I feel lucky to be a graduate student at a time when many in political science are emphasizing two complementary agendas that are helping the discipline evolve. First, opportunities are being created for graduate students and faculty alike to give and receive feedback on their research in different stages of its development; and second, new expectations are being set for making the data collection and analysis process more transparent. In tandem, these two objectives prevent research from becoming merely a ‘finished product,’ intended to be consumed. Instead, we can interact with the research of others in a way that focuses on process.
Opening up our unfinished work to feedback from a room full of scholars – as I had the opportunity to do two weeks ago when I presented a pre-analysis plan (found here) at the most recent regional installment of the Working Group in African Political Economy (WGAPE) – doesn’t just allow us to collect valuable feedback, it also helps remind us that we are members of a scholarly community working towards building an organism of knowledge as a collaborative and evolutionary process. The ethos that is generated from sharing unfinished research and feedback at working groups like WGAPE helps us put newly evolving expectations about transparency, such as the publication of a pre-analysis plan, into this, perhaps more constructive, perspective: Documenting and sharing each step of the process by which we derive hypotheses and decide how to test them is not just a matter of transparency for the sake of monitoring credibility. It can also be an opportunity for the researcher to engage with the eventual audience of her research in a way that fosters more rigorous methodology.
A few weeks ago at the Watson Institute for International Studies, I took advantage of one such opportunity. I presented a pre-analysis plan for a lab experiment that is very much still a work in progress. It strives to unpack the emotions associated with a trade-off between voting along identity lines (in the case of my experiment in Soweto, Zulu, and Xhosa) versus voting based on policy preference. The comments I received were diverse in their scope and specificity – they ranged from “Might you consider changing the wording of this specific survey measure?” to “Have you considered how your results could speak to this other large body of work?’ – but were all constructive. I have subsequently changed both small and large details within my experiment; some changes are direct implementations of suggestions, other changes have developed during my rumination on the experience as a whole. I am confident that these changes have improved the chances not only of my experiment being a logistical success, but of my results eventually making a meaningful contribution.
In this way, the experience of having 40 people – some of whom I’d met before, others whom I enjoyed meeting for the first time, but all with opinions that I respect – spend an hour giving me feedback on a draft of a pre-analysis plan, was at once humbling and empowering. I was humbled to have so many researchers dedicate their effort to reading and providing comments on my research design. I was also humbled by the realization that I had become so focused in working on my experiment that I had neglected to look at certain aspects of the design in creative or new ways. I recognize that there is more than one way out of such a rut, but the opportunity to have a panel of scholars with diverse perspectives discuss my current draft was a rewarding and productive way of repositioning my perspective. And lastly, I was humbled by the ethos of community that existed during the two-day meeting; egos were left at the door in order to push the research agenda of each paper being presented toward making the most valuable contribution to our discipline.
The experience of presenting my pre-analysis plan at WGAPE has not only enriched my experimental design in valuable ways, it has also caused me to reflect on the importance of such opportunities to discuss each other’s work at different stages of research and how these opportunities are serving to create an ethos conducive to transparency. A friend of mine who is a forester told me recently that, because their subjects live for hundreds of years, foresters rarely get to see the end results of research in their lifetime; they retire knowing that the next generation of foresters will pick up where they left off. Of course, every discipline is like this to a certain extent, but it seems important to remind ourselves that earlier stages of the research process should also be respected as productive and that publication is not a terminal node. Working groups like WGAPE help in this way by emphasizing these early stages; and they foster a sense of community that better allows our organism of knowledge to evolve, and for us to pick up where others left off.
About the Author: Emily A. West is a Ph.D. candidate at the Wilf Family Department of Politics at New York University. She studies Comparative Politics, with a focus on the social psychological mechanisms driving a correlation between identity (ethnicity, race, gender, etc.) and an individual’s relationship to their government.