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New grant funds open-access publishing in political science

One of our goals here at the Monkey Cage is to make political science research more accessible to policymakers, journalists, and the broader public. Blog posts are comparatively easy to write, publish, access, and read. They are a much better vehicle for reaching large audiences than peer-reviewed academic articles, which are hard to write, publish, access, and read.

Yet academics must write peer-reviewed articles in order to get a job, tenure, and prestige. This means that their research efforts are typically focused on doing things that take years to write and publish, are hidden behind paywalls, and are mostly read by other academics. As The Monkey Cage and its hundreds of guest contributors have demonstrated, such research nevertheless has implications that interest policymakers and the broader audience. But what academics study in the first place is shaped by the fact that peer-reviewed research is usually not disseminated quickly and is not accessible to a broad audience.

A major new Carnegie Corporation grant, which also supports the Monkey Cage, intends to address this issue. The grant supports Research and Politics (R&P), a peer-reviewed journal published by SAGE Publishing. I am one of the editors-in-chief of the journal with Catherine de Vries, Bernard Steunenberg , Scott McClurg, and Kristian Gleditsch. Several of the Monkey Cage’s co-conspirators are associate editors.

R&P publishes short peer reviewed articles, with an acceptance rate around 25percent. What’s different is that we publish quickly and under an open access model; anyone who goes to the website can read each article in full. The idea is that this will stimulate rigorous peer-reviewed research on issues that are current and relevant to policymakers, journalists, and others outside of academia.

How do you fund an open-access journal?

This Carnegie grant matters because the business model for open access publishing in political science is still unclear. Traditionally, university library subscriptions pay for peer-reviewed journals. But libraries aren’t going to pay subscription fees for articles that everyone can already access freely. So, open access journals charge the authors for the privilege of publishing their work. This works pretty well in academic fields that bring in ample research funds, where these so-called Article Processing Charges (APCs) are just a small line item on a research budget. But a lot of research in the social sciences and the humanities is not supported by large grants.

When you don’t have a giant research fund, there’s a big difference between submitting your research to a gated journal that doesn’t charge and an open access journal that does. As a result, most academic work remains hidden behind paywalls, accessible mostly to other academics. SAGE Publishing sponsored R&P’s APC fees initially. The Carnegie grant ensures that authors can publish without fees for another two years.

Killer robots!

The goal of Carnegie’s Bridging the Gap project is to promote an informed and engaged public discourse on U.S. and global foreign policy challenges by drawing academics into public and policy debates. R&P is a general political science journal that publishes different kinds of articles in all subfields. One illustration of how R&P can help bridge the gap is a series of articles the journal published on the drivers of support for and aversion to the use of semi- or fully autonomous weapons, more popularly known as drones or even killer robots.

Advocates on either side of these public debates liberally cite public opinion as either supporting such weapons or opposing  them. Yet, as far as I can tell, traditional academic journals have not yet published peer-reviewed articles that systematically analyze public opinion on this issue. This may be because the issue is relatively new. Or because longer-form academic articles are typically evaluated by how much they contribute to theories of public opinion than on how they help illuminate opinion on a specific contemporary issue.

R&P has published three short peer-reviewed articles by top scholars (submitted independently) who find that public opinion over these weapons systems depends very much on context. Sarah Kreps of Cornell, who wrote a Monkey Cage post about this article, argues that while Americans on average favor drone strikes, they do so less when informed about controversies over such strikes, such as their questionable status in international or domestic law.

By contrast, a new article by Michael Horowitz of the University of Pennsylvania finds that citizens’ support for autonomous weapons depends strongly on whether they are told that autonomous weapons are effective or not, and on whether they help protect U.S. troops.

The conclusion: Americans’ opinions on autonomous weapons are easily influenced by the way the discussion is framed. We should be skeptical of statements that the U.S. public is either favorably or unfavorably disposed and pay careful attention to question wording.

James Igoe Walsh of UNC/Chapel Hill  focuses on a different question: whether individuals still attribute responsibility to political leaders when the use of (semi-)autonomous weapons have undesirable results, such as civilian deaths or mission failures. He finds that citizens still blame political and military leaders, although they also blame the designers and programmers of such weapons. Thus, citizens seem to understand that there are still important human decisions involved in the decision to employ and how to employ (semi-)autonomous weapons.

Who decides what matters and what’s worth researching?

Slow publication processes and academic articles that only university communities can read aren’t just a nuisance. They also shape what academics decide is worth systematically researching. If you can’t get credit for rigorously examining a current issue, then why bother? The research on public opinion on (semi) autonomous weapons is just one example. Other examples of rigorous analyses of current topics in the young history of the journal are articles on the on-going conflict in Syria. the effect of gerrymandering on current elections, and forecasting political events (including an accurate forecast of the 2015 British general election, which was poorly forecast by polls).

Blog posts and op-eds are really useful ways academics can get their knowledge and understanding out into the wider world. But there should also be outlets where academics can produce systematic and relevant research and get rewarded in the currency that really matters to them: peer-reviewed publications.