for yourself, work on grants with someone else, perhaps those with successful experience. Be a good collaborator.

There is a world of funding that isn’t peer reviewed. Industry funding, philanthropic funding, crowdfunding, micro-patronage, etc. Get creative with your funding opportunities.

Reject academia altogether, at least for a short time. Go and work in industry, or set up your own entrepreneurial research endeavour.

Set a time limit on how long you will bang your head against your rejection wall.

A Grant Agency:

Make the grant application process less onerous.

Experiment with more inventive methods of review.

Consider changing attitudes to the confidentiality of grant applications. You might choose to build a library of successful applications, or even make all your applications public. That would provide significant benefits to people learning to write good applications.

Reduce grant applications to two pages, concentrating on the core idea. Fixed budgets, double-blind review and no administrivia.

Give better feedback. “After the amount of work that most grant applications entail, it’s always anticlimactic to get a ‘yes/no’ result.”

An Established Scholar and Experienced Grant Writer:

Provide training in peer review, both for grants and publications.





Finding and Doing Important Research

From 80,000 Hours:

Like many new academics, you want to do important research; research that makes the world a better place. The problem is there’s virtually no guidance out there. All you can do is ask experts in specific fields, while there’s no-one providing an overview of which areas might be best.

A high impact research question has three characteristics:

It’s important: If we make progress, then the world will become a better place.
It needs talent: If more people work on it, then more progress will be made. And in particular…
It needs your talent: If you work on it, then more progress will be made
A good research question needs to be both important and in need of more researchers. Building a perpetual motion machine is extremely important – if we could do it, then we’d solve our energy problems – but we have good reason to think it’s impossible, so it’s not worth working on. Similarly, a problem can be important but already hold the attention of many extremely talented researchers, meaning your extra efforts won’t go very far.

Instead, we want to find questions that are important and where one extra person’s efforts can go a long way. What matters is the importance of the problem weighted by the extent to which you can make a difference to the problem.

Finding these questions, however, is difficult. Often, the only way to identify a particularly promising research question is to be an expert in that field! That’s because (when researchers are doing their jobs), they will be taking the most promising opportunities already. The only way for you to have more impact than the average is to have more informed views about what’s important to work on.

Nevertheless, it seems that there are some types of question that tend to get unfairly neglected. So, for someone who prioritises impact, there are special opportunities to uncover. What follows is one way to start narrowing down the huge range of options available.


Changing Your Story

The process of turning an idea into a manageable product is not linear. It may start with a fixed idea, but that idea can change as you collect more information, do more reading, and write-up what you have. New information changes old ideas. And your story changes.

Inspiration comes from anywhere, and everywhere.  Take the story of a guy from Lisbon who is traveling the world and making hand-drawn sketches of everything he sees (the full story is here).

“Luis Simoes has visited 29 countries in the past two years, traversing Europe and Asia and documenting every step. But not in the usual way — there’s no snapping of thousands of photos with his smartphone, or making friends back home jealous with interminable Facebook posts. Instead, Simoes, a 35-year-old former 3D motion designer from Lisbon, Portugal, is sketching his way around the world…”

Why?  Because others travel, so why not him?

“After ten years in the same job he decided that he’d had enough; he wanted to be out there doing what he loved. And that thing, he discovered, was sketching. “I had a friend who was traveling around the world and I was jealous, but then I thought, if he’s doing this then I can also do this.”

How he started, and how he changed. He says:

“Up until now as I’ve been traveling around I do a lot of sightseeing but I try to capture the mood of a traveler when he’s sightseeing. So I’m not just drawing a beautiful building, I’m trying to capture the life around the building, and how people connect with that building. So I try, with my sketches, to bring these moments. I try to build a story behind every sketch.”

His style has changed, he reflects. He no longer draws tourist attractions like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona or the Eiffel Tower. “Now I’m drawing a story… I don’t have to tell everything, but I give you the subject. I’ve learned how to go sketch faster but keep all the ingredients to keep the viewer interested. Of course the more you sketch the more you grow, so it’s an evolution.”

Your own research is an evolution, not a straight line from a fixed, beginning idea that is ultimately realized.

And it requires a leap into the unknown. Luis is on a five year sketching journey, and he says:

“I needed the ambition — I wanted something big, for myself. Five years is a long time but I want to search for the unknown.”

For more on the evolution of research, see this TED video, “Uri Alon: Why truly innovative science demands a leap into the unknown.”

On the Need for Examining Concepts

Lewis Coser, American sociologist, wrote in preface to his book, The Functions of Social Conflict (1956: 7):

Before the “facts” can speak, they have to be arranged though some conceptual scheme. The divorce between research, conceived as a quest for “facts,” and theories which too often soar beyond the reach of facts, is responsible for many of the shortcomings of American sociology. And this divorce is responsible as well for the lack of cumulation and continuity in American sociology. Periodic conceptual analysis, in our view, serves to mitigate these two kinds of shortcomings.”