Advice

An Open Letter to Journal Editors

What if you banned publication by graduate students?

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October 06, 2014

Dear Editors of Scholarly Journals:

I write to you today about the graduate-student submissions you receive. Most of you publish a lot of them. That’s because today’s students do first-rate work. Nonetheless, I’ve got an idea for you: What if you stopped publishing articles by doctoral students until they graduated?

I won’t try to suggest that this policy would directly benefit your journals. After all, you would be turning away quality scholarship of the sort that you publish now, without a guarantee that it would wind up before you later. (Though it might.) The payoff in this case would be different: By delaying publication, you would be benefiting graduate-student authors by doing your part to end a system that pushes them too hard and too fast.

First, let me draw some boundaries around my suggestion. I’m making this proposal to those of you who edit scholarly journals in the humanities and the nonlaboratory social sciences. I’m excluding lab-oriented fields because publication in those disciplines is mainly collaborative, and often depends on short lead times to report experimental results; it’s a different system with different needs and concerns. (Of course that system, too, needs revision—witness the movement toward open-access publication that has originated in the sciences—but that’s a thought for another day.) I’m talking right now to editors in nonscientific fields who receive mostly single-author submissions.

Second, consider why graduate students publish so much now: They need to. Any graduate student who aspires to a tenure-track job these days faces pressure to get into print. Lots of search committees—including some that I’ve served on—won’t give more than a glance to candidates who lack a publication record. So what if we changed the rules so they didn’t need one?

Let’s run a thought experiment on this. I can imagine several main consequences of this editorial embargo.

First, if students couldn’t publish their essays until they left graduate school, they would finish the Ph.D. faster and then publish afterward. If they really wanted to publish, the embargo might give them an incentive to finish faster.

More important is the flip side of that incentive. Many students slow their dissertation writing so that they can publish as abundantly and impressively as possible before they finish. They don’t focus purely on completing the dissertation. And why should they? The moment it’s done, they face a market that demands previous publication. A ban on graduate-student publication would remove that demand, and knock the props out from under their motivation to finish more slowly.

Better still, the ban would shift the scholarly emphasis to where we say it belongs: the dissertation. Absent a list of articles, we would judge graduate students by looking more closely at their major work—as we should.

The long road to the Ph.D.—about seven years in the sciences, nine in the humanities—is one of the most troubling ethical failures of our collective enterprise. Our graduate students are not to blame here; we are. So we need to find ways to lower those numbers. Isn’t this idea worth a try?

Scholarship itself would also benefit from this embargo. When graduate students rush their good ideas into print, they deprive themselves of a chance to let those ideas marinate in a mixture of further reading and thinking. There’s a reason that the humanities produce few prodigies compared with, say, math: Most scholarly writing in the humanities benefits from maturity.

Jan Goldstein, president of the American Historical Association and a history professor at the University of Chicago, recently warned of the dangers attending what she calls "precocious professionalism." To professionalize too soon, she said, encourages "hasty specialization" and the loss of "a period of exploration, risk-taking, and learning from mistakes," a time of letting one’s "imagination roam." If graduate students wait to write, she suggests, their work may become more creative.

I’ve noted in this letter that your journals wouldn’t directly benefit from a ban on graduate-student publication. But with Goldstein’s thought in mind, I want to suggest that you would gain indirectly. If you make graduate students wait to publish, their work would very likely be better for the pause.

You might object that my idea goes against the logic of the market: Jobs are scarce, and so graduate students are bound to compete harder for them. They’ll inevitably want to publish more, because that’s how they can distinguish themselves from their peers.

Certainly the numbers bear that out. I did an informal survey of a few top journals in the humanities—no need to name them—and found that since 2000, graduate students have written around 20 percent of the essays published. That’s a disturbingly large share of the total, given that graduate students are outnumbered by faculty members, but I expect you’ll agree that it’s representative of the general state of things.

It wasn’t always this way. The former chair of a top English department remarked to me recently that publication "used to be a plus, but not an expectation, not if the dissertation was really intriguing." Not anymore. The market now demands that candidates show bylines from top journals.

And that’s a market that you control from your editorships. Why shouldn’t you regulate that market?

Lawmakers have long regulated markets in search of fairer, more just results. Certainly we need more fairness and justice in graduate students’ professional lives. As a left-leaning lot, academics mostly support regulating other markets in the country and around the world, so why would we adopt a hands-off policy when there’s disorder in our own agora?

In the end, we might reduce the matter to carrots and sticks. Foundations and graduate schools have experimented with various rewards over the years to try to make doctoral students finish faster. (I wrote about one such effort just recently.) Those incentives haven’t worked, because they don’t change the underlying value system that privileges publication over everything else, including time-to-degree.

If the carrot doesn’t work, then let’s turn to the stick. If we regulate the system so that it forces graduate students through faster by making them concentrate on their dissertations, we’ll be helping them—and bringing some much-needed humanity to our workplace.

In this respect, I liken the ban I’m proposing to the minimum-age policy of the National Basketball Association. Before a player can be drafted, he must be at least 19 and at least a year out of high school. (The requirements of the Women’s NBA are even tougher.) It’s not perfectly optimal to block everyone from entering the league when some would undoubtedly succeed without getting more experience, but I can’t argue with the fact that it’s usually better for young people to be older when they hit the professional mill.

Graduate students have the inverse problem: They need to be younger, so that they start their mature professional lives before they hit middle age. Colleges—and other workplaces—will benefit from their longer careers, and they should start those careers sooner, so that they’ll get paid enough to live decently.

A couple of years ago, Michael Bérubé, when he was president of the Modern Language Association, observed that the problems of graduate education are like a seamless garment: The issues are all connected. It’s easy—too easy, really—to say that we can’t alter the larger garment. But if we all give up, nothing will change.

I wasn’t born yesterday, so I know that my one suggestion won’t change the way that you conduct business. But let’s think about how powerless graduate students are in a system that keeps turning the thumbscrews on their lives. How about we start looking at this from their point of view?

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at lcassuto@erols.com. Now on Twitter: @LCassuto.