This post was originally published at Sociology in Focus on August 5, 2013.
Sociologists are about to descend upon New York City for their annual professional conferences. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains that this ritual is just a step in the research process, that of sharing research.
Remember back in junior high when you did a science fair project? You selected a topic, developed a hypothesis, did the experiment, prepared a poster, and presented your research to a small audience. Well, this week thousands of sociologists will visit New York City to do our version of a science fair: the annual sociology conferences, where we share our research.
Sharing our research is an important part of the research process. We share our research in a variety of ways, but the typical way of sharing research is through presenting our research at a professional conference, publishing in a peer-reviewed journal, or ideally both.
I first attended the American Sociological Association in 2002 as part of the Undergraduate Honors Program. It was beyond overwhelming! I attended by myself as an undergraduate and got my first experience of actually presenting research to other people interested in sociology. I presented my mediocre paper at the Undergraduate Honors Program Roundtables. I had no idea what a roundtable was! This certainly was not like the science fair I did in junior high, nor was it like anything I had even done in college. There were no posters. I did not have to stand up in front of the room. Instead I got to sit during my presentation. At a roundtable, papers are typically grouped by topic with 3-4 other papers. Each person takes a few minutes to present their research to the other presenters at her or his table and sometimes an occasional audience member. This was the first time I was able to share my “research” outside of the classroom.
I also learned that this was the conference where many of the presentations would eventually find their way into peer-reviewed journals as articles. A conference presentation is an early stage of the peer-review process. The researcher presents his or her research to an audience (which could range to a packed room, to just a couple of people). The audience has a chance to ask the researcher questions to which the researcher can respond. This enables the researcher to go back and answer some of these questions before submitting the paper to a peer-reviewed journal.
So what is peer review?
Peer review means that other scholars that are experts in the specialty area that your paper fits in review your paper to determine whether it is worth publishing or not. The reason other experts on your subject review your paper is because they know the literature on the topic. This means that they can assess whether you really are making an original contribution to the literature. They review your research to make sure it follows appropriate research methods.
These peer reviewers recommend to the editor of the journal whether the article should be published. One of the first things I learned in graduate school, was the the acronymn R&R. R&R does not mean “rest and relaxation.” We learned that you wanted an R&R, which stands for “revise and resubmit” (actually, you want acceptance the first time you submit your article, but those very rare). The realization that sharing your research is a process that takes time is reaffirmed with the knowledge of R&R.
A couple of years later, I had finished my master’s in sociology and began working on publishing a peer reviewed article based on my master’s thesis. I was fortunate to go through a Writing for Publication course while completing my doctorate and began learning what it really took to get something published in a peer reviewed journal. I exchanged papers with classmates and our professor for several revisions. At the end of the semester, my paper was ready to be submitted.
I aimed high. See, peer reviewed journals are also ranked in that some publications “count” more than others. (Despite studying stratification as part of our job, sociologists like to also reinforce hierarchies.) My paper was rejected. I did not get an R&R. It was upsetting, but even with a rejection, you still get feedback on your paper from experts. This feedback can be used to improve your paper. I took their feedback and revised my paper again and a few months later, it was submitted to a different, less prestigious journal. Instead of receiving an R&R, I received a conditional acceptance. A conditional acceptance meant I needed to go back and fix a couple of things and then it would be accepted for publication!
Have you kept up with my timeline thus far? I began my thesis research in 2003. My article was published in 2007. So, it took four years from the time the research project began to getting it published in a peer reviewed journal. The point is that research takes time. Doing the research project takes time, but sharing the research may take just as long or even longer. In the case of my MA thesis, it took longer to share my research than actual do the research, which begs the question as to why bother sharing your research at all?
Sharing research is in some ways, the most important part of the research process. It allows you to become part of the larger conversation on your research area. Your research might change the way people think about a given topic or even how public policy is implemented around your topic. So the next time, your instructor asks you to present your own research project in front of class, realize that you are being asked to bring the research project full circle by sharing your results.
There are dozens of professional sociology associations. These are a few that are meeting this week and next in New York City.
- American Sociological Association
- Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction
- Sociologists for Women in Society
- Society for the Study of Social Problems
- Association of Black Sociologists
- The Rural Sociology Society
And to all the sociologists who will be at any of these conferences, please look beyond someone’s name tag. You might be encountering a scared undergraduate who is overwhelmed, but thinks they want to do what you do when they eventually grow up.
- How do sociologist share their research? Why do they share their research?
- Click onto one of the above links for the different professional sociology associations. What does the organization do? How long have they existed? Why did they form?
- What is your major? What is your intended career? Does that major or career have a professional organization (or several)? Find a website of a professional organization in your field to learn about what the organization does and report back to your class.
- What is peer review? Ask one of your professors about their personal experience with the peer review process. (Tell your professor that I said to be kind when answering you.)