In Defense of Research Notes

Research notes have all but died in political science journals. I think that’s a bad thing.

Back in 2007, I noticed a subtle but very significant problem with a well-established social science methodology. This methodology is not really central to my research agenda, though, and I had other things to work on. So I set it aside. Last year, a simple fix occurred to me, so I tried a few simulations and it worked quite well. I realized that it wouldn’t really take much time to point out the problem or to provide a useful remedy, so I wrote up a brief (<10pp.) description of the problem and the solution and sent it off to an appropriate journal. It was promptly desk-rejected. The editor wrote, in part, that “very short ‘research notes’ tend to not fare very well with our reviewers.” He suggested additional simulations and “comprehensive application to applied problems.”

I respect the editor very much, and to be fair I had half expected an outcome like this. But it still stinks. The method is widely used: the work that introduces it has nearly 2,000 citations. The problem, once you see it, is obvious. The solution is a quick test straight out of a first-semester statistics class. This just isn’t rocket science. The long and the short of it is, this thing just doesn’t merit extended treatment.

In most disciplines, that’s a recipe for a research note—a short memo to other researchers that says, “Hey, here’s something that could be useful.” Political science journals publish very, very few of these, and I can’t fathom why we don’t. It’s certainly not because every project we conceive of merits 30 pages.

In fact, research notes have a lot of advantages. They leave more space in a journal for our colleagues’ work. They require less time and effort from reviewers. They reward brevity. They allow authors to focus on the point of the article. As a reader, I seek them out. As an author, I’d gladly publish more of them.

I understand that our disciplinary culture tends not to reward research notes, but I’d urge editors and editorial boards to work toward changing that situation. Specifically allowing for length-limited research notes in journal submission guidelines would disallow rejection based on length alone. It would save space and allow more of us to be published in better journals. It would also encourage researchers to publish short pieces that they might not otherwise submit and which could be of significant use.

To underscore the importance of the latter point, consider this: Did you find yourself wondering whether the problem I describe above affects your work? It very well might. If this little research note never gets published, though, you’ll never know for sure.

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